- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

Soaring 500 feet above the national monuments in a Black Hawk helicopter feels a lot like being in a bus rumbling down a highway with all the windows open only the view is wildly better and the Black Hawk is considerably more versatile.
"It's like driving a car once you know what you're doing," said pilot Ted Labbe. He said, however, that the low, fast-flying Black Hawks have a tendency to encounter situations that do not typically occur while driving a car.
"I've hit birds before," he said. "They just disintegrate."
U.S. Customs Service pilots were all smiles yesterday as they carried a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times aboard two UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters on a fast patrol over the region.
Customs officials say the two Black Hawk helicopters, running patrols over Washington since the national threat level hit Code Orange, will be flying missions over the capital for the foreseeable future.
"We're definitely doing serious research into what it would entail to become a permanent presence here," Customs Officer William Oliver said of the patrols operating out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
After floating 200 feet above the ice-covered surface of the tide pool next to the Jefferson Memorial for several minutes, the helicopters made swift northwest turns and accelerated over the Potomac toward Georgetown.
A ceaseless flurry of voices sputtering air-traffic codes could be heard through headphones connected to the helicopter team's communications system. Pilots said the noise is typical of the highly traveled swath of airspace over Washington, which is one of the nation's busiest.
As of Feb. 10, the two Black Hawks and two Cessna Citation airplanes flown by pilots with the Customs Service's Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) are providing 24-hour patrols of airspace under 18,000 feet in roughly a 30-mile radius around the Washington Monument.
A portion of the space is under scrutiny from the ground by the Army's Avenger missile systems placed in at least one strategic location near the Capitol.
While commercial airline flights monitored closely by the Federal Aviation Administration are allowed into Reagan and Dulles International airports inside the restricted airspace, in the event that a small private aircraft enters the 30-mile radius it will be picked out by the Customs Service's Black Hawks or Cessnas.
A Black Hawk will sneak up beneath the intruding plane, and if the aircraft doesn't quickly communicate and cooperate with customs pilots, the Department of Defense will be alerted.
"If all else fails, and we think the guy is a threat, we call DOD [Department of Defense], they call Andrews Air Force Base, and Andrews will scramble a couple of F-16s," said Kevin Bell, a spokesman for the Customs Service. "I know that if I were a pilot and I saw a couple of F-16s next to me, I would want to get the heck out of Dodge pretty quick."
While the Black Hawk technology dates back to the late-70s and the two Black Hawks patrolling Washington are at least 15 years old, pilots remain confident in the helicopters' high-speed and versatile flight capabilities.
Customs officials said there have been about 10 accidental incursions on the restricted airspace during the past three weeks. Typically, the pilot of a small plane slightly loses course and infringes on the space.
But customs pilots keep a close eye out for suspicious activity.
"It could be terrorists flying in and trying to find out how fast our response time would be," said Mr. Labbe, who spent 10 years flying Black Hawks in the Army before joining the Customs Service in 1988.
Customs pilot James Bryan said Black Hawks are key to protecting the capital region in the event that a small plane packed with low-grade explosives attempted to fly in and attack the Capitol, the White House or the national monuments.
He said that while such a plane could be flown by terrorists, "it could be just some guys who have a bone to pick with the president, which has happened before."
At 1:49 in the morning on Sept. 13, 1994, a single-engine Cessna slammed into the White House. The crash, believed to have been intentional, killed only the Cessna's pilot, who had stolen the plane from an airfield in Baltimore. Eyewitnesses said the plane flew near the Washington Monument, then veered left on its course toward the White House.
Mr. Bryan said the Custom Service's Black Hawks, capable of flying as fast as most single-engine planes, are in a position to quickly respond to prevent a repeat of that scenario.
While some 30 customs officials from around the country are stationed on special assignment at Reagan Airport, they said their efforts are part of a widening scrutiny of key ports and airspaces throughout the nation. "Our marine and air division has played an expanded role since September 11," Mr. Bell said.
The Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) has a staff of about 1,000 officers stationed at strategic points across the country to guard against terrorist attacks from the seas and skies, as well as stop the flow of illegal narcotics and other contraband.
Since President Bush's recent announcement of the Custom Service's transfer to the new Department of Homeland Security, AMID has been realigning its operations to coordinate more with other law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The Black Hawk and Cessna flights are linked to a regional coordination center in Northern Virginia established a month ago by the Homeland Security Department to create a multiagency airspace security front.


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