U.S. Customs plays integral part in patrolling TFR areas

 - January 30, 2007, 6:22 AM

When a Mooney strayed to within eight miles of the White House in October, a flight of F-16s reportedly intercepted it and safely escorted the disoriented pilot out of harm’s way. Chances are slim that a professional crew would commit such a faux pas, but pilots of business jets might be interested to know that an aircraft familiar to this industry has been part of the protective screen over the nation’s capital–and elsewhere in the country.

The U.S. Customs Service, now a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), operates a fleet of some 26 specially equipped Cessna Citation IIs from several bases throughout the U.S. Their duties have traditionally focused on patrolling southern borders for drug-trafficking aircraft, but the Citations are available for loan to other government agencies and are sometimes used by Customs for other missions. Low operating costs (compared with military aircraft), 400-knot dash speed and good low-speed capability make the Citations a capable platform for monitoring and corralling errant general aviation aircraft.

Charles Stallworth is director of Air and Marine Operations (AMO) at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division. In a recent interview he described the mission of protecting the nation’s capital. Also, the prohibited area over the Presidential weekend retreat at Camp David (P40) is located within a heavily traveled corridor and is vulnerable to unintentional intrusion by VFR pilots.

With temporary flight restrictions expanding the prohibited area when President Bush is at Camp David, the likelihood of intrusion is increased. Along with notams, the ICE patrols are meant to be part of the message to pilots to stay away. Stallworth told AIN, “We want people to know we’re there. The more people know about us, the easier it makes our job.”

He said the program for patrolling the Washington airspace is a cooperative one involving the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Defense (DOD) and, of course, the still-evolving DHS. He said a pair of ICE’s Citations, together with two Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, represented the so-called “low slow” end of the airborne defense system for the Washington area. Jet fighters handle the “high fast” side of the equation, while a deeply classified matrix of surface-to-air defenses covers the “inside game,” or last line of defense close to the ground. Stallworth was deliberately vague on the latter component, politely declining to answer follow-up questions on numbers, locations and types of surface-to-air defenses.

He did say that some of Customs’ eight Lockheed Orion P-3AEW mobile detection and sorting radar surveillance aircraft have also been part of the contingent that keeps tabs on Washington’s airspace. The network is also linked to the National Capital Region Coordination Center in northern Virginia, and coordinates with the U.S. Customs domestic air interdiction coordination center (DAICC) at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif. Substantially upgraded in 1998, the DAICC is like a mini-Norad center, coordinating regular ATC radar data with military radar, aerostat balloon-mounted radars and other secret radar assets to provide an impressive level of coverage. If it’s any larger than a condor, it probably doesn’t fly without the DAICC’s computers knowing about it.

At first, Stallworth and the public-affairs officials at ICE were open to a visit by AIN, but that changed as of last month, when a spokesman for ICE said the agency had received “enough publicity,” and the powers that be would rather the media focused on AMO’s operations elsewhere. “We’re not telling you not to write your story,” the public-affairs spokesman said, “but we probably won’t be able to cooperate with you any further as far as operations in the Washington area are concerned.”

The AMO division of ICE is involved in a number of other pursuits, said the spokesman, including patrolling borders for “human trafficking”–the smuggling of illegal aliens for profit. Though not directly attached to the U.S. Border Patrol (also a division of DHS), Customs has historically coordinated with Border Patrol operations to help curtail smuggling by illegal border crossers. ICE, as an entity, is the largest investigative arm of the DHS, according to the ICE Web site.

Given the new reluctance of ICE to accommodate press requests, the information in these paragraphs comes from the recent telephone interview with Stallworth (at which time a ride-along press flight was in the works) and from a previous visit to a Customs operation flying the radar-equipped business jets.

In 1999, AIN was invited to fly with the North Island (San Diego) branch of the U.S. Customs Air Interdiction Unit and to visit the DAICC in Riverside. The pilots at North Island explained the special equipment on board the 26 Citations. They are each equipped with a Westinghouse APG-66 radar (the same as on an F-16) behind an oversize radome. They also have belly-mounted forward looking infrared (FLIR) slaved to the radar and four different radio sets for communication with the DAICC and other government agencies. The Citations at North Island were considered “chopped assets,” meaning that they were expected to be available for launch with eight minutes’ notice. During AIN’s visit, a scramble call came through from the DAICC. Even with a camera-toting journalist in tow, the crew had the Citation rolling onto the runway in four minutes.

The radar has displays in both the cockpit and at a console in the rear of the cabin. There, a dedicated radar operator can lock onto a target aircraft, guide the pilot of the Citation to the intercept and even videotape the encounter using either the FLIR or a conventional video camera. At the time, the Customs Service’s anti-smuggling mission had evolved and was organized into five phases: interdiction, detection, sorting, interception and tracking/apprehension.

For the anti-drug mission, as many as 43 DAICC controllers kept an eye on their scopes for suspicious airborne activity. Any number of red flags could bring attention to an aircraft on the screens. For example, flying low among the mountain passes toward the border without a transponder is virtually guaranteed to attract interest by the DAICC. If a radar history does not come up with a plausible explanation for the aircraft’s route of flight, a Citation would likely be launched–or diverted from an ongoing patrol flight–to investigate more closely.

Under the strategy used in tracking drug runners, Customs aircraft were not intended to force down a suspect aircraft. It makes far more sense to surreptitiously follow it to its destination, then alert ground-based law enforcement to close in on the drug deal as it goes down. That way, perpetrators at both ends can be arrested.
For this reason, the Customs Citation pilots are trained and equipped to shadow an aircraft without the suspect knowing they are there. Tracking with radar and FLIR, the Citation can fly as slow as 100 knots and S-turn up to a mile behind and below the other airplane. In some cases, the Citation might get within binocular range (even flashlight range on night intercepts) to relay a tail number back to the DAICC.
That’s when the computers in the mini-Norad center begin to whir, checking the IFR history of the airplane in question to see if it–or any of its known pilots–has been involved in recent suspicious or criminal activity. With proper authority, the DAICC spokesman told AIN, he can even tap into the monetary instruments reporting systems to access bank records, seeing if the suspected pilot on board had made any recent transactions of $5,000 or more.

Stallworth said that a few years later, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Customs Aviation Branch modified its mission to help patrol the site of the games. With an obvious shift of focus after 9/11, the object in Salt Lake City was to help prevent unauthorized overflights of the restricted airspace. That changed the strategic goals of the mission, but it’s not hard to see how the tactics could be adapted to the new profile. The most obvious difference would be visibly intercepting an errant aircraft in most cases–while providing for the remote possibility of a suicide attack. In the latter case, the follow-to-land strategy would not work and more aggressive intervention would be necessary. Though Stallworth didn’t say so, it has been well reported that fighters flew regular air cover over the Salt Lake City Olympics site, as they did over Washington and New York in the months following 9/11.

But the Citation program is ideally suited to the role of determining whether or not the situation involves an intruding aircraft with hostile intent or the far more likely possibility that it’s simply a blissfully ignorant or disoriented pilot at the controls. First, the DAICC had already developed profiles for flagging suspicious flights in the drug regime. Recasting those profiles to differentiate terrorist attackers from wayward innocents would not take a great deal of effort. Once the profile has determined that the intruding aircraft seen on radar might pose a threat, the Citation is ideally suited to going up to take a quick look and directing the aircraft to an appropriate frequency for communications. If radio contact is not possible for whatever reason, the Citation could escort the offending pilot to a secure landing site for further questioning.

Further modification of the program would be necessary to accommodate the more heavily trafficked area around Washington. Stallworth said ICE didn’t participate in the surveillance of the Washington airspace until 16 months after 9/11. “The DOD had the responsibility before then,” he said. Stallworth said there were 186 intrusions into the protected airspace between 9/11 and when ICE came in. From May through early October, he said, there were only 15 (not including the aforementioned Mooney incident, which occurred after AIN’s telephone interview).