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F-16s Intercept Ultralight Predator Coming to Texas


On early Sunday morning, May 16, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) dispatched two F-16 fighter planes from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to intercept an ultralight that entered Arizona from Mexico. Although ultralights are sometimes used to smuggle drugs, a military spokesman declined to say why they used a pair of $15-million jets costing $17,000 per flying hour to intercept an ultralight.

Reports that the jets “shadowed” the ultralight for 30 minutes until it returned to Mexico suggest some security concern other than simple drug smuggling. A possible theory is that the ultralight was approaching a “sensitive” area. NORAD responds about 200 times per year to unknown, unwanted, and unauthorized air activity operating within the sovereign airspaces of the United States and Canada. All pilots should be aware of the standard intercept procedure and know how to tune the radio to the appropriate emergency frequency. You don’t have to be flying near the border to get into trouble. Any careless blunder into a presidential temporary flight restriction will bring a similar response. Study this printable In-Flight Intercept Procedures briefing card from the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) Air Safety Foundation.

Even though 116 million vehicles cross U.S. borders each year, officials are concerned about the increased use of ultralights for smuggling contraband. Last year there were three interrupted flights with one of the ultralights carrying $220,000 in drugs. With 800,000 pounds of marijuana seized in Arizona last year, it would take an entire fleet of ultralights to make any difference, so why all the concern about ultralights? Drug smugglers are quick to employ new methods, and the interdiction strategy includes reacting to new methods before they become widely adopted. Let’s hope it works, because we don’t want our favorite recreational aircraft to become a popular and common method of smuggling. Officials claim there have been 193 suspected ultralight incursions and 135 confirmed incursions along the U.S.-Mexico border in the last six months. The actual number could be higher. The ultralights fly low to evade radar and must be visually sighted or picked up with portable radar mounted on trucks.

Flying low and slow along a road to imitate a ground vehicle may fool some radar systems, but it can’t fool the unmanned Predator B drone proposed for deployment later this year along the Texas border, pending FAA approval. Its high-resolution cameras are said to be able to read the label on a water bottle from 19,000 feet. Five Predators are already in service at other locations patrolling our borders. The Predator B cruises at 150 to 170 knots and has a wingspan of 66 feet, an endurance of 20 hours, and a cost of $10 to $12 million each. At those prices, the F-16 fighter at $15 million seems a bargain.

The final chapter of this story is H.R. 5307, a bipartisan bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its purpose is “To amend the Tariff Act of 1930 to include ultralight aircraft under the definition of aircraft for purposes of the aviation smuggling provisions under that Act.” Individuals who use ultralights for smuggling will now be subject to the same penalty as those using certificated aircraft. Officials acknowledge the change won’t help catch ultralights used for smuggling but express hope the threat of more punishment could serve as a deterrent.

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