â€œYeah, should be a good night for hunting â€“ wonder what weâ€™ll bag tonightâ€¦â€ he thought as he walked out to the waiting Hawkeye with the Skipper.
â€œOmaha 51, check right one oâ€™clock, 4 miles, heading 280, angels 3â€¦â€
â€œ51, negative contactâ€
By all rights the Customs interceptor should have found the smuggler a good while ago.Â A clear night, albeit moonless so far, no weather and out past the lights of Miami over the swamps of the Everglades, the intercept should have been a lockâ€¦
â€œOmaha, Bluetail, what luck, overâ€
A heavy sigh over the ICS prefaced the ACOâ€™s call â€œOn your nose, 3 miles, co-altitude â€“ is your secondary up?â€
The Customs interceptor was a hybrid affair â€“ a Cessna Citation with an F-16 AI radar and FLIR â€“ the former for intercepting the bad guys and the latter to enable the Customs aircraft to approach close-in, lights out (all external nav lights turned off to avoid tipping off the intruder) and try to obtain a visual ID.Â His own â€œorientation rideâ€ (technically they werenâ€™t supposed to go on real missions, the seriousness of which was underscored by the stack of automatic weapons the ground agent placed inside the main hatch just before takeoff) a few nights previous was illuminating.Â They had detected and tracked no less than three aircraft â€“ a Cessna 210, an older Twin Bonanza and a Piper Aztec.
Two had turned back to the Bahamas but the 210 pressed on to a drop in the Everglades that was intercepted by the helo-borne law enforcement (LE) team.Â That mission had seen the radar fail near the end of the mission and the FLIR seeker lock-up.Â Tonight the radar was obviously down and their FLIR seemed to be as well. Â Of late that seemed to be more and more of the case.
And now, it required a very concentrated effort by his ACO, a nugget, to try and effect the intercept.
It began with a small paint â€“ the faintest trace barely the width of a fingernail that originated in the vicinity of Rum Cay.Â While the E-2â€™s radar exhibited certain notorious characteristics in the area called the land-sea interface due to clutter return, around the Bahamas, it was doing rather well this time out.Â Testimony, he thought, to the efforts of the new AT chief who had joined them mid-deployment.
Coming from Norfolk AIMD (the next higher level maintenance activity supporting the E-2C), Chief â€œTâ€ was intimately familiar with the innards of the Hawkeyeâ€™s APS-125 radar, and brought with him some ideas about fine tuning the system.Â The effect on the rest of the shop was immediate and salutary and as the Quality Assurance Division Officer, the LT had a chance to observe the effects first hand â€“ on the ground and in the air.
Working the radarâ€™s sensitivity and processing controls, the LT had managed to â€œopen upâ€ the system in a select area, making it more sensitive to possible targets while avoiding being overwhelmed by clutter return from the islands and buildings along the coastline.Â Working with both raw and processed video, his practiced eye quickly caught the target and began mentally tracking it â€“ and in short order the system placed a track on the target. In the process, he had made a believer of his Air Control Officer who was one of the FNGâ€™s that was fresh from VAW-120, the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the E-2C.
A quick call to the orbiting Customs bird was all that was required to begin the intercept and since it was to be a deliberate stern intercept, he relaxed a bit as he watched the ACO set it up and make the initial calls.
Three weeks deep into â€˜Thunderboltâ€™ now he thought.Â Weâ€™re bagging them almost left and right and still they keep comingâ€¦
Operation Thunderbolt.Â This was DoDâ€™s initial contribution to the drug wars and it primarily consisted of active duty and reserve E-2 squadrons flying out of bases in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.Â Working with specially configured Customs interceptor aircraft and helos bearing law enforcement teams, the effort was showing signs of success â€“ if your metric for success was arrests and confiscation of aircraft, but the numbers were meaningless unless you had a baseline to measure them against, and that baseline just didnâ€™t seem to materialize.
Early in the intercept it became readily apparent something was wrong with the Citationâ€™s radar.Â As the bogey entered the stretch of open water between the Bahamas and southern Florida, his own system planted a high quality, radar only track â€“ heading west at an estimated 3,000 ft and making 195 knots ground speed.Â With no transponder and flying off the airways it had all the appearances of a bad guy rather than some hack doctor returning from a vacation in the Bahamas.Â As the distance between the Citation and target narrowed, the â€œno contact callsâ€ clearly indicated they were â€˜lead noseâ€™ (broken radar).
â€œBack them off to 5 miles â€“ Iâ€™m not comfortable with them this close and no contact yetâ€ he passed to the ACO.Â â€œWeâ€™ll keep them in a radar trail and hope their FLIR decides to start working.â€
Now the interesting part of the intercept began, for if the target held true to profile, it would be landing to offload its cargo to ground handlers in the near future.
â€œIncrease their altitude too â€“ donâ€™t want them running into the helo or the bad guy if he suddenly turnsâ€
Anticipating the prospect of a landing or drop, they had moved the helo with the LE team to a holding point that now was about ten miles north of the area of interest.
â€œBluetail, 51, we are in trail of a light twin, probable Baron.Â He is descending and turning to the flare markers.Â 51 is setting up at high perch, angels 5â€
The Citation had acquired (finally!) the target â€“ a Beech Baron light twin that was now in the process of risking a night landing on one of the many dirt roads that ran through the Everglades.
The Citation had over flown the landing area giving the E-2â€™s crew a tighter location to steer the helo in.Â An updated heading and distance was passed by the ACO even before the LT had a chance to remind him.
â€œBluetail, 51, targetâ€™s landing lights are onâ€¦wait one, standbyâ€¦â€
The hairs rose on the back of the LTâ€™s neck â€“ he could almost tell what the next call would be.
â€œBluetail, 51 â€“ target has crashed, say again, the target has crashed and the landing area is on fire.â€
â€œ32 copies, weâ€™re notifying Dade authoritiesâ€
â€œBluetail, the ground flares were extinguished just as he was landing â€“ think the ground crew got spooked.Â Weâ€™ve got a large fire going â€“ I donâ€™t think there were any survivors.â€
â€œ32 is about a mile out and has the fire in sight.Â There is a possible landing area about 100 yards east we are heading to â€“ no apparent vehicles or personnel on footâ€
â€œBluetail copies â€“ info has also been passed to Coast Guard rescue, they are standing byâ€
The best part about flying with an experienced front end, he thought, was the way they monitored the mission using only the radios.Â A CAPC that could mentally picture an intercept and anticipate things like tanking requirements, destination weather, etc. was worth his weight in gold to a busy crew in the back and the Skipper was one such CAPC.Â With the first report of the crash barely out of the Citation, he was already on the radio to the Coast Guard informing them of the possible SAR.Â The LT passed the geographic latitude/longitude of the SAR area to the front end and that was relayed to the CG helo that was also inbound.
â€œBluetail, 32 on deck and dispatching teamâ€ came the call from the Blackhawk that was now on the ground.Â In a few minutes the call came that everyone pretty much expected.
â€œBluetail, Omaha 32, no apparent survivors.Â Aircraft is pretty well destroyed from the tail forward.Â We will remain on site until Dade authorities arrive.â€
â€œOmaha 51 will remain overhead â€“ we still have a good hour of gas leftâ€
â€œOmaha 51, 32; Bluetail copies all.Â We are RTB but will remain up this freq until on deck.â€
The flight back to Patrick was quiet as data was collected and logs finalized.Â Having grown up in the West, the LT felt a certain measure of justice had been meted out â€“ he still recalled the young AT2 who had fried his brain on LSD a couple of years ago right before the squadron left for the IO.Â Yeah, it wasnâ€™t cocaine or pot, which was the probable load on this flight, but there was still a pusher involved and he hoped for particularly nasty ends for those involved in the distribution of drugs.Â Sometime later they joined up with the Citation crew (who confirmed both radar and FLIR were initially busted, but had effected repairs on the FLIR airborne) and reviewed the FLIR tape.Â The greed that compelled someone to risk a night landing in unfamiliar terrain with persons of questionable repute awaiting them mystified the LT.Â Perhaps the word would get out about another drug smuggler crash in the Everglades and it would convince someone contemplating such a mission to forego it.
Frankly though, he doubted it and had a nagging feeling he would be flying these kind of missions for a long time to come.
Article Series - Reflections: Smuggler's Blues
- Reflections: Smugglerâ€™s Blues (I)
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (II)
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (III)
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (IV) – The Pilot
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (V) – The Squadron CO
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (VI) – The Pilot
- Reflections: Smuggler’s Blues (VII) – The Squadron CO
- Reflections: Smuggle’s Blues (VIII)-Convergence
- Reflections: Smuggle’s Blues (IX)-Conclusion