By Patrick Winderl
Sudden gusts of wind toss the tiny single-engine, four-passenger plane as it crosses the Hi-Line sky. It is 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Border Patrol pilot Joe Mulhern is flying a Cessna 182 aircraft on his daily patrol along the U.S.-Canadian border.
Takeoff was silky smooth in the hands of talented veteran Mulhern, who began flying when he was 16. The closer the plane flies to the Sweet Grass Hills, however, the less predictable the wind becomes. Gusts exceed 50 mph, and the plane is more or less at the mercy of the elements.
"Nature is more powerful than anything man can make," Mulhern says over the headsets. Not exactly words of encouragement.
Normal conversation is impossible inside the cabin, due to the noise produced by the 285-horsepower engine pulling the plane into the wind. It is necessary to use a radio headset to speak to anyone in the aircraft.
One passenger is so distressed by the bumpy flight that he is holding open a one-gallon "barf bag," struggling not to lose his breakfast.
Mulhern, on the other hand, seems wholly unconcerned with the situation.
"It takes a little getting used to," he says.
Mulhern is one element of the Border Patrol's effort to regulate what is the largest unprotected border in the world.
The Hi-Line certainly looks different from 800 feet up, and the Milk River is a frozen twist of blue cutting into the landscape. The golds and browns of farmland stretches for miles in every direction. Farm buildings and feedlots become miniscule dots on the terrain.
The border north of Havre is an area Mulhern knows well. He flies a route that covers the border between North Dakota and the Rocky Mountains.
Mulhern refers to himself and pilot trainee Gerhardt Perry as "the eyes in the sky." To be certified as a Border Patrol pilot, it is necessary to log 1,500 hours of pilot time and have a minimum of three years in the field. Perry has completed the three-year requirement, and has about 400 hours in the pilot's seat.
The pair fly reconnaissance missions, searching for border jumpers. Jumpers try to avoid one of the 12 ports of entry in the sector by crossing the border in remote locations.
"Mostly they use gates or gaps in the fence line," he said. "Occasionally they do use their vehicles to cut through."
When Mulhern or Perry notice suspicious activity, they relay the information to Border Patrol ground units, which make contact with the subjects.
"Our primary purpose is to assist ground units in apprehending suspects," Mulhern said.
Mulhern, who was raised in El Paso, Texas, has been located in Havre for 3 of his 16 years with the Border Patrol. Previously he was stationed in Texas, performing interdiction work on the Mexican border.
The airborne element of the Border Patrol in this sector consists of two airplanes, although Mulhern expects a helicopter to arrive in February.
In addition to the Cessna 182, Mulhern and Perry also fly a Cessna 206. The 206 is a newer, more advanced, slightly larger airplane. The plane has a retail price of about $350,000, Mulhern said, while a new 182 costs about $150,000. The 206 seats six passengers, and has a power rating of 315 horsepower. Both aircraft use 100 octane aviation fuel.
The 206 has been temporarily grounded due to a factory recall on an engine component. Mulhern said he expects the problem to be corrected within several weeks, and the 206 will be airborne again.
Both the Cessna 182 and the Cessna 206 are equipped for instrument flying. That means that the aircraft can fly safely in inclement and low-visibility weather.
The helicopter arriving in Havre next month will most likely be a Boeing MD600N, Mulhern said. The MD600N is an advanced tactical helicopter specially designed by Boeing to be a multi-functional helicopter. The chopper uses the NOTAR rotorless tail boom system to control gyration. The machine is ultraquiet and is ideal for border deployment.
"The real advantage to a helicopter is the availability and versatility," Mulhern said. "You will have the ability to stop in tighter locations than you can in an airplane. With an airplane you need a runway or a road, but you can pretty much put a helicopter down anywhere."