It’s a perfect day, bright blue sky above, and temperatures just a degree or two above zero. It’s cold but business as usual for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations, or AMO, helicopter crews flying security missions at this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“The other bird is at your 8 o’clock and close,” said the sensor operator in the AS350, better known as the AStar helicopter making circles around the stadium in the downtown area of the northern city. A quick acknowledgement by the pilot – “Got it” – confirms everyone has situational awareness of everything going on above and below the helicopter crews patrolling the area.
About 65 AMO personnel and six aircraft – three UH-60 Black Hawk and three AStar helicopters – are working the Super Bowl this year. They’re part of a larger 150-plus force of AMO agents and officers, Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, import specialists and others from CBP locations all around the country. In the air, AMO has two main missions: be the eyes in the sky and help keep the air space around the stadium safe.
“We’re providing an aerial downlink with cameras mounted on our birds feeding live video back to the joint operations centers back on the ground, as well as providing that extra level of air security,” said Jonathan Johnson, a supervisory air interdiction agent at a small airport just a few minutes flying time from downtown Minneapolis. “The people back on the ground can ask for our AStar operators to provide video of a particular part of the city. We can check out a suspicious vehicle or people and eliminate any questions of what’s happening on the ground.”
AMO has been in the area for about a week and a half before Super Bowl Sunday, patrolling the area. On game day, the Black Hawk crews will assist National Guard F-16 fighter aircraft, detecting, tracking and coordinating the interdiction of aircraft violating a temporary no-fly zone for miles around the stadium. If any aircraft violate that air space, CBP will intercept and determine if more law enforcement is needed. The coordination between CBP, the Department of Defense, other federal assets and local law enforcement has been in the works for more than a year.
“This is a large puzzle with a lot of moving parts,” said Johnson.
And before the helicopters took off on this particularly cold day, maintenance crews made sure they were in tip-top condition.
“We need to keep these birds flying,” said Matt Swazey, a contract aircraft mechanic from Detroit. “We’re keeping them safe, because our aircrews have an important mission to support. And we’re here to support them.”
Shrugging off the bitter chill in the air, the pilots and crews mount up for another patrol over the frozen city along the icy banks of the Mississippi River. While in the air, the AStar pilot takes a few minutes to brief his sensor operator on some of the emergency landing zones in and around downtown Minneapolis, pointing out helipads and empty lots where they could put down in a hurry if the unthinkable happened, in addition to local hospitals. It’s just part of making sure everyone is prepared for the unexpected and a tribute to the professionalism AMO crews are bringing to Super Bowl LII.
“Our air crews have a lot of fun and are good at what they do,” said Johnson. “We have the most experienced and professional folks in the air serving the American public.”