Feds plan drone base at Marfa airport

MARFA – The Department of Homeland Security and the Texas National Guard plan to site a large-drone base at the Marfa airport to patrol the Texas-Mexico border from the sky. In an email to “Marfa airport stakeholders” last month, Presidio County Airports Manager Chase Snodgrass wrote that the U.S. government, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol, and the Texas National Guard intend to request a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate an Unmanned Aerial System at the Marfa airport and along the border. To address safety and collision avoidance, airspace from Marfa to the border could fall under a Special Security Initiative restricted area that would work similar to a Temporary Flight Restriction, Snodgrass wrote. Typical sorties would launch between 9-10pm daily and land between 4-5am daily for night operations only, and the airport would be closed to general aviation during those times. The affected airspace, he noted, would likely be closed to manned aircraft when active, including a corridor from the airport to border operations areas. About seven to nine soldiers would deploy for the Mar-fa mission, Snodgrass was told, with two soldiers on duty at a time for launch and return. They would likely lodge at local hotels. The mission would purchase aviation fuel locally and lease hangar space if available. “The following details have been provided verbally,” Snodgrass said in his email. “As of this writing no written correspondence has been provided.” During a telephone interview on Tuesday, he said a member of the Texas National Guard contacted him in mid-November, and he hasn’t been contacted since. These aren’t little drones sold at retail stores for aerial photography or applied in agriculture and industry to monitor crops, animal herds, and construction, but Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) used by the military. Customs and Border Protection has had a UAV program for several years. The aircraft are typically 11 feet long with 14-foot wingspans and weigh 186 pounds empty, capable of carrying a payload of 200 pounds, outfitted with a forward-looking infrared camera and a daytime TV camera to send images back to its base.

They can reach a speed of 127mph and cruise at about 80mph and stay aloft for six to nine hours at an altitude of up to 15,000 feet, but typically fly between 4,000-7,000 feet.

Takeoffs are achieved by a trailer-mounted pneumatic launcher and land conventionally on a fixed tricycle landing gear, captured with an arrestor cable.

A ground-based tracking and command center at the airport would fly the UAVs and monitor its flight with radar and a transponder carried on the aircraft

It’s unclear when the mission would begin and how many UAVs would be stationed at the airport.

To get more information on the mission, the Sentinel initially contacted Roger Maier, the El Paso-based Public Affairs Specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

He referred comment to 2nd Lt. Caitlin Rourk with the Texas Military Department of Public Affairs in Austin. The Sentinel sent Rourk about 20 questions about the mission by email last week, and then traded subsequent emails and telephone calls several times about answering the questions or conducting a telephone interview. Rourk said the best she could do was provide a prepared statement.

It’s from Laura L. Lopez, Press Secretary and PAO Manager for the Texas Military Department in Austin: “The Texas National Guard operates in support of the Department of Homeland Security and other partner agencies in a combined local, state and federal effort to deter criminal activity along the Texas-Mexico border. I would refer you to DHS for any further questions about the Southwest Border mission.”

On Wednesday, this statement came from a CBP spokesperson: “The National Guard support folds into an established multi-layered effort to target illicit networks trafficking in people, drugs and illegal weapons and money. Their support allows CBP personnel to focus on law enforcement to secure the border against those threats. National Guard continues to provide air, reconnaissance, operational, maintenance and logistical support. Ultimately, the mission gives us more eyes on cameras, more aircraft in the air surveilling and more boots on the ground patrolling.”

Some Marfa pilots and airplane owners voiced numerous concerns about the mission, especially a lack of information at this point. Some spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was suggested that the mission be based in Presidio, about five miles from the border rather than Marfa at 60 miles from the border and that there’s less general aviation traffic in Presidio than Marfa to interfere with. They worried about the arrival and departures of air ambulances or emergency landings by general aircraft during the restricted times. More than one brought up the matter of “mission creep,” that the two hours per day per 24-hour period would evolve into more mission hours per day, even daylight flights.

“Although the program currently calls for night operations, I can see the UAS operations evolving into daytime ops as well,” said one Marfa pilot who asked not to be identified.

“To restrict airspace is a big deal,” one pilot said, “especially in a corridor all the way to the border,” which could affect tourism. “Some jets come in at night and that could affect that traffic.”

Marfa pilot John McCrory said the mission should be based at the Presidio airport. “It’s closer to the border,” adding that other Marfa aviators he’s talked with about the mission oppose it being based in Marfa.

Another Marfa general aviator said he’s talked with other local pilots and all are “universally opposed” to the mission.

But he added that if the mission also helped save lives of migrants getting lost in the Chihuahuan Desert, that’s a good thing.

He wondered whether Presidio County, which owns and operates both Presidio and Marfa airports, and the Marfa airport stakeholders, would have a say in the matter.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said no federal government or Texas National Guard officials have contacted her and she was made aware of the mission by getting the email from Snodgrass.

John Williams, a retired Border Patrol pilot from Marfa who still flies said he isn’t concerned about the mission.

“It probably won’t interfere with any (air) traffic,” he said. “They’ll launch and return.”

If an air ambulance has to land or an airplane has to make an emergency landing during the restricted time, the mission would let them, said Williams, who served in Border Patrol air operations from 1960 to 1988, when the flying missions were overseen by the Border Patrol. It’s now managed by Customs and Border Protection air and marine operations.

“This is nothing to get excited about,” he said. “If you don’t use the airport you won’t know about or see them take off or land.”

Williams added, “The new technology is fantastic. It’s a new way to patrol. They can stay up 10-12 hours at a time. We’d fly about four hours, land and refuel and maybe go back out. The work has changed, they have to evolve. This high tech shows you how avionics and electronics have advanced in 30 years. The job has changed a lot, it’s much more sophisticated.”

Snodgrass, the retired Presidio Border Patrol station chief who also is a pilot and airplane owner, said he’s not taking a stand on whether the mission should be located in Presidio or Marfa, since there would be an economic benefit from the drone base to either community.

He said he is worried about the size of the restricted area that could deter air traffic to Marfa.

“No question, Marfa gets more traffic, double what Presidio gets. I don’t think it will hurt jet traffic, but maybe all others. Launching at night and coming back in the morning, there’s very little traffic at either airport at those hours.”

He did voice concern that should the county oppose the mission, a $3 million federal and state aviation grant to rehabilitate the main Marfa runway could be in jeopardy.

And some Marfa airport stakeholders have told him that if the county doesn’t have a say in the matter, “let’s work with them (the government). Maybe it’s a smarter path to take than be adversarial” and more benefits could come to both airports.

Another pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity, proffered a series of questions, comments, and concerns:

“The government would be commandeering a county asset without approval and the airport has, for decades, operated on the very functional basis of sharing the facility with a variety of users, 24/7. This user will close the airport to all users when they use it. Think air ambulance, among all many other users denied access.

“There is the valid concern that this user has planned from the beginning to close the airport for a much longer period each day, but is attempting to gain approval for this use by presenting it initially as a very minor use,” he said.

“If an airplane arrives at Marfa low on fuel and is denied access to land, this could result in a crash. An air traffic route of many miles will be completely closed to all other aircraft, where the drones travel from Marfa airport to the border. The drones have no pilot to look outside for other traffic as typical airplanes do; collision hazard is higher.”

He, too, suggested siting the mission elsewhere. “There exists many more and better locations for this operation. The Presidio airport is a very quiet airport and is on the border. The Van Horn airport is also a very quiet airport, is much closer to the border, is on an interstate and closer to El Paso. There are many private airstrips along the border zone that would likely welcome the activity and income.”

He worried about the mission’s effect on the general public. “This could pose annoying drone traffic over Marfa or other inhabitants of Presidio County. Does the community approve of the increased low level air traffic? Does the community approve of this heightened approach to border security?”

Snodgrass, who worked the border for 20 years as a Border Patrol agent, said he does question the scope of the mission and how it came about.

“We don’t have smugglers operating at night. It’s too dark and too quiet,” Snodgrass said. “It’s a political purpose, not a strategic purpose and allows the president to show he’s doing something” about the border.