By Tim Leeds
The Havre sector of the U.S. Border Patrol has a new tool a brand new, top-of-the-line aircraft.
"They're such a great resource multiplier," Mike Hester, Border Patrol deputy chief of air operations, said today. "It's very cost-effective."
Hester, who works at the Border Patrol flight operations headquarters in El Paso, Texas, brought the new turbocharged Cessna StationAir Turbo 206 airplane to replace the Havre sector's old plane, a Cessna 182.
The improved plane is part of the Border Patrol's effort to improve its capabilities on the northern border in the wake of Sept. 11. The Havre sector has so much border to patrol, about 400 miles, with so few agents, the Border Patrol needs to maximize efficiency as much as possible, Hester said.
"You've got a huge area to cover up here," he said.
In the long term, the Border Patrol hopes to increase the number of agents on the northern border, he said. In the short term, technology is the way to increase capability. Hester said agents in an aircraft like the Cessna 206 are 36 times more effective than agents on the ground.
The patrol is adding a new, heated office at the Havre-Hill County Airport to allow 24-hour access to the aircraft, Hester said. The office will not be open to the public.
The patrol plans to add a helicopter as soon as a second qualified pilot can be relocated to the Havre sector, he said.
The Cessna 206 has a price tag of more than $350,000, Hester said. The helicopter would cost more than $2 million.
Depending on the needs of the sector, a second airplane could be added sometime in the future, he said.
Increasing the security on the northern border has been planned for some time, Hester said. The Border Patrol focused on the U.S.-Mexico border first, with the northern border scheduled for improvements later.
"In the wake of 9-11, we decided we can't wait on that," he said.
For the first time in the Border Patrol's history, four sectors of the northern border, in New York, Maine, Vermont and Michigan, have both helicopters and airplanes. The patrol will eventually have at least one helicopter and one airplane in every northern border sector, he said.
The new airplane is mainly a surveillance and reconnaissance tool, Hester said. Exactly how it will be used will be up to Havre sector chief Robert Finley.
"It's really difficult for me in El Paso to determine how to best use the aircraft," Hester said.
The plane will be used to patrol the border every day. The Border Patrol, with 43,000 flight hours last year, is second only to the Coast Guard in the amount of time spent in the air, Hester said.
It uses the time in the air very effectively, he added. Without even factoring out time used in transit and training, the Border Patrol averages three arrests and confiscates $3,200 in narcotics for every hour in the air, Hester said.
The Border Patrol's main concern on the northern border is to prevent illegal entry of terrorists, he said. Drug trafficking, which the U.S. Customs Service reports is increasing on the northern border, is also a concern.
The Havre sector's new plane has many improved capabilities over the 182, Hester said. The turbocharging on the plane increases the range, speed and altitude capabilities of the patrol. It has a cruising speed of 175 mph and it's a six-passenger aircraft compared with the 182's four-passenger size. It can be converted to transport equipment, is equipped for cold-weather use, and has the newest global positioning system equipment available.
The GPS system will allow the pilot and agents to determine the exact location they are in and of any incidents they are observing. The system can be used for navigation, to give the location if the plane goes down, and to give precise locations to ground agents.
The helicopter the Border Patrol plans to locate in the sector will increase capability even more, Hester said. It will have infrared equipment, letting the pilot and agents work better at night.
A helicopter can transport agents and equipment directly to sites under investigation.
"An airplane is a great intelligence tool, great for surveillance. A helicopter is much more flexible," Hester said.