"Look dad a UFO"!
"No son, it's just an illegal alien with another shipment of drugs."
Someones going to get smart and arm of these with something nasty and fly it into the United States.
Ultralight flights new method to haul drugs
Craft can evade radar along border, feds say
by Dennis Wagner - Feb. 17, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
NOGALES, Ariz. - On Oct. 10, Jesus Iriarte hauled a load of pot from Sonora across the U.S. border.
The Mexican national was like hundreds of other drug couriers except for one important distinction: He transported the marijuana by strapping it to a motorized hang glider, something that looks like a lawn mower in the sky.
Federal customs agents say radar-dodging ultralights may be an emerging trend among drug smugglers looking for new ways to outwit increased surveillance.
But the planes aren't the safest strategy.
In the past four months, three of the kite-winged aircraft crashed while hauling loads of marijuana into Arizona.
There is no telling how many other pilots successfully delivered loads, but the outcome for those who failed is telling:
• Juan Hernandez Torres, 34, of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, died Nov. 18 when his machine smashed into a Yuma lettuce field.
• An unidentified pilot clipped a power line in December while being chased by a Customs and Border Protection drone. Because the suspect was paralyzed in the crash near Tucson, prosecutors elected to deport him to Mexico rather than file charges.
• The third smuggler, Iriarte, awaits a prison sentence after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court. He was caught after crash-landing in Marana, nearly 80 miles north of the border.
Rick Crocker, deputy special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tucson, said the low-cost, low-flying aircraft present a new challenge for drug interdiction, not to mention Homeland Security.
"The ultralight smuggling may be due to the hardening of the border (with greater enforcement)," Crocker added. "We're trying to get a handle on it."
Small airplanes were frequently used for delivering drugs to America in the 1980s and '90s.
But improved radar, interceptor aircraft and an Aerostat surveillance blimp near Fort Huachuca took such a toll that smugglers abandoned the tactic.
More than a decade later, ultralights have emerged as a cheap, stealthy alternative. With a triangular fabric wing, the plane is powered by a rear propeller and maneuvered by a pilot seated on what resembles a tricycle.
Standard models hit speeds of 70 mph, with a range of 300 miles. They hug the ground to drop loads without ever touching down and can land without a full runway.
Ultralights are extremely sensitive to wind, however, and not designed for cargo. Crocker said Hernandez Torres died when he attempted to drop his marijuana load in Yuma using a release trigger that failed on one side of the plane.
Americans mostly fly ultralights for sport. The Sky Gypsies, an organization of U.S. enthusiasts based in Arizona and New Mexico, go on sightseeing tours to remote mountains and canyons.
Still, Neil Bungard, U.S. manufacturer of the Air Creation model and an FAA training instructor, said there is an obvious attraction for smugglers.
"You can fly tree level for as far as you want to go. You're under the radar. It's a perfect machine for carrying loads of under 300 pounds," Bungard said. "I don't know what you'd do as an agency to stop it."
John Kemmeries, who distributes ultralights in Arizona, noted that those benefits come with significant peril. "They're getting killed and thrown in jail," Kemmeries said. "These aircraft are designed to carry a person, not a payload."
As of January 2008, Bungard said, FAA regulations required recreational licenses for ultralight pilots, plus upgrades making the machines meet airworthiness standards. Some owners put their planes up for sale rather than deal with the expense. Mexico has no certification requirement for ultralights and no licensing for pilots of the aircraft, Bungard said. As a result, anyone south of the border can buy and operate the machines without regulation.
"They don't get proper training," Bungard said. "And they wind up hurting themselves."
A minimal expense
Mexican drug cartels are notorious for treating employees as expendable.
They also are renowned for creative methods of getting around Border Patrol agents or past drug-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines at inspection stations.
On a single Friday in January, for example, motorists at Arizona border crossings were caught with drugs concealed in gas tanks, mufflers, radiators, tires, engine compartments, car batteries, ceilings and seats.
Shipments are hidden in everything from soap boxes to dirty diapers. Some smugglers ingest narcotics in baggies. Others dig tunnels or hide giant loads in agricultural shipments or trains.
But all those methods face an inspection gantlet, whereas ultralights can slip through remote canyons. Two-seaters are offered on the Internet for about $20,000, a minimal expense considering the estimated $180,000 value of a single marijuana load.
Crocker would not discuss details of ICE investigations except to say, "We're trying to identify where the aircraft are purchased, who the bad guys are and the whole nine yards."
Iriarte, meanwhile, may be considered fortunate compared with the other pilots. He was not injured during a harrowing chase.
Crocker said Iriarte was picked up by radar while flying over the border near Nogales and was pursued by helicopter to Marana, where he made a crash landing in the desert. Iriarte ran to a waiting all-terrain vehicle, which he also crashed while trying to flee. Investigators seized about 220 pounds of pot.
Faced with up to 20 years in prison, Iriarte signed a plea deal. He is expected to spend about three years behind bars.
Iriarte's attorney, Charles Slack-Mendez, said he believes the government is being especially tough on ultralight smugglers because the aircraft represent a potential national-security problem.
He also suggested the flights may escalate soon because, at Mexico's marijuana farms, "it's harvest time right now."
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