Over the eastern Pacific Ocean and vast Caribbean Sea, where equatorial trade winds push sea swells toward the coasts of Central and South America and the islands of the tropics, lies a domain of drug smugglers. Whether it’s by a large container ship or an improvised, small, outboard-engine powered boat or a small aircraft, the criminals ply their trade by bringing deadly narcotics from impoverished areas to the rich drug markets in the U.S. It’s also the domain of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations P-3s, whose aircrews keep watch on the waters below and skies above, on the lookout for the ships, boats and planes that try to carry the illicit cargos to their destinations.
A radar operator works out of the back of a P-3 based out of Jacksonville, Florida, during operations over the eastern Pacific Ocean. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
“We’re always looking for somebody, from the time we take off until we land,” said John Dilts, a senior detection enforcement officer who works the back of the airplane, watching radar screens, scopes, cameras and various other sensors that scan the area for boats and other aircraft that might be smuggling drugs. Once a smuggler is targeted, these pieces of equipment help direct other law enforcement to the perpetrators, as well as provide important evidence from the photos and video gathered by the P-3 crew if the case goes to trial. “We are on scene overhead, and we’re getting information [on the smugglers],” to pass along to allied assets on the sea surface in a timely manner and in a courtroom later on.
In addition, since the planes fly so far above and sensors can reach such great distances, smugglers might not even know they are being watched.
“We try to have a covert posture, maintaining contact on the target of interest but remaining non-visible to the smugglers,” Dilts said.
Live video feeds obtained from the P-3s can even be pushed to other federal entities - similar to the Situation Room in the White House or the Federal Emergency Management Agency - during interdiction events or in support of relief operations for areas hit by severe weather.
An Air and Marine Operations pilot looks out the window of a P-3 during an interdiction flight over the eastern Pacific Ocean. While the plane has the latest in technology to detect a variety of targets, crews rely on good, old-fashioned eyes-on-targets to find their prey. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
Air Interdiction Agent William Schneider pilots the 50-plus year-old aircraft, flying missions that typically run about 8 hours but can be extended to more than 12 hours, if needed.
“We have the ability to bring a lot of endurance to the fight,” which also includes the search for human traffickers and smugglers of weapons, Schneider said. “It’s a great airframe. It’s a centerpiece of our long-range interdiction assets. I can’t think of anything better.”
While part of the eight-person crew is in the back of the plane watching the sensors, the aviators at the front use good, old-fashioned skills.
“We’re using our eyeballs to find targets out there, rapidly sorting through what is and what is not a likely target through a large swath of ocean,” Schneider said, adding the P-3’s endurance, range, ability to fly slowly, and stealth capabilities let the aircrews get a good, long look at what they track. “We can chase slow-moving, single-engine aircraft safely and successfully, and they will never detect us behind them.”
A P-3 crew tracks a cargo ship below in the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
Whether in its long range tracker or airborne early warning form – with its distinctive radar dome mounted on top of the airplane – the turbo prop powered P-3 brings a mix of technology and ruggedness to the fight to stop illegal drug smuggling. A sophisticated radar and sensor array gives the P-3’s crew of eight a good set of eyes from above. These aircraft – currently numbering 14 in Air and Marine Operations’ fleet – started their lives as submarine hunters for the U.S. Navy. Now, with a range of about 4,500 miles and an ability to stay airborne for 12 hours at a time, CBP finds them perfect to get to the 42 million-square mile drug-hunting grounds of the Caribbean and Pacific. They usually fly from airports in Central and South America, but during the COVID-19 pandemic are launching from their home bases in Jacksonville, Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas, for these missions.
In this file photo from 2019, a P-3 crew coordinates flying operations from the airplane’s cockpit. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
“They’re our strategic air assets that conduct long-range maritime patrols throughout the source and transit zones – [the areas where drug smugglers run their boats and ships between South and Central America and U.S. shores],” said Jonathan Miller, executive director for Air and Marine Operations National Air Security Operations.
He added CBP has close coordination with the U.S. military and joint law enforcement commands, such as the Joint Interagency Task Force South, which detects and monitors illicit trafficking to make it easier for the agency to work with other U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies, who bring their own skill sets to interdict the dangerous narcotics traffic.
“We work each other’s strength to make sure the entire joint operational area is covered,” Miller said.
In September 2019, a 25-foot twin-engine go-fast vessel immediately fled an area southeast of Panama after the boat’s occupants spotted a P-3 observing them. Panamanian authorities would end up seizing nearly 1,700 pounds of cocaine worth more than $22 million from the incident. CBP photo
In fiscal year 2019, P-3 aircrews provided about a third of the total maritime patrol aircraft coverage for the joint task force, so there have been plenty of success stories for the aircraft. Miller pointed to a recent bust of 6,500 pounds of cocaine that was headed for New York City. And since 2008, P-3s played a significant role in stopping more than 2 million pounds of cocaine in the transit zones, worth an estimated $70 billion. These interdictions happened thousands of miles from U.S. borders showing the drug traffickers there is a significant net they’ll have to try to get through long before they reach American shores, especially for cocaine, which is the biggest target for the P-3s.
“It’s very much part of CBP’s global engagement strategy,” Miller said. “As much as we can take this fight farther from our shores, the better it is. That 6,500-pound cocaine load stays together in the Eastern Pacific. The closer it gets and lands, the sooner it breaks up into a hundred smaller loads, making a hundred targets to chase, instead of just the one.”
“Return on your investment is huge,” said Marty Wade, director, Air and Marine Operations at the National Air Security Operations Center-Jacksonville.
In fact, Air and Marine Operations officials estimated P-3 crews intercept approximately 40 pounds of cocaine for every hour they are in the air.
“And every single pound of cocaine translates into lives saved and dollars not spent on the effects of drugs in the United States,” Miller said.
With its ability to take off and land on short airfields and the self-contained nature of the aircraft and crew, the P-3 is ideal for operating out of bases in Central and South America, which might be able to provide nothing more than a landing strip and a place to refuel. But with the COVID-19 pandemic restricting access to even some of those locations, the 4,500-mile range of the P-3 still allows it to operate over the Pacific and Caribbean from its home bases in Texas and Florida.
A ground crew prepares a P-3 for its next flight. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
Maintenance crews work on a P-3 before a flight. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
“Operationally, it’s been challenging, but being a front line law enforcement agency, we’re not in a position to work from home,” Wade said, pointing out some of the locations outside of the U.S. where P-3s have operated from are starting to open back up, and they’ve taken every step possible to protect the men and women who have to fly these missions. But even if those locations didn’t open up and long flights had to be continued, Air and Marine Operations still needed to find a way to keep these important flights going. “The bad guys aren’t sitting on the sidelines during the pandemic, I can guarantee you that, so we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. We find creative ways to adapt and overcome in this challenging environment.”
Wade said while there is an affection for the 50-plus year-old P-3, Air and Marine Operations pilots and sensor operators are the real heroes in the fight.
“What makes us so successful is the experience and knowledge our crews have. It’s irreplaceable,” he said. “Most of the folks we have flying these aircraft and conducting these missions are extremely experienced. They’ve either flown this airframe or operated the systems in the back of the aircraft for 20-plus years in the military, and they come on to work with us. It’s not uncommon for aircrews to have 25-35 years of experience, conducting these types of operations and missions. That knowledge and experience just can’t be replicated.”
Schneider is one of those Navy veterans who cut his teeth on P-3s. Starting as a maintenance troop in the plane about 35 years ago, he worked his way up the ranks until eventually flying one of the birds himself 25 years ago and even taught others how to fly it. That intimate knowledge of the P-3 serves him well now that he works for CBP, also training P-3 pilots for the agency.
“It’s an airframe I believe in and have a lot of trust in,” he said.
Dilts is proud to be a P-3 crewmember, even though the prop-driven planes can be a rumble of deafening noise as the crews work in the back of the plane, basically without any windows, in what they affectionately call “The Tube.”
A radar in a P-3 helps operators locate and identify targets below. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
“It’s loud,” the veteran of other U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft mused, but a very satisfying loud, when you consider the results: stopping drugs in their tracks, thousands of miles from U.S. shores. “All of us feel very fortunate to do the job we do. Whether it’s the big fish or the small fish” – either the big drug busts on a major cargo carrier that grab all the headlines or the smaller, outboard-driven boats laden with drugs that try to speed their way through – “ultimately, we want to catch fish.”