WASHINGTON — The young pilot from Miami was trying to impress a woman with a lunch trip to Key West.
The 45-minute flight was just long enough to take in the scenery, but not so long that Aron Banks had to worry about lulls in the small talk. In the air, the 23-year-old explained how his plane’s avionic system works. He pointed to the blue and turquoise waters. His date admired the shapes of the rip currents.
Everything was great until they landed in Marathon, Fla. That’s when, Banks said, federal agents with body armor and assault rifles surrounded him and his plane.
The agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection asked for his permits. They asked him why he was flying from Opa-Locka to the islands. They pressed him to search the plane. Banks refused, but he said the agents didn’t take no for an answer. Banks said an agent repeated the question again while squeezing his gun and inching it out of his holster.
“I’m like, ‘You know bro, I’m not authorizing anything, but you do what you need to do.’ And then he starts searching the airplane.”
The agents found no drugs or weapons, Banks said. They did find $700 in cash, which Banks says he keeps for emergencies.
After about an hour and a half, the agents said Banks could go, he recalled. They told him they were just doing their job trying to keep everyone safe. But Banks still felt like a drug runner. He figured his date felt that way about him, too.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say searches of general aviation aircraft are a critical part of the fight against drugs and terror.
The agency’s Office of Air and Marine on Monday denied Banks’ version of events. The encounter, which customs officials said lasted 20 minutes, was because of an error on the flight plan. The search was allowed, and the agency said in response to McClatchy’s questions that there were only three federal agents and that no weapons were ever drawn nor used to intimidate.
Banks is far from alone in accusing border officials of excessive shows of power. Many leisure and business pilots across the country say too many private citizens have been caught up in what they argue are warrantless searches that can be emotionally scarring _ and possibly illegal.
“We’re opposed to drugs and drug runners and illegal uses of aircraft, but we do feel very strongly that when you do a police action like your plane comes to a stop on a runway and its surrounded by eight SUVs, police get out, guns drawn, body armor, dogs, that you need to have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity has occurred or is about to occur,” said Ken Mead, general counsel for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
It can also be a financial hardship. Professional pilot Dean Holiday lost about $1,600 a month in income when he stopped flying one of his best clients after more than a half-dozen officers, guns pulled, stopped them in Marana, Ariz. He didn’t want to repeat the experience, thinking his client was likely involved in shady dealings even though nothing was found on the plane.
Arturo Caballero has been stopped by agents twice after flying with his wife, son and pet chihuahua. On one family trip home to Bay City, Texas, Caballero was separated from his wife and son, who at the time was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., for questioning while agents searched the plane.
“Seems to me they’re just throwing a big, huge net into the sky in hopes of catching something,” Caballero said. “What? They don’t know. But something will come up.”
The pilots’ association, which represents more than 350,000 pilots and plane owners, says it has collected more than 50 cases in which members _ despite never crossing a U.S. border _ were searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents or local law enforcement “without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.”
The association met last month with Border Patrol officials in Washington to discuss pilots’ concerns. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske assured them the agency would conduct a comprehensive review of the searches, the association said.
None of the flights in which planes were searched crossed any borders, Mead said. He said that much like drivers on the nation’s highways, pilots should not have to worry about having gun-toting agents tapping on their plane windows asking to search their plane.
The complaints that border agents are conducting egregious and intimidating searches of U.S. citizen pilots and plane owners come at a time when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is under increased scrutiny. McClatchy and other news organizations have chronicled the deaths of at least 21 people, a trend that has led to criticism that the Border Patrol has expanded too quickly to ensure proper training of new agents.
Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico introduced legislation in March that would impose more levels of oversight and accountability on U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Responsibility for detecting and identifying potential air threats of domestically flown general aviation aircraft falls under the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations Center.
General aviation aircraft is a popular means of transporting drugs across the country. Customs and border agents have seized 1,600 pounds of marijuana and 72 pounds of cocaine over the past two years, according to an agency report.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have heightened awareness of how planes can be used as weapons.
On Feb. 18, 2010, the pilot of a small plane intentionally crashed into the Internal Revenue Service office in Austin, Texas, killing the pilot, an IRS employee and injuring 13 others. On Jan. 5, 2002, the pilot of a Cessna 172 intentionally flew into a Tampa, Fla., building, killing himself.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has sought more information from border protection officials about the encounters with general aviation aircraft.
In response to the senator’s concerns, Kerlikowske wrote last month that any action taken is predicated on the “totality of the circumstances” amounting to reasonable suspicion or probable cause. He pointed out that federal law allows agents to inspect a pilot’s operating license and related documents without any level of suspicion.
“That is not to say the CBP exercises these authorities unrestrained or without considerations for the rights of citizens,” he wrote in a response letter.
Kerlikowske said encounters are very limited. Of the hundreds of thousands of flights last year, federal agents tracked 428 general aviation aircraft, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Law enforcement approached 38 of those planes, of which 17 resulted in violations, including 12 seizures of drugs, weapons or money, Kerlikowske wrote.
Agents monitor domestic flights for odd flight patterns and questionable practices, Kerlikowske wrote. They may make contact with a pilot based on “an abnormal flight profile” or a tip from other law enforcement of possible criminal activity.
Those caught in the federal net say the experience can be harrowing.
Tom Lewis and his wife, Bonnie, plan to fly to New Hampshire next week for their annual trip to see their grandchildren. It’s an infamous trip in their family after what happened two years ago.
Lewis, 66, and his wife fly out of Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth. They usually stop twice along the way to use the bathroom. They typically have dinner and spend the night in Frankfort, Ky. When they land in Kentucky next week, Lewis will likely be looking behind him to see whether his plane is again being closely followed by a federal jet.
That’s what happened two years ago. The jet, without any announcement, swooped in behind them on the ground. Three men and one woman dressed in border patrol uniforms and armed with M-16s quickly approached them. They asked for papers. They questioned the couple about their trip and looked around their plane.
The experience was not as bad as other pilots’ experiences, Lewis said, but it was unsettling.
“I know they need to do that when they’re after the bad guys,” he said. “It’s excessive to stop Grandma and Grandpa on their visit to see the grandkids.”
In Florida, Banks said he also knows that the agents are simply doing their job. He’s glad they’re there to make it safer for him and others to fly their planes.
But he said it was wrong for federal agents to use their firearms to assert authority, intimidate and coerce him into doing things he didn’t want to do. “It’s not right,” Banks said. The agency said in its response Monday that officials were unaware of any intimidating behavior toward Banks.
The experience also might have wrecked his chances with the woman, who was also shaken up by the experience, Banks said. He said she now prefers to remain just friends. “She’s like, ‘Who am I flying with?’” Banks said. “It was a first date. Thanks for screwing it up, guys.”