DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In recent years, a growing number of private pilots say they have been unfairly targeted by federal agents who are searching for drugs at small airports. Now U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they have listened to the complaints from pilots and they are taking a different approach. NPR'S John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Tom and Bonnie Lewis love to fly airplanes so much that they live in a residential airpark near Fort Worth, Texas, where their garage is a hangar.
TOM LEWIS: Well, this is our view. This is the runway - north-south runway, 3,600 feet long. And so this is where we left from the day that Customs and Border Patrol chose to intercept us and talk to us.
BURNETT: Two years ago, they packed their bags, loaded them into the airplane, and took off for Nashua, N.H., to visit their daughter and her family. Mid-route, they stopped at an airport in Frankfort, Ky, to refuel and spend the night, when they noticed that a small jet had landed directly behind them, with no radio communication. Four federal agents shouldering assault rifles scrambled out of the jet and surrounded the Lewis's little two-seater plane, asking for IDs.
LEWIS: Asking where we'd been, basically checking us out. It didn't take them too long to figure out they had grandma and grandpa that were making a trip to New Hampshire to visit the grandkids.
BURNETT: Tom Lewis says the CBP agents were courteous and professional. After they realized that the bewildered gray-haired couple were not drug smugglers, they lightened up. The officers said they'd taken off from a base in Michigan and chased the red and white aluminum airplane across the country because it was flying a known drug air route from Texas to the Northeast. Tom Lewis think this is absolute nonsense.
LEWIS: It's a growing infringement of our freedoms as Americans to travel within the country without fear of being stopped and inspected every time we turn around.
BURNETT: Exasperated pilots say this is not an isolated incident, where law enforcement stops and requests to search a private aircraft without a warrant. But according to the agency, the problem is being fixed. Eddie Young, deputy assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection for Air and Marine Operations, says they have taken new steps to preserve good relations with the general aviation community. He was asked if his agents have decided to call the cops on private pilots less often, and be more judicious in how they choose their targets.
EDDIE YOUNG: I would say that they are, yes.
BURNETT: He tells NPR that in some cases local police departments, acting on a CBP tip, have responded to a suspect aircraft with excessive show of force. In one case last December, a private pilot drove away from the Lansing, Mich. airport after landing his small plane there. He was surrounded by 25 police vehicles containing 40 officers, some with guns drawn. Their explanation - Homeland Security flagged his plane as suspicious. Again, deputy assistant commissioner, Eddie Young.
YOUNG: When we do make a mistake and we come up against somebody that necessarily, you know, didn't need to be, I think, you know, that's where we do our best to ensure that we don't repeat those mistakes again.
BURNETT: According to the FAA, there are more than 7 million personal, instructional or business flights a year of about two hours each. CBP operates a sophisticated air and marine tracking center in Riverside, Calif., that watches thousands of these flights every day. If one looks suspicious because it's flying a strange route or looks like it's trying to evade radar, agents can alert local law enforcement. Young says since the first of the year, they've researched 474 flights, made law enforcement contacts with 25 pilots on the ground, which resulted in eight violations - seven criminal and one an FAA violation.
YOUNG: A 32 percent success rate is not bad in the law enforcement community.
BURNETT: It's the other 68 percent of the cases that have angered fliers, says Mark Baker. He's president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, with 350,000 members. Baker says 54 pilots in his organization have reported police confrontations at airports in the last two to three years.
MARK BAKER: When you get a call from the feds that you may have an illegal activity around this aircraft, they get pretty excitable at these local airports. And, you know, certainly in many of these cases they have overreached what we consider to be the due process.
BURNETT: It was Mark Baker's meeting with top CBP officials last month in Washington, that prompted the decrease in aircraft intercepts. One of the incidents reported to the Pilots' Association happened to a 36-year-old mechanical engineer, who was taking a fishing trip with his brother and their three kids to the Texas gulf coast. This is audio from the police video.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: What's your name?
DANNY ZIMMERMANN: Danny Zimmermann.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Danny Zimmermann, do you have your airmen certification?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Alright. And any medical identification?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Alright, I'm going to have to need to see that too.
BURNETT: Danny Zimmermann flew from his home in San Antonio to the sleepy municipal airport in Rockport, where they were met by local police in body armor. They said they got a tip from CBP that this was a drug plane. Zimmermann was told to keep his hands in the air - in front of his children - while the officer checked his FAA papers.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Just keep your hands in the air.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Just keep your hands on your...
BURNETT: It was the second time Danny Zimmermann had a law enforcement encounter at an airport.
ZIMMERMANN: These are, in my opinion, unconstitutional stops and searches of pilots. It's no different than them stopping you in your car and asking to search your car for no reason - no probable cause - nothing, going anywhere. Most citizens, I don't believe, would tolerate that for very long. What should the flying community?
BURNETT: Eddie Young says that his agency - Customs and Border Protection - is designated as the nation's guardian of the skies. But they're trying to do a better job balancing the civil liberties of pilots with the demands of law enforcement. The Pilots' Association responds that it appreciates the agency's efforts to bring these overzealous encounters to an end. But pilots continue to keep a wary eye out for armed cops asking to search their airplanes. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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