We fly the CH-149 Cormorant, go behind the scenes with Toll, visit the front lines of the migrant crisis, and much more.
A thousand miles southeast of Miami, Florida, tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Caribbean, is the island of Puerto Rico. Home to around 3.5 million people, it is relatively small, encompassing only about 3,500 square miles (9,065 square kilometers).
It is the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles island chain, which includes Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. It’s also just 450 miles north of South America and the shores of Venezuela and Columbia.
These neighbors have much in common with Puerto Rico, including a proud Latin culture and heritage. But many of these neighboring countries are home to criminal enterprises that produce and traffic large volumes of illegal substances, notably cocaine.
For those looking to move drugs into the United States, Puerto Rico provides a couple of important logistical enticements. First, unlike most islands in the Caribbean, which are independent island nations, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory; its residents are U.S. citizens and enjoy unrestricted travel and commerce with the mainland.
Puerto Rico is also home to a vibrant commercial freight industry, where shipments are handled in the same manner as they would be anywhere in the U.S. These factors make contraband distribution relatively easy once a smuggler has made it onto the island.
When drug smugglers first set their sights on Puerto Rico several decades ago, they brought with them their own brand of nastiness, which began to inflict deep wounds into the fabric of the tiny island. In 1986, in an effort to combat smuggling as well as homegrown criminal elements, the island’s state police, the Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), created a new bureau: the Puerto Rico Joint Forces of Rapid Action or FURA (Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción).
FURA was organized by integrating several specialized PRPD divisions, including offshore boat teams and divers, search-and-rescue (SAR), special weapons and tactics (SWAT), criminal intelligence, and the Air Services Division (ASD). Today, each component attached to the bureau has dual missions. The first supports PRPD’s traditional law enforcement activities throughout the island. The second works in conjunction with the bureau’s other divisions to “identify and counteract” illegal entries into the U.S.
Building the Force
The origins of the PRPD ASD go back to the early 1960s, when the agency acquired its first two helicopters: a Fairchild Hiller FH-1100 and a Hiller OH-23 Raven.
During the early years, there was very little in the way of serious police activity for the new aviation section. By the 1970s, however, the illegal drug trade from South America had found its way to Puerto Rico as traffickers figured out that the island was the ideal bridge for smuggling into the U.S.
By the 1980s, the drug trade had brought alarming waves of violence to the once-tranquil island. Every year the homicide and violent crime rates spiked to new levels as smugglers, dealers, and gangs battled for dominance.
“Puerto Rico is used by smugglers because it’s the entrance to the Caribbean and the United States,” said PRPD pilot Jose Rivera. “Once they get here they can easily move drugs like any local business using container ships.”
Shortly after FURA was established, funds were made available from the U.S. government for the purchase of a new fleet of helicopters. Three MBB/Kawasaki BK-117s, three MD500Es and a Bell 206L3 were acquired and pressed into service.
On New Year’s Eve, 1986, PRPD pilot Lt. Julio Colón, flying an MD500E, made international news when he, along with several other helicopters, responded to a deadly fire at the 21-story Dupont Plaza Hotel on San Juan’s waterfront. Panicked hotel guests climbed to the roof and upper floor balconies to escape the smoke and flame.
Colón and the other pilots took turns making precarious one-skid landings on a corner of the roof, on each trip plucking off small numbers of guests and transporting them to safety. (In the end, 98 people perished in the inferno, which was determined to have been intentionally set.) The rescues were a dramatic demonstration of the contributions that the PRPD’s new helicopters could make to public safety.
As the war on drugs escalated in the 1990s, PRPD received more helicopters and fixed-wing assets. These included a MD520N and five OH-58C Kiowas from the U.S. Army. A Beechcraft Super King Air BT200, complete with the latest surveillance hardware, was acquired thanks to the U.S.-sponsored High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program.
Two Bell 407s were added to the PRPD fleet in 2000, along with a Bell 412 equipped with an external rescue hoist. Two additional Bell 407s were acquired later that year, each equipped with a searchlight, camera/infrared technology, and video downlinking capability. New aircraft were also added to the fixed-wing fleet, including a Cessna 310, two Cessna 404s, and a Cessna T-41, a military version of the civil 172.
The multi-mission capabilities of the ASD became a valuable resource for the island. The unit developed swift-water, offshore, and other rescue capabilities, and, along with other PRPD divisions, made an impact on smuggling and related crime.
By the end of the decade, however, wheels began to turn as PRPD assessed its mission needs and the future of its aviation assets. The existing fleet was aging and there were instances in which many aircraft in the fleet were not mission-worthy. A strategy was developed to replace the fleet.
The Right Tools for the Job
In January 2014, PRPD took delivery of three Bell 429s and one Bell 407. The aircraft arrived sporting only the green zinc chromate exterior coating from the factory and a standard interior configuration. (The PRPD chose to keep three existing Bell 407s, which were refurbished and updated.)
“Even though the previous fleet served us well, we were seeking to standardize our fleet,” said Captain Glenn Gonzalez, San Juan Branch Director for the ASD. “It was necessary to choose a single manufacturer that would provide both a single-engine helicopter for the main tasks of daily basis air support and then a multi-engine helicopter capable of flight under IFR [instrument flight rules]. Based on our previous experience with Bell helicopters and its incredible performance, we made the decision to continue with the 407 add a medium twin model, the 429.”
The completion of the aircraft was entrusted to a local provider, Ecolift Corporation, a respected MRO shop and completion center located adjacent to the PRPD base at Isla Grande Airport in San Juan. The overall project was ambitious, requiring significant modification and fabrication, all with only 14 months to complete the work.
In the 429’s cockpit, the stock Garmin GNS430 was swapped out in favor of the larger GTN750 GPS/Nav/Comm touchscreen multi-function display (MFD). This necessitated modifying the position of a cluster of three analog gauges (airspeed, attitude, and altitude) to fit above the new MFD. Also added was an L-3 Avionics SkyWatch 497 traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), radar altimeter, and digital audio panel.
The rear cabin and how it was to be utilized was a separate problem entirely. PRPD operates its helicopters with a minimum crew of three: two pilots up front and a tactical officer in the rear cabin (a second tactical officer is often utilized for rescue missions).
This arrangement necessitated the development and integration of a custom mission console for the rear cabin to accommodate all the mission equipment: two monitors (camera and moving map), radio heads, audio panels, video recording/downlink, and light/camera controllers. The console also had to be easily removable so the aircraft could be quickly returned to the standard seating configuration.
Ecolift designers created a console that replaced the rear cabin center aft facing seat. It was built from a sturdy but lightweight honeycomb composite and secured using the existing seat mounting rails in the cabin floor. With all necessary mission equipment including two 12-inch ViewPoint HD monitors, it weighed in at just 70 pounds (32 kilograms).
The installation of some externally mounted police mission equipment required more engineering and fabrication. At the time, the 429 was fairly new to airborne law enforcement and there were limited offerings on the market in the way of mounting hardware for the Wescam MX-10 and Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun. The 429’s newly designed nose radome required that Ecolift develop its own structural nose mount for the MX-10 that integrated with the dovetail mount available from Meeker Aviation.
Because the PRPD 429s had the optional rear clamshell doors, the mounting of the SX-16 required creative thinking as well. The only mount on the market at the time placed the SX-16 at the base of the tail boom. With the clamshell doors, however, a large light mounted in that location created an obstacle for personnel. An alternate location far aft on the belly proved to be a better solution.
The 429s are special mission platforms, each equipped with an external hoist for rescue work and also capable for SWAT deployments. “I refer to the 429 as ‘my Bell 407 on steroids,'” said Gonzalez. “Its versatility, dynamism, reliability, the latest systems with the most advanced technology and the available power, makes it the ideal model for any type of mission.”
The smaller 407s are utilized primarily for the urban police mission but are equipped for fast rope or rappel deployments of rescue personnel. They are each equipped with pop-out floats, a Spectrolab SX-5 Starburst searchlight, and an interior configuration similar to the 429.
Two OH58As that were acquired at the end of 2015 from the U.S. Army are used for training and have a police mission similar to the 407. Because they lack some of the modern tactical equipment found in the newer aircraft, they are limited to day visual flight rules (VFR) and no over-water operations.
Currently, the PRPD also operates two fixed-wing aircraft, each with its own mission specialties. A Cessna 206 Turbo Stationair is a daytime patrol aircraft, with its primary responsibility looking for suspicious activity related to smuggling along the island’s coastline.
Meanwhile, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron G58 is tasked with mostly nighttime missions, often farther than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the coast. Under the cover of darkness, the high-tech capabilities of the aircraft’s belly-mounted FLIR Star SAFIRE 230-HD Multi-Sensor (low-light and infrared camera) are used to locate, assess, and photograph vessels that may be involved in smuggling.
A United Front
Today, the PRPD ASD operates from two bases, one located at the Isla Grande Airport in San Juan on the north side of the island, and another at the Mercedita Airport in Ponce in the south. These bases and aircraft operate around the clock, seven days a week.
Between the two bases there are 94 officers assigned. Among them are 37 pilots (30 helicopter pilots and seven fixed-wing pilots), 28 tactical flight officers, four aircraft mechanics, 18 personnel assigned to internal security, and eight assigned to administrative duties.
The drug smuggling business has evolved in recent years. PRP fixed-wing pilot Jose Fernandez explained, “There are no more [go-fast] cigarette boats like the ’80s and ’90s. Now they are trying to blend in with the legitimate recreational or commercial boats, pretending to be fishing or diving. But they usually aren’t dressed right or have the wrong kind of fishing equipment.”
When a fixed-wing crew spots a suspicious vessel or activity — a daily occurrence — they relay information to the PRPD maritime unit. This unit responds with an appropriate vessel from any one of a dozen bases that ring the island, along with an ASD helicopter, to effect the interdiction.
As the closest U.S. border to South America, Puerto Rico will always be a temptation for those intent on trafficking contraband. Said Gonzalez, “As they find new ways to infiltrate our border perimeter, we’ll keep working as a team to identify their strategies and force them to find new strategies and locations. So yes, Puerto Rico is still a hotbed for the drug trade and smugglers from South America, but our resources and our teamwork are now stronger than ever.”