Pubdate: Fri, 25 Aug 2000
Source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Address: P.O. Box 9136, Corpus Christi, TX 78469-9136
Author: Deborah Martinez

Gramm Examines U.S. Customs Operations

U.S. Senator Introduced To P-3 AEW Radar Aircraft, Which Are Used To Hunt 
Drug Smugglers

U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm got a first-hand look Thursday at how local U.S 
Customs agents are waging a decades-old drug battle as he flew over the 
Gulf of Mexico aboard a Customs turboprop.

"The war on drugs is an uphill battle," Gramm said. "We're still trying to 
find ways to win it. We're doubling the fleet. We passed legislation to 
increase funding for more technology in Customs service and for 1,700 new 
Customs agents."

Gramm spent about an hour, 10,000 feet into the air, aboard a P-3 AEW radar 
aircraft that patrolled its way as far south as the waters off 
Brownsville's coast.

Used as one of the U.S. Customs' primary drug hunters, the P-3 AEW is the 
fifth airplane to join the U.S. Customs locally and the first of four new 
aircraft designed to enhance the fleet.

U.S. Customs in Corpus Christi use six P-3 AEW aircraft, nicknamed the 
"Dome." The radar plane has a large radar dish on its roof and is able to 
detect aircraft in a 250-mile radius.

Radar operators aboard the plane monitor surrounding aircraft, looking for 
red flags such as low-flying planes who may be trying to avoid land radar, 
or planes that may be going too slow.

Once a suspicious plane is tracked, the Dome crew will alert a P3-A 
interceptor aircraft to take pictures of the plane's identification tail 
wing number and match it up to records in a database, said Customs radar 
operator Jerry Lunceford.

"If a plane is too low, then it's trying to not be noticed," Lunceford said.

"If it's numbers don't match up with our database, then they probably 
tampered with the I.D. numbers. It's enough to make us suspicious and 
follow them."

The 30-year-old plus aircraft are the Navy's gift to Customs, which then 
revamps them with radar equipment and new engines.

Typical missions consist of six to eight-hour flights patrolling the 
U.S./Mexico border or up to 10-day detachment operations as far south as 
Aruba, Peru and Ecuador.

"We need to let people know that we haven't forgotten the war on drugs," 
Gramm said. "There may be some people who are discouraged. We're working to 
keep drug thugs from taking over, like in countries such as Colombia."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens