Jim Knoell guides a patrol helicopter along the border near Pembina, North Dakota. The border here is defined by a a narrow strip of grass between farm fields. The chopper is equipped with night vision equipment and video cameras for surveillance, but this afternoon the only activity is a few farmers wrapping up harvest.
Knoell says when he's on patrol, he looks for anything suspicious. He knows what's familiar. A farmer driving to his neighbor across the border for coffee isn't a threat to national security, but a truck he's never seen before could be. He'll swoop down and check the license plate, or he could land and check out a vehicle or person.
These aerial patrols will be a daily or even hourly routine in coming months, as security is stepped up. Jim Knoell has been flying the border in Minnesota and North Dakota for four years as part of a much smaller Border Patrol operation.
"Basically we had one helicopter and one airplane," says Knoell. "We would help the Border Patrol with requests. We were limited in where we could get to in a timely manner. Now it's changed dramatically."
The Customs and Border Protection Air Marine Wing is based in two large, nondescript hangers at the Grand Forks Airport where crews are building walls, stringing wires and installing high-tech equipment needed to support what's essentially a small military air operation.
The Border Protection Air Wing was created by combining Customs and Border Patrol air operations into a standalone unit. There are five bases along the northern border. The Grand Forks unit will patrol more than 800 miles of border from Montana to Michigan.
Mark Johnson, director of air operations, says when it's fully operational the unit will have a staff of nearly 50 people. They will fly fixed-wing planes, small patrol choppers, and the Blackhawk helicopter used by the military. By next spring a remote control aircraft will patrol the border.
"With that aircraft flying, able to cover large distances for a long period of time, it's literally giving us the 18,000-foot view that we can respond to from here as we need to," says Johnson.
The Air Wing might make life a little easier for Border Patrol agents watching the hundreds of miles of remote border, from North Dakota farm fields to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota.
“The more rocks you turn over, the more stuff you're going to find.”Air Wing pilot Mike Corcoran
For example, Johnson says, there are sensors in many locations along the border to detect vehicles or people, but it may take a Border Patrol agent on the ground a couple of hours of driving to check on a sensor alarm.
"We're going to be able to respond to those sensors in a fraction of the time," says Johnson. "We may be able to respond to a half-dozen of these sensors in the time it takes an agent to drive to them and look at them. That's going to be a real big plus."
The Border Protection Air Wing will also be available to help state and local law enforcement. Johnson say it's already been involved in several search and rescue missions.
"As long as what they ask us to do is not pulling away from what we may be doing as far as supporting national security, we'll be happy to help, says Johnson. "We've got several guys trained up with years and years of search and rescue experience on the southern border. OK, so it's not 115 degrees, it's 40 below. They'll adjust."
Officials expect an increase in arrests as a result of the aerial patrols. The most significant effect may be on drug smugglers.
"The more rocks you turn over, the more stuff you're going to find," says pilot Mike Corcoran. "We're there to do the best we can to support the boots on the ground, whatever flavor those boots are. We're going to have more aircraft out there supporting those people on the ground. I'd like to think we'll see more activity."
A ceremony Sept. 22 in Grand Forks to recognize the Border Protection Air Wing operation will mark the beginning of an unprecedented level of security along the northern border.