U.S. Customs Needs Pilots

Government service flying offers an adventure-filled alternative to the airlines or corporate jobs.

customs pilots
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is offering pilots a career with a little more variety and even more adventure.Rob Mark

With the airlines currently hiring hundreds of pilots each month, the next decade is shaping up to be incredible for experienced aviators searching for a cockpit job. Many think only of an airline career. But not every young pilot is thrilled at the idea of spending 30 years cruising at FL350 for hours on end, despite the chance to visit some exotic destinations.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection people think they offer a career with a little more variety, not to mention some adventure. When I caught up with one of the CBP’s public affairs and recruitment officers at Heli-Expo in Dallas last month, I admitted I’d never even heard the air interdiction agent title they give their pilots. These pilots support all the Department of Homeland Security’s air and marine operations from duty stations around the United States, but mostly near either the Mexican or Canadian borders.

Using both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, agents conduct air to air, air to water, and air to ground interdiction of both people and vehicles illegally crossing U.S. borders. Air interdiction pilots also patrol lakes and rivers to prevent the illegal entry of weapons of terror, illegal narcotics and the entry of undocumented aliens.

Air interdiction agent Michael Fuller told Flying the air and marine operation group "needs 60 to 100 pilots right now." But the top brass at DHS worries more about "the 50 percent of their 1,200-strong pilot workforce that's going to retire over the next five to eight years." CBP's fleet includes rotary wing aircraft like EC-120s, H-120s, H-125s, Hueys and a couple of S-76s. The fixed-wing fleet is comprised of Cessna 206s, Pilatus and Citation aircraft, as well as a few Dash 8s, P-3s and a large number of King Airs.

Fuller said that for years the service never had a problem finding aviators, but with so many heading to the airlines the competition for pilots has become pretty stiff, especially on the rotary wing side. Fuller admitted one reason for the shortage of rotary pilots might stem from a few of the service's far-flung duty locations like Yuma, Arizona, and Laredo or McAllen, Texas.

Before heading over to the CBP's application page, Fuller detailed the basic pilot requirements to be considered. There's a commercial pilot certificate and "1,500 total time, of which 100 must have been logged in the last year. That total must also include 75 night and 75 instrument." He said previous leadership training somewhere along the line is considered a plus.

Once an application garners the attention of the right people at CBP, the hiring process begins with a polygraph, followed by an intensive background check and a basic physical. If the applicant passes this stage, Fuller said, “they’re invited to Oklahoma City where a fixed-wing pilot can expect to fly the required maneuvers for a commercial checkride in an aircraft like the Cessna 206.” Assuming the checkride evaluation’s successful and the pilot then passes a Second-Class FAA medical exam, applicants could be offered a pilot position that begins with 16 weeks of CBP training in Georgia, plus another six weeks of Spanish language education for those not already fluent.

Pay begins at $78,000 and offers the possibility for premium pay based upon the shift schedules, nights, Sundays and holidays. And of course, there’s a full retirement plan available.

“CBP has also been actively visiting university flight schools to make the case for a government flying job with younger pilots who might not qualify today," Fuller said. "We want them to remember us when they do meet our minimum requirements."