Saturday, May 7, 2011

Praxis: Smugglers and ultralights.

Crashed cartel untralight.

From the M3 Report:

La Voz de la Frontera (Mexico) 5/6/2011

Narcos almost knocked down helicopter

International traffickers nearly caused a tragedy when an ultralight crossed at night into the Imperial Valley (California) and nearly collided with a helicopter of the U.S. Armed Forces manned by pilots and soldiers from England who were receiving military training. Customs and Border Protection authorities have been warning how dangerous and how persistent incursions are when used to cross drugs from Mexico.

This is a newer means to smuggle narcotics into the U.S., and the small planes rarely land. They cross the border at a remote location, carrying between 200 and 300 kilos of marijuana in packages that show a predetermined site where an accomplice is waiting with his vehicle lights flashing. The pilot activates a drop of the drugs and after returns back to Mexican soil.

The Border Patrol has provided hundreds of thousands of barriers along the borders, checkpoints, operated by thousands of agents seeking to stop the smuggling of narcotics, but the Border Patrol counted that at least 228 of these types of incursions were conducted in 2010 and this year so far 71, with 30 of these in the Imperial Valley.

It should be mentioned that the Mexican Army has managed to catch five such aircraft in Mexicali, one because crashed in the Mexicali Valley.

Here's another article from June 2010 with a bit more detail:

SONOYTA, Sonora — Several times a week, drug smugglers somewhere along Mexico's border with the United States strap themselves into low-flying ultralight aircraft and take off with loads of marijuana.

They usually fly at night with no lights, and often they're guided only by the dim screen of a hand-held satellite navigation tool, looking for a precise spot in the desert.

The smugglers generally don't land. They've modified the ultralight aircraft with drop baskets that can hold 150 to 250 pounds of marijuana wrapped in brick-size units and covered in plastic. They move a lever, and the bricks fall to the desert for ground crews to pick up and smuggle onward across the country.

It's a perilous tactic, and pilots can break limbs or die in crashes.

"It's a fairly risky endeavor for them to try to do this. ... They do fly close to the ground, which can be dangerous because of power lines," said Steve Cribby, a Homeland Security Department spokesman.

Ultralight aircraft evolved out of hang gliders, and the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't classify them as "aircraft." That legal loophole allows drug smugglers to bring in sizable loads of marijuana and get lighter jail terms than if they'd used a car or small airplane.

"It's a pretty new phenomenon," said Andrew Gordon of the general counsel's office at the Homeland Security Department.

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., proposed last month to close that loophole with an Ultralight Smuggling Prevention Act. Giffords called ultralights "the latest threat to border security."

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operation Center in Riverside, Calif., detected "193 suspected incursions and 135 confirmed incursions by ultralights from Oct. 1, 2009, through April 15th of this year," Giffords said.

On May 16, the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled two F-16 jet fighters to intercept an ultralight aircraft crossing into Arizona and followed it for about 30 minutes before it flew back into Mexico.

Ultralights have fabric wings attached to aluminum tubing. Small two-stroke engines, which sound much like a whining lawn mower, power rear propellers. The pilots sit in sling seats that give the vehicles the appearance of winged tricycles.

"I hate to say it, but those things are very stealthy aircraft," said Sgt. Rick Pearson of the air support unit in the sheriff's office of Pima County, Ariz. "They don't have much of a reflective character" to catch radar signals.

When Mexican smugglers began using small airplanes in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. government responded by deploying six Aerostat surveillance blimps to strategic border locations, thwarting air smuggling for many years.

But the Aerostats, tethered by 15,000-foot cables, return to their ground pads at night to avoid snaring legal aircraft that might get entangled in the cables.

To avoid ground-based radar at night, the ultralights generally fly low routes over illuminated highways.

Giffords said some of the smugglers' aircraft have been detected "flying up to 200 miles into our country from Mexico."

Both humanitarian concerns and legal considerations prevent law enforcement from firing on the ultralights when they spot them.

"There are rules on deadly force," Gordon said, noting that the ultralight pilots wouldn't survive a strafing. "If you shoot them, you're going to kill them."

H.L. Cooper, a flight instructor for ultralights in the Tucson area, said he's regularly approached by people whom he presumes are smugglers.

"The first thing out of their mouth is, 'How much weight can it carry?' " Cooper said.

Drug gangs in Mexico care little about pilot training.

"They are getting some 'gofer' out there to jump on these things, and then it's, 'Hasta la vista, baby,' " Cooper said.

The vehicles are usually overloaded, making them unstable. "If you hit some turbulence, the aircraft can start to break apart," he said.

In one of the earliest known incidents of the use of ultralights for drug smuggling, Jesús Isaias Iriarte, a 25-year-old pilot carrying 210 pounds of marijuana, crashed in a field north of Tucson in October 2008. After a plea deal, he was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison.

The smugglers' ultralights can pose a risk for other aircraft.

"They don't care about flying with their lights on. They don't care about flying at the proper designated altitudes for aircraft. They don't care about flying through controlled air spaces," said Pearson, the sheriff's sergeant.

Under the toughened measures in Giffords' proposal, smugglers could be given sentences of up to 20 years and $250,000 fines.

Iriarte's attorney, Charles Slack-Mendez, said it's not difficult for cartels to recruit fliers from Mexican beach resorts, where ultralights are common.

"My understanding is that they are not all that difficult to drive. It's not much more difficult than a motorcycle," he said.

Pearson said traffickers might not stop at smuggling marijuana.

"Here's my big concern," he said. "Four hundred pounds of C-4 (plastic explosive) will do a heck of a lot of damage. If that were a light airplane, or if that were a 757 talking to someone, I bet the Air Force would shoot them down."


Dennis308 said...

Adapt and Overcome, If the Cartels can do it.
Threeper Air-Force anyone?


Anonymous said...

All you can do is laugh because these clown aren't serious about border security. There has always been too much money to be made.

In a day and age wherein we can photograph your DNA from outer space, tell me please, why would this even be an issue why are we having to discuss this at all?

2 and 2 never have equaled 4 here and in some other instances I can think of, such as GUNRUNNER, for example. The motive is also clear in that regard.

Bad Cyborg said...

I can believe that they would try smuggling between 200 and 300 kilos of drugs on an ultralight - barely. The aircraft would be dangerously overweight but could fly. Or rather stagger across the sky and it would not be able to get much altitude at all. Any such operations would have to be in the far western end of the state.

I SERIOUSLY question that anybody detected an ultralight flight originating in Mexico being 200 miles into U.S. air space. First off why would it be that far north? The most efficient tactic would be to cross the border, dump the load and get the hell back across the border. Second, these are not long-range aircraft. They carry a very limited amount of fuel. Even if you added extra fuel tanks, you would be eating into payload. Gasoline weight around 6 lbs/gallon. Five gallons of fuel is 30 lbs of "product" you cannot carry.

Both humanitarian concerns and legal considerations prevent law enforcement from firing on the ultralights when they spot them.

"There are rules on deadly force," Gordon said, noting that the ultralight pilots wouldn't survive a strafing. "If you shoot them, you're going to kill them."

And killing them is a problem why? If they're up at night they're illegal - neither ultralights nor light-sport aircraft can lawfully fly at night. If they're carrying visible cargo in daylight they're definitely not regular Joes. But shooting them is problematic. There's very little to hit that could do significant damage. You'd have to hit the engine or the pilot to bring it down quickly.

Oh, and they are a LOT more complicated to operate than a motorcycle. To get a lightly loaded one up without crashing takes "some" training. Landing safely takes a good deal more. Getting one aloft overweight is not for the untrained - or the faint of heart.

One man's opinion.

Bad Cyborg X

Anonymous said...

They're over stating both the payload and range.

European ones used to be limited to 390KG max all up weight. Average height slim pilots are about 65 to 70 KG. Current regs are 450kg all up.

No two stroke weight shift machine has a range of 400 miles with any sort of decent payload, you'd need about 85 or 90kg of gas, plus 70kg for pilot, plus 150kg or more for the machine. You'd also need to be pretty close to sea level, Two cycle engines' power drops off badly above about 4,000 feet (with heavier, more fuel efficient 4 cycle engines can at least be leaned off at altitude, and you wouldn't get that high at max weight.

If theyre flying along highways, everyone will know, have you heard a Rotax at full load?! and at around 50MPH they would be easy enough to follow on the ground.

Anyone interested in easy to fly home builds with fantastic short field capability, check out some of the Fiesler Storch reproductions, and the Mignet "Flying Fleas", the fleas have some details like position of C of G which are absolutely critical to safety, but with stalling speeds of 12MPH! and they really can't get into a spin...

Mignet also designed some for the French Maqis, with folding wings and main wheel steering.

Anonymous said...

I think the photo is mis labelled.

If you come down in a high crop with a weight shift, the momentum of the wing will make it fall on its nose. I think that is what happened to that one, likely after an engine failure (two cycle engines are not very reliable, also, where are the 4 or 5 Jerry cans for the supposed 400 mile range?

Looking at the size of the tires, If I was going to be shifting heavy loads over long distances, I'd have swapped them for some lighter, more streamlined ones. Every ounce counts

Anonymous said...

Next up will be ban on possession and use of ultralights in certain designated areas, with penalties (state and fed felonies) for violation.

Dakota said...

"They don't have much of a reflective character" to catch radar signals.
Hmmmmmmm .... that's an interesting comment .....

Anonymous said...

"My understanding is that they are not all that difficult to drive. It's not much more difficult than a motorcycle,"

Good caption for the picture

Anonymous said...

"There's very little to hit that could do significant damage. You'd have to hit the engine or the pilot to bring it down quickly."

I would guess the rotor wash from just about any police or military helo would put one of those in the dirt. Wouldn't even require gunfire.

Pegasus said...

"My understanding is that they are not all that difficult to drive. It's not much more difficult than a motorcycle,"

Flying a weight shift is quite a lot different to riding a motorbike. It's also very different to flying with 3 axis controls.

There's been many a light aircraft pilot that scoffed at them as "toys", then set out to fly one and ended up in a heap of bent metal, and salved his ego with such Zumbo-isms as "they're dangerous! should be banned!" before going back to flying his spam can.

With a bike, you can put the brakes on and it will stop, you can see bumps in the road as you approach them, and you can slow down to match conditions, get too slow and you can just put your feet down.

Now take a 2 seat weight shift, fuelled up, pre flight checks done, ballast or passenger strapped in, engine nicely warmed up, free movement on all controls, power check, yip, it goes to full revs, all lined up on the runway into the wind, well, wind is at 2 o'clock, no other aircraft in the circuit, full power, once ground speed builds you push the bar forward and it lifts, first thing it does is weathervane into the wind - a bike doesn't do that, you adjust to keep it lined up with the runway and gradually bring the bar back to its neutral position as airspeed builds in the climb out.

A small thermal throws your right wing tip up hard - a bike doesn't do that, you heave it back level and on line.

Engine stops 100 feet up on climb out - sure, a bike engine can stop, it doesn't do it 100 feet in the air! a thousand or two thousand feet up would be much better! you'd have more time to pick a nice field.

Bar hard into your guts to keep airspeed, lump in your throat and heart beating like a front loading washing machine with a cinder block in it, you concentrate on keeping straight ahead, it's a field full of round bales with a clump of thorn bushes at the edge, but try to turn so close to the ground and you will stall!

Shit!, you realise you still have the bar in your guts, you feed it out to keep approach speed, another thermal tips your wings, you heave them level, bringing the bar in a little to keep airspeed up, the head wind decreases as you get closer to the ground, and you really don't want to stall, it's bumpy but you fight that bar to keep a line into the wind and between the bales, descent is so much faster with the prop stopped compared to what you're used to.

To be continued...

Pegasus said...


Thirty feet above the ground you get the wind gradient, decent is like a stone, ten feet above ground and you round out, bar forward in a series of tentative pushes, as you fly level, bleeding off speed, constantly correcting the little bumps you're still getting, eyes on those thorn bushes, damn, they're getting close, nothing else for it, bar gently back, you fly it on to the ground with a thump, bar back into your guts and you pull your guts in too, using the wing as a brake, you're still going too fast to use a the wheel brakes...

Like a motorbike?

Thank heavens they were thorn bushes, not big trees, power lines, a busy highway, or a deep river!

Have I been there?

Trust me, all the practice for engine failures during training and check flights with an instructor doesn't prepare you for how scary the sudden silence of a real one is.

At least with an ultralight you're doing badly if you bend it in an emergency landing, with a spam can, you've done well if you can walk away from it!

Ultralights are really weather dependent, you'll spend far more time sitting at the airfield drinking tea and talking than you ever will flying, a beautiful sunny day with puffy clouds will likely be too bumpy to be flyable, flying into cloud, mist or fog is almost certain death and any thunder clouds around will keep you on the ground with the hanger door closed, but, that said they're a lot of fun - if your nearest and dearest doesn't suddenly decide that it's competition to her!

Go get a few lessons if you're interested, to see how you like it. Weight shift and 3 axis each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Rotor wash and wake off a helicopter will tip a 747 over in the air! I've read of accidental close encounters between ultralights and fighters, they're nasty, ripped fabric, broken visor and bent tubes from the wake and jet blast.

Pegasus said...

A few other differences to a bike:

You are constantly watching for other things in the air, all around, up and down, constantly.

More power doesn't make you go faster, it makes you climb, less power and you descend.

To go faster, you change the trim to put the nose down, putting the nose up slows you.

Get too slow or try turning at low speed and you will get part of the wing to stop flying. You don't do that close to the ground!

Most ultralights are designed with the tips of the wings at a sufficiently low angle of attack compared to the wing roots, that it is very difficult to get the tips to stall without lots of buffeting from the inner sections stalling first. Most, not all. Some will allow a tip to stall and this causes a spin. Spins and stalls are the biggest killers of amateur pilots.

The typical spin has you flying at low speed, and trying to turn one way, but the plane suddenly turns the opposite way, descending like a failed stock market trader. If you have plenty of height to play with, lots of opposite rudder might save you.

The Rogallo wing used by hang gliders and weight shift ultralights, is self stabilising; go slow and the lift off the front section decreases, dropping the nose and restoring your speed, go too fast and the turned up (reflexed) trailing edge pulls the nose up. This is very important. Early versions didn't have the strongly reflexed trailing edge and going too fast caused the centre of lift to move further to the back of the wing, tipping the nose down causing it to enter a fatal dive. Most Rogallo wings have
"Leach" or "luff" lines from the king post to the trailing edge, on some wings they can be adjusted during flight to change the trim speed. Slackening them off beyond the designer's limit to gain more flying speed is usually fatal.

Conventional Bleriot lay out 3 axis control planes will generally stall and spin, with more or less eagerness and more or less chance of recovering. Canard layouts like the Rutan Vari Eze, won't stall or spin, unfortunately, they aren't set up for work out of farmer's fields.

Some older unconventional designs had some unconventional foibles, the original Mignet flying Fleas had some unusual diving behaviour (fatal -of course), but cured after some wind tunnel tests. This allowed the authorities to stop peasants from flying - Folk'll still tell you that the Mignet layout is a death trap because they can't demonstrate recovery from a spin - that you can't induce them to enter a spin in the first place is irrelevant to them!

Aviation Authorities the World over are as John Ross says in "Unintended Consequences" far more about AUTORITEH than they are about aviation.

A story I love, One of the pioneers of European mountain flying, Henri Giraud, was told off by the rather embarrassed manager of the airport where his plane was based, for landing on the taxi-way right next to the hangers.

The manager asked him to please land on the runway.

Next time he landed, he did as requested, and landed ON the runway.

Across it!