The drone of small aircraft is well known to anyone living just west of Calgary -- but it seems a different kind of buzz may be fuelling single-engine flights at Springbank Airport.
It comes as shock even for those familiar with the busy airstrip, but Springbank is suspected to be a major hub for drug smuggling to and from the United States.
At least that’s what Canada’s Senate believes.
“It’s a primary drug entry point into the country,” Senator Colin Kenny told the Sun.
“It’s a traffic way to the United States for marijuana from B.C. and all sorts of narcotics and guns coming back.”
The ex-chair of the National Security and Defence committee -- a position the Liberal senator recently lost as Chamber control went Tory -- Kenny says Springbank has long been seen as a smuggler’s dream.
With no permanent customs staff, Kenny said the bustling airport is a natural place for flying drug mules to land, and a long-discussed concern for senators sitting in Ottawa.
“How long does it take a customs officer to get from Calgary to Springbank?” said Kenny.
“When you go to land, you call up, and the Custom’s officer decides if he’s going to make the half-hour drive to Springbank or not to do the inspection.”
That assessment is accurate -- officials with Canada Border Services Agency confirm that despite 362 flights arriving from the U.S. in 2010, Springbank still has no permanent customs office.
“We’re not in a position to provide permanent service at Springbank,” said Lisa White, CBSA spokeswoman.
“We have to carefully weigh and respect our security responsibility with fiscal restraints.”
Flights inbound from the U.S. are only required to notify customs of their arrival two hours before landing, along with the names of the pilot and passengers aboard.
If there’s any reason for suspicion, a customs official will drive in from Calgary to check things out -- otherwise, it’s a simple Welcome to Canada, and the plane is free to land and unload.
Kenny said the lax Springbank security is a concern in Ottawa: A few years ago, a group of senators studied Alberta border security,and Kenny says Springbank was raised as a problem spot.
“We came out here and spent a day talking to people about Springbank and it’s a huge issue, huge -- people use it as a natural place to land,” he said.
RCMP Sgt, Patrick Webb confirms that Springbank has been on police radar in the past as a departure point for narcotics -- but he says there’s no way of knowing how many shipments slip under law enforcement radar.
“I know we’ve investigated drugs leaving that location, but how can you know how many are missed?” said Webb.
“Some farmer could have a landing strip somewhere, so it’s certainly not just Springbank that’s a potential problem.”
In 2009, officials at Springbank were alerted by RCMP about the arrests of two private pilots who were discovered running drugs across the border.
And in 2006, Calgarian Daniel Raymond LeClerc was nabbed while refuelling in California and found to have $30 million worth of cocaine in his Canada-bound plane.
Whether such shipments are ever unloaded on the Springbank tarmac is a question even the senate security committee can’t answer.
Kenny said it would make more sense to ditch the drugs early and simply land at Springbank, clear of criminal evidence and suspicion from others using the airport.
“You start flying through the mountains and it’s incredibly difficult to detect a light aircraft,” said Kenny.
“Now, with GPS devices, you don’t even have to land with your drugs at Springbank -- you just push them out the door onto a farmer’s field and have a colleague pick up what you’ve smuggling very easily.”
That’s not only possible, it’s actually pretty easy.
Though he believes the senator may be exaggerating about Springbank’s role as a drug-smuggling hub, airport general manager Larry Stock says a drug dump would be simple for any pilot.
“That is possible -- and you wouldn’t even have to descend, because there are areas where the terrain rises high enough,” said Stock.
An unexplained descent or a suspicious flight path would show up on radar -- and Stock says current rules require all planes to file and follow specific flight plans.
He wonders why Springbank is high on the Senate’s radar and not an airport like Abbotsford, which is closer to the U.S. and to the B.C. drug market.
“Springbank to the U.S. is much further than Abbotsford to Washington,” said Stock.
Of course, the custom rules apply to contraband coming into Canada -- when it comes to shipping drugs out, Stock concedes that there’s nothing to stop a pilot from packing his plane full.
Neither the U.S. or Canada checks the cargo of a private plane before take off, which means anyone wanting to take off from Springbank or another small strip with a load of local weed, would have no problems at all.
“That’s certainly possible,” said Stock.
Low, slow, and impossible to detect.
It used to be that an international drug smuggler’s job was a simple matter of learning to fly a small plane and then packing the hold full of narcotics.
With endlessly valleys, mountain ranges and remote wilderness between Alberta, B.C. and the northwest states, flying unnoticed across the border was all too easy, especially at night.
Sometimes, things would go wrong: In 2006, RCMP found 109 kilograms of cocaine in a small plane that crashed near Okanagan Lake after running out of fuel.
The dead pilot, from Vernon, had rented the plane from a flight school in Kamloops and crossed the U.S. border to score the coke.
He was probably confident he’d get away with it -- and had the pilot checked the gas tank, he would have.
These days, a smuggler’s life is anything but easy.
Over the past decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has joined the war on drug trafficking after senators in that country raised the alarm over the number of small planes crossing from Canada.
The same high-tech spy gear used in war zones like Afghanistan is now watching for unauthorized Cessnas and Pipers, with unmanned drones buzzing the border from Washington to Minnesota.
And in February, the U.S. Senate requested that the military bolster the anti-drug drones with radar,to further crack down on what they said is a growing problem of using low-flying aircraft in drug trafficking.
The same radar was tested in Washington state from 2005 to 2008, opening U.S. eyes to the sheer volume of low-flying aircraft that hadn’t been previously identified.
Though similar concerns are being expressed by senators in Canada, including Colin Kenny, officials in the States actually have the manpower and money to tackle the problem.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown told reporters that a Canadian border easily exploited by airborne drug runners is unacceptable.
“We have the technology to prevent drug smuggling from low-flying aircraft, now we need to use it,” said Brown, of Ohio.
-- With files from Roy Clancy
"Another opinion article"
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Calgary's Springbank Airport Suspected To Be Major Hub For Drug Smuggling