- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

MALAKWA, British Columbia

Colin Martin was on bail, appealing his sentence for leading a U.S.-Canada drug conspiracy involving aircraft. But he was still able to acquire three helicopters, two of which ended up being flown by drug smugglers.

His case illustrates the remarkable ease with which smugglers have obtained flight training and helicopters as they grab a share of Canada’s sprawling, multibillion-dollar trade in marijuana, cocaine and MDMA (Ecstasy).

Of about 10 pilots arrested in roundups of British Columbia-based helicopter-smuggling operations this decade, at least half had recently trained at flight schools, sometimes dropping out once they knew just enough to handle the machine, an Associated Press review found.

Flight school operators say they don’t check a student’s background or monitor what students do on their own time, though they generally do ask why a student wants to become a pilot. Several said they don’t want to train smugglers, but they also don’t want to turn away business simply because a prospective student might be heavily tattooed or pay in cash.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” said Chinook Helicopters owner Cathy Press, who has seen several former students arrested for smuggling. “If you went and thought everyone was drug-running, you could tell the police, but maybe you’re wrong — and that’s not great for business.”

Even if her suspicions were correct, she added, “They might put someone in jail, but someone else will step forward, so why get in the middle of it?”

A clean criminal record is not a prerequisite for a pilot’s license, said Rod Nelson, a spokesman for Transport Canada, the government agency that oversees the aviation industry. Nor do Canadian officials ask students to disclose previous convictions. They do ask about any substance abuse in an applicant’s past.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration takes a similar approach, asking flight students to disclose previous convictions and requiring background checks only of foreign students, spokesman Paul Turk said.

Sam Lindsay-Brown was a clean-cut, friendly 23-year-old when he showed up at Chinook Helicopters in Abbotsford to begin flight training in December 2007. He was also a suspected drug smuggler. And for almost a year after Canadian police began investigating him, he remained enrolled, essentially working his way through flight school as a co-pilot on cross-border drug flights.

U.S. agents arrested Mr. Lindsay-Brown in February as he reportedly put his training to use by making a 426-pound marijuana drop in northeastern Washington state with one of the helicopters leased by Mr. Martin. He committed suicide in jail four days later.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Transport Canada note that they can’t bar people from studying as a pilot or obtaining a license without proof of criminal activity.

“The guy’s 20-some-odd years of age, and he’s gaining qualifications that can be used for a lawful purpose,” said RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk. “It’s a tragedy that he chose to get involved in this line of business, instead of pursuing the lawful side of the skills he was acquiring.”

The RCMP declined to say whether agents were aware he had been enrolled at flight school. They had been investigating him since spring 2008, after a woman he hired to transport 200,000 tabs of Ecstasy was arrested in California and gave his name to police.

RCMP spokesman Norm Massie said the agency had no record of Mr. Lindsay-Brown making prior smuggling flights, but two co-conspirators confirmed to the AP that Mr. Lindsay-Brown had made several as a co-pilot, meaning he would be paid at least $5,000 to help load and unload contraband and keep an eye out for trouble.

The co-conspirators spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their own involvement in criminal activity and fear that they could face repercussions from other drug traffickers for speaking with a reporter.

Mr. Massie declined to discuss what steps the RCMP takes to monitor flight schools, but said the agency knows that some traffickers get training there.

“We would be remiss not to include that in our investigative techniques,” Mr. Massie said.

Martin, 37, was sentenced in 2007 in Canada to 2 1/2 years in prison for leading a major drug-smuggling operation in the 1990s, one that started using an airplane after ground couriers were caught.

He said he became involved in drug trafficking about 16 years ago and remains well-connected in the smuggling world, though he declined to discuss specifics; he was arrested but has not been charged in Mr. Lindsay-Brown’s case. In interviews with the AP, he estimated that as many as 30 pilots across Canada make drug-smuggling flights at least occasionally.

Someone looking to hire a pilot can put the word out via Blackberry and hear from pilots as far away as Quebec or Australia by the end of the day, Martin said.

In dozens of interviews with smugglers, pilots, lawyers, Canadian and U.S. authorities, and operators of flight schools and helicopter companies, a snapshot of the highly specialized profession emerged.

Some drug-running pilots are highly experienced. Some do it full time, and some do it on the side when legitimate business gets slow or unexpected expenses such as helicopter damage leave them struggling to pay the bills. Some enjoy the rush. Some have a thing for getting America high. They all like the money.

One, Shane Menzel, told a federal judge in Seattle that he turned to smuggling because it was so hard to find work as an inexperienced pilot. Many “low-time” pilots must work for years washing helicopters and cleaning out hangars before they get a real flying job.

People familiar with British Columbia’s marijuana trade have estimated that anywhere from 30,000 to more than 80,000 pounds of pot per month is smuggled into the United States.

It’s a huge business, infusing billions of dollars a year into the province’s economy. The province’s most prominent gangs - the Hells Angels, the United Nations, the Independent Soldiers - are thought to own most of the drugs moved across the border, but to avoid heat they leave the shipping to others.

Air transport is generally considered the best way to exploit the vast, unpopulated terrain along the border.

Planes can fly faster and farther than helicopters, but need airstrips. Helicopters can skim treetops - flying as close as three feet - to avoid radar detection. They can dart through low mountain passes or river valleys and land at a remote clearing or even a wide spot in a logging road, where they’re met by GPS-equipped drivers. They’re back across the Canadian border in minutes.

Such an operation, of course, needs helicopters. In Canada, it is difficult to lease a helicopter without an operating certificate, a Transport Canada document that allows someone to use a helicopter for commercial purposes. Such a document is a sign of legitimacy to leasing companies, who typically want to know what their machines are being used for.

But there are ways around that hurdle.

Many smugglers instead simply buy helicopters, registering them to “numbered” companies — 123456789 Ltd., for example. There are 90 helicopters registered for private use to such companies across Canada, Transport Canada records show.

In other cases, smugglers have paid third parties to register the machines for them, or they’re not registered at all. One unregistered helicopter with the tail mark C-FTCH has been used in smuggling runs and recently was parked deep in the woods near Cranbrook, in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, three people with knowledge of the machine told the AP.

Martin bought the first helicopter he acquired in 2007, sight-unseen, for $925,000 from an owner in Texas. No conditions of his bail prohibited him from possessing aircraft. The RCMP’s Mr. Massie declined to discuss Martin’s case, but said generally: “Should those conditions be in place? Absolutely.”

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