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Eyes in the sky: Air Sector of Customs and Border Protection

Eyes in the sky: Air Sector of Customs and Border Protection

CREATED Feb 23, 2013

Reporter: Jennifer Waddell
Web Producer: Ina Ronquillo

SELLS, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - KGUN9 On Your Side would like to introduce you to Customs and Border Protection Pilot Adolfo Hernandez.

Just after 8:00 a.m., we joined Hernandez as he started his day in the sky.

On a beautiful winter day, the scenery from above changes quickly -- from the congested confines of the Tucson city limits, to the wide open spaces.

As soon as we're out of Tucson airspace, Hernandez checks in to see where he's needed.  This mission takes us to Sells.

On the way, Jennifer Waddell has a chance to talk with Hernandez, a 16-year veteran who started as a ground agent.

"It's exciting, I enjoy helping the BP agents," says Hernandez. "They rely on the air support a lot. We do make their job easier when we find them."

That's the primary job for the Air Sector of Customs and Border Protection: back up Border Patrol agents on the ground.

"I see the big picture," said Hernandez.

But it's not without risk.  Hernandez tells us about the time one illegal immigrant nearly brought down his chopper.

"One of the males in the group was so mad at me he picked up a rock. Luckily I was high enough that he missed, but he could've done a lot of damage if he'd hit the blades."

Then there's the danger to pilots, agents and officers: the unseen.

"The smugglers are the ones you have to watch out for and the scouts. All they do is watch our movements," he said.

Hernandez and the rest of CBP and Border Patrol are constantly adapting.

We arrive at the first mission, assisting seven to ten Border Patrol agents with a group of illegal immigrants.

"This is where they jumped the group and a few of them scattered."

Agents already have 12 people. Hernandez' job is to find the rest of the group.  He spends about an hour looking for needles in a haystack.

"You do need a lot of patience," he says.

Hernandez flew over the same spot several times before spotting two. As they approach, you can see how hard it is to see. One agent and two immigrants.

This is a team effort.

Hernandez is the eye in the sky. He loves his job and the challenges that come with it.

"It is a difficult task because of the terrain," he said.

As Hernandez leaves to refuel, we see the side of a mountain.  A steep incline he's just navigated for an hour, while at the same time surveying the land for those entering this country illegally.

This story is part of a KGUN9 On Your Side special called Arizona Border: On The Front Lines.