How the feds chase down smugglers in the sky (pictures)
US Customs and Border Protection says it seized $4.6 billion in contraband in 2013, using P-3 Orions. CNET Road Trip 2014 got on board to see how it works.
P-3 Orion (Dome)
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- If you're smuggling drugs into the US from Mexico by Cessna, you might think you've got a clear shot at crossing over undetected, but US Customs and Border Protection thinks otherwise.
Every day, CBP puts a fleet of aircraft into the skies in hopes of identifying, tracking, and ultimately interdicting smugglers coming in by air and by sea.
As part of Road Trip 2014, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman went to Texas and stopped by the CBP's National Air Security Operations Center -- Corpus Christi, and got on board one of the agency's P-3 Orions to see how the Feds track an unsuspecting smuggler in the skies.
As part of a training exercise, this P-3 Orion Long Range Tracker (LRT) located and tracked a Cessna that was playing the role of a smuggler's plane flying over the Gulf of Mexico south of Corpus Christi. Then, to demonstrate its ability to sneak up on other planes, the aircraft, known as a "Slick," flew behind the P-3 Orion that CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman was in.
At first invisible -- it was below us and just to the left -- it then came up alongside and posed for this photo.
Three CBP agents, including Senior Detection Enforcement Officer (Airborne) Tom Mason, in the foreground, monitor radar screens aboard the P-3 Orion while in flight over the Gulf of Mexico. The three were overseeing the exercise, watching the other two planes on their radar screens.
Found inside the nose cone of the P-3 LRT, this APG-66 air-to-air radar allows the Slick to lock on to target planes, letting agents on board the LRT decide whether the target is worth spending time following and investigating.
CBP agents like Tom Mason have many tools at their disposal as they work to interdict smugglers. One is the ability to overlay the radar information with a navigation map, allowing them to see precisely where a target is.
A Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 Guardian inside the agency's Corpus Christi hangar. The drone can fly up to 30,000 feet for 20 hours and monitor the border and other areas for illicit activity. The Guardian is essentially a Predator that's outfitted with additional radar and optics packages, such as the SeaVue.