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."