Feds Say: 'Pilots Have No Rights'

Cop speaks out on controversial federal program.

CBP Air Interdiction officers big
CBP Air Interdiction officers big
** Photo by James Tourtellotte via CBP**James Tourtellotte

Flying has obtained information from a law enforcement source about the federal program that detains pilots upon their arrival at their destination airports and searches their airplanes. Training for the program was conducted via an "aviation drug interdiction" class sponsored by HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), a government organization that is a conglomerate of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to fight, as the name implies, drug traffic.

In an email and in further telephone conversations, our source, who is knowledgeable about aviation matters, detailed the training he had received in 2009 in preparation for him to participate in the HIDTA program. He has asked to remain anonymous but has identified himself to Flying.

He told us that the training was taught by two agents, one from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the other from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which is part of DHS.

As part of the program, our source told us, suspicious airplanes are targeted by law enforcement and tracked through the Aviation Marine Operations Center (AMOC), which can follow both VFR and IFR aircraft. The aircraft are also secretly followed by a DHS aircraft, usually a Cessna Citation, until it arrives at its destination.

According to a number of first-hand reports published by The Atlantic and in AOPA's eBrief, after they land at their destination the pilots of those airplanes are approached often at gunpoint and usually by local law enforcement, who detain them until the Citation lands and federal agents arrive on scene. They are then ramp checked and they have their airplanes searched.

Our source told us that the ramp check was just a ploy to search the airplane and that the real target of the search was drugs, though even that, he said, could be used as a pretense for apprehending other potential criminals. The federal agents teaching the class he attended did not specify what other kind of “target” they might find, he said.

He also told us that during the training he was taught that the pilots were to be treated as though they had no right to refuse the search. “What they taught law enforcement officers and agents was that all aircraft can be detained since they all fall under the . . . authority of the FAA.” He continued that, “this in effect gives them complete search authority of any aircraft.”

The agents teaching the course admitted during instruction that the stops had a very low rate of success in finding drug traffickers. Our source said one agent admitted that the stops involved “a lot of empty work but when you get a bite, it’s a big bite.”

Neither Homeland Security nor Customs and Border Protection have responded to Flying's requests to confirm the account or to provide further details of the program.