US Customs and Border Protection widens air role

Miami Air & Marine Branch enforces security using diverse fleet plus interagency alliances.

By Brent Holman
ATP/CFI/Helo. Airbus A320, Bell 206L

CBP Miami Air & Marine Branch patrols Florida waters and a large part of the Caribbean, protecting US borders from smugglers and terrorists. The Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar is a recent addition. The 39-ft Midnight Express provides the backbone of the marine interceptor fleet.

Today Luis Bencosme is deputy director of US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Miami Air & Marine Branch. But at one time he was a pilot assigned to a Piper PA42 Cheyenne III in Puerto Rico.

Toward the end of his 8-hr shift as a member of the US Customs alert crew (he had agreed to cover for his relief pilot for a few minutes), the call came in to launch an intercept. With the relief pilot nowhere to be found, Bencosme donned his gear, gathered the intercept intelligence and spooled the turbines on the PA42.

Fortunately, the tanks were topped-it was going to be a long night, pushing the aircraft's endurance. Bencosme's wife was waiting for him at home, but in those pre-cellphone days he had no chance to call and advise her of the last-minute change of plan before he launched.

Air operations vectored Bencosme and his crew toward the target of interest-a Beech King Air leaving Puerto Rican airspace. Joining up covertly on the suspect aircraft, they were led on an odyssey across the Caribbean to Venezuela and an eventual landing outside Bogota, Colombia with minimum fuel in the pitch-dark early morning.

Only Bencosme's command of Spanish convinced Colombian ATC that they were "good guys" and to turn the runway lights on for their approach. From ragged clothes to uniforms CBP Miami Air & Marine Branch had its humble beginnings in a vacant corner of HST (then Homestead AFB, now an ARB), south of Miami FL.

Air & Marine Branch air interdiction agents, air enforcement agents, maintenance technicians and administrative staff are housed in a hurricane-resistant facility at HST (Homestead ARB, Homestead FL). Unit aircraft include the Citation II and AS350B3 (background).

What began in 1970 as a group of plain-clothes agent pilots, housed in surplus trailers and flying seized aircraft, has grown to be one of CBP's largest air operations bases. CBP's overall air assets have grown too-with more than 700 pilots staffing nearly 300 aircraft committed to protecting the US borders from terrorism and smuggling, today's CBP wields the largest airborne law enforcement group in the world.

Miami has always been a busy place and a center point for the agency. Because of its location and the significant role it played in the cocaine wars of the 1970s and 80s, the Miami Air & Marine Branch has always been on the cutting edge of law enforcement.

CBP recently selected Randy Donnelson, a pilot with corporate and EMS experience and 18 years with US Customs, to assume responsibility for the branch as director. Today the Miami Air & Marine Branch is still centered on stopping "the conveyance," according to Dir of Marine Operations Martin Wade.

Although CBP is now part of the Dept of Homeland Security, with its emphasis on antiterrorism, there has been little change on the core mission. As Wade notes, "Ultimately, you have to put boots on the deck to determine the threat.

Our mission is still to interdict what we ultimately find could be terrorists, aliens, drugs or weapons." Miami Air & Marine Branch and its leaders focus on "breaking down all the barriers" and are intent on supporting every agency they can within their area of responsibility, according to Operations Officer & Air Enforcement Agent (AEA) Michael Bishop.

"We support everybody down here," he explains, noting the extensive work his unit does with other federal agencies, state, county and municipal law enforcement groups. CBP's Miami Branch has partnered successfully with other law enforcement groups to accomplish their common mission.

Leading the Miami branch since Oct 2008 is Dir Randy Donnelson, an 18-year CBP veteran with previous corporate aviation and airline experience.

Miami-Dade Police Dept trains and operates regularly with CBP, and the US Coast Guard routinely coordinates assets to detect and intercept suspicious aircraft and vessels. A few years ago CBP participated in the multiagency effort to protect attendees at the Super Bowl in Miami.

"We try to make the line between the federal and local agency go away," says Donnelson. "We have the same missions in mind-to secure the nation's borders." To accomplish its goals, the Miami Air & Marine Branch has at its disposal 13 aircraft-fixed and rotary-wing-as well as 21 vessels, staffed by 112 personnel including 43 pilot/air interdiction agents (AIAs) and 12 AEAs.


According to Training Officer & AEA Jason Nadolinski, the Branch's 43 AIAs do it all. "They are the complete package," he says. "Our pilots fly, take charge of law enforcement activities at the scene and conduct EMS ops too." CBP pilots-the AIAs-work five 8-hr shifts a week, much of that time on alert status.

After reporting for duty, the AIAs receive a briefing of the current state of operations in the area of responsibility, including ongoing activity, planned flights, strategic intelligence and availability of multiagency assets.

They then preflight and ready aircraft for departure, and prepare for scheduled patrol or training flights. If not required for immediate flying duty, AIAs tend to their other assignments, including duty as instructor pilots, communications officer, firearm instructors and other individual nonflying responsibilities.

They remain on alert and on base, and most based aircraft must be ready to launch within 8 min of an intercept order. CBP and its predecessor agencies hired a number of pilots in the late 1980s and then saw a 10-year lull.

At present, CBP is recruiting AIAs, seeking pilots with at least 1500 hrs TT, holding a commercial certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings. Dual rated pilots with an additional 250 hrs of helicopter PIC time and a helicopter instrument rating are also desirable.

Deputy Dir Luis Bencosme continues to fly AStar missions in addition to his responsibilities for Miami aviation operations.

Bishop notes that "75% of the current pilots have a military background, with the remainder coming from a mix of prior law enforcement positions or from the airlines." He describes the CBP hiring process as follows: "Pilots can apply online and receive an objective score based on their credentials.

Preference is given to military veterans." Once accepted for employment, pilot candidates attend the 10-week CBP Air & Marine Basic Training Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco GA. If successful, AIAs and AEAs return to their respective branches for familiarization training and orientation to their assigned base.

New pilot-agents then travel to the CBP National Aviation Training Center in Oklahoma City OK for more training in tactics and survival, before being sent to vendor-provided aircraft-specific training on their first assigned aircraft.


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