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.

Click here to read my full story on CBP's airborne operations.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Slick

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.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Manning three radar screens

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.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Radar map

Mason's screen displays what the P-3's APS-145 radar was detecting in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the contacts on the screen are boats of one kind or another.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

APG-66

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.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

SeaVue

This is a SeaVue surveillance radar system, mounted below the Slick. A surface-search radar system, it can identify a trash can in water from 50 miles away.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

WesCam MX-20

Mounted inside the nose cone of the P-3 LRT is this Wescam MX-20 optical system, which generates imagery that shows up in the signal coming in from the APG-66.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Radar overlay

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.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Mason watches radar

Mason monitors his screen to see the location of the P-3 LRT and the Cessna, as the two planes practice playing a cat-and-mouse game over the Gulf of Mexico.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

APS-145

This is the machinery that powers the APS-145 radar on board the P-3 Orion. The radar is the same early warning system the US military uses on E2-C Hawkeyes that fly off aircraft carriers.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

A 'Slick' banking hard right

After flying alongside the P-3 Orion high over the Gulf of Mexico, the P-3 LRT banks hard right to head back to base.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Flight crew

The flight crew of the P-3 Orion flies the plane over the Gulf of Mexico.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

CBP planes

A Customs and Border Protection P-3 LRT sits on the tarmac in Corpus Christi, Texas, with two P-3 Orions also parked nearby.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Guardian

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.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Wescam MX-20

A Wescam MX-20 optics package is mounted underneath the Guardian. The mount includes various cameras and lasers used to identify and watch targets from as high as 30,000 feet.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Guardian SeaVue

The SeaVue mounted underneath the Guardian allows the CBP to do surface searches from as far as 50 miles away.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Predator

A CBP Predator drone sits in the agency's Corpus Christi hangar. The Predator has many of the same systems as the Guardian, but not the SeaVue.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Predator Operations Center

CBP agents monitor and direct Predator surveillance flights from this control room at the agency's National Air Operations Center -- Corpus Christi offices.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

Mobile Predator operations center

CBP can take the Predator on the road, and can run flights from this operations center inside a small trailer that can be moved around on board an airplane.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

CBP

The Customs and Border Protection logo on the side of a P-3 LRT.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:

CBP Building

The CBP's National Air Operations Center -- Corpus Christi building.

Published:
Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET / Caption by:
Hot Galleries

CNET's Holiday Gift Guide

Tablets that put your TV to shame

Binge-watch your favorite episodes on these portable screens.

Hot Products