The crew of the National Guard helicopter that crashed into the Imperial County desert this week lacked the law enforcement training and flight preparation necessary to safely conduct the kind of anti-smuggling mission they were undertaking at night, several private and law enforcement helicopter pilots said.
Pilots for the U. S. Customs Service, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department aerial unit and two private helicopter companies said they believed the three-member National Guard crew was ill-prepared to attempt the kind of nighttime maneuver that led to their fiery deaths, as well as those of five sheriff’s deputies aboard the aircraft.
“These folks aren’t trained specifically for this,” said John Underwood, operations officer for the Aviations Operations Center-West of the Customs Service.
“There is a great difference between law enforcement work and doing military assaults,” Underwood said. “You’ve got to say they were slightly out of their realm by doing this.”
Officers Defend Decision
National Guard officers have defended their decision to launch the ill-fated flight last Monday, but said afterward that they were considering changes to give their pilots more time for daytime study of the areas that they will be asked to fly in at night for drug interdiction.
The UH-1H helicopter was on its maiden anti-drug mission when it made a pass through a remote canyon, clipped static lines strung 20 feet above 500,000-kilowatt transmission lines, and hurtled into a hillside about 63 miles east of San Diego. Killed in the crash were the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Geoffrey L. Nett, his two crewmen and five sheriff’s deputies from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Imperial counties.
Authorities have said that the helicopter--on loan for a week as part of a secret anti-drug program called Operation Border Ranger--made the pass through the canyon to close in on a parked car believed to belong to a suspected drug smuggler. The vehicle actually belonged to a Border Patrol unit that was watching the canyon for illegal aliens.
Underwood said the decision by Nett and his crew to close in on the vehicle reflected their military flight training, which emphasizes confrontation.
Element of Surprise
Given the same situation, he said, a Customs pilot trained in law enforcement techniques would have relied more on the element of surprise, opting not to make the pass through the canyon and scare away the suspect with the sound of the helicopter rotor blades. Instead, he would likely retreat out of earshot and call in patrol cars to make the arrest, Underwood said.
“It’s got to boil down to just senses, what you have been trained to do,” he said. “One thing that comes to mind, helicopter-wise, is sometimes you just don’t blatantly go in, whereas in the Army you just go in.”
Other helicopter pilots said the nighttime flight was especially risky for Nett and his crew because they were not familiar enough with the terrain.
“All areas are dangerous at night, in my estimation, especially when you are not familiar with the area,” said Lt. George Kneeshaw, commander of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department helicopter detail. “We make it a practice in our agency that nobody flies at night until they’ve flown a long time in that area in the daytime.
“I would say that those guys probably had a lot of training in mountain flying. . ,” Kneeshaw said. “But, in addition to that, you have to be familiar with the area that they were in. Every area has its own obstacles.”
Mel Cain, who operates Skydance Helicopters at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, said he has flown over the area of the crash many times. “Myself, I know that area fairly well and, boy, I don’t think you’d catch me in there at night, unless it was really an emergency,” he said.
Ivor Shier, vice president of Flight Trails Helicopter, based at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, added: “The bottom line is we just don’t go and fly around mountains and valleys at night without a good knowledge of where we are flying. And you don’t go flying in the shadows of mountains.”
Maj. Steve Mensik, a National Guard spokesman, said Nett and his crew were considered fully capable of conducting the night mission.
“We wouldn’t have had a night flight if we weren’t comfortable with the skills of the pilot and what we thought we were going to encounter,” he said. “We don’t put people in harm’s way.”
Mensik said that Nett and his crew early Monday took a two-hour aerial tour of the 30-mile stretch along the international border to familiarize themselves with it before their shift later that night.
‘I Don’t Know the Answer’
“What gets real difficult to answer is, did they overfly that particular spot where the accident occurred? And I don’t know the answer to that one,” Mensik said.
Mensik said planners are considering ways to improve radio contact between National Guard helicopters and cooperating law enforcement agencies on the ground. Although the Border Patrol is involved in Operation Border Ranger, there was no communication between the helicopter and the Border Patrol vehicle at the bottom of the canyon, authorities have said.
Underwood of the Customs Service said Thursday that his agency, which flies regularly along the international border, was not informed about the anti-drug blitz until the previous Friday--late notice that Underwood said was “disappointing” to him.
“We don’t want someone out there doing the same thing we’re doing when we don’t know they are there,” Underwood said. “Obviously, that can become messy.”
Meanwhile, the National Guard announced Thursday that it has requested 33 more helicopters from the Defense Department to use in the border war against drugs.