The maintenance of all the aircraft in the
Aviation Division is done by contract employees. This is a photo of
the Service hanger. The facility is able to service, repair or modify
anything the Air Wing flies.
Some of the 100 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters
DEA uses and maintains.
An example of successful operation that the Air Wing was a vital participant
in was Operation Snowcap. This was a major, multi-year operation in
the Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala from 1987 to 1995. Operation Snowcap's
goal was to stop cocaine production at its sources before it could
be smuggled into the United States.
||DEA in the Air
Aviation Division of the DEA is a small but vital unit of the agency.
It provides "eyes in the sky" day and night. The Aviation Division
can move Special Agents and personnel to remote jungle areas or track
drug-carrying vehicles driven on the ground. The Aviation Division
is also known as the Air Wing.
All of DEA's pilots, numbering approximately 125, are Special Agents.
These pilots fly over 100 aircraft from the OH-6 helicopter to jets.
While it is a small non-military government "air force," it is a vital
tool in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.
History of the Air Wing
In 1971, the Bureau of Narcotic
and Dangerous Drugs created an aviation program with one plane, one
Special Agent/pilot and a budget of $58,000. The concept of an Air
Wing to support drug law enforcement was the idea of Marion Joseph,
an experienced former U.S. Air Force pilot and a veteran Special Agent
stationed in Atlanta, Georgia. For a number of years, Special Agent
Joseph noted that police were using planes for surveillance, search
and rescue and the capturing of fugitives. His analysis led him to
conclude that a single plane "could do the work of five agents in
five cars on the ground."
As drug trafficking increased nationwide, it became evident that it
had no boundaries and that law enforcement needed aviation capabilities.
Although Joseph convinced his superiors that the idea of an air wing
was a good one, there were no funds for such a program. Special Agent
Joseph then turned to the U.S. Air Force. Under the Bailment Property
Transfer Program which allows the military to assist other government
entities, he secured one airplane- a surplus Vietnam War-era Cessna
The benefit of the air support to drug enforcement became immediately
apparent, and the requests for planes grew rapidly. By the time DEA
was formed in 1973, there were 41 Special Agent/Pilots and 24 planes
operating in several major U.S. cities. Most of these planes were
single engine, piston-driven, fixed-wing airplanes that were used
mostly for domestic surveillance.
Becoming a Special Agent/Pilot
All Special Agent/Pilots must complete the requirements
and training of a Special Agent first. A Special Agent must spend
two years in a field division before applying to become a Special
Agent/Pilot. Specific aviation experience is required for all applicants.
The accepted candidate goes through a number of training programs
that will give them the flying, survival and intelligence gathering
skills needed to safely and successfully perform the duties of a Special
DEA's Special Agent/Pilots receive both flight and academic training.
Some of the different types of training include water survival, mountain
flying, weather systems and aviation physiology.
Aviation Division flies tens of thousands of hours each year to fulfill
its diverse mission. To keep track and control of all the Air Wing
aircraft in the air and those of suspects, a high-tech monitoring
center is located at Alliance. It tracks the plane's flight path to
its destination. It has the latest weather reports from all over the
world in order to plan operations and advise pilots in the air of
The Planes and Helicopters of the DEA
The DEA Air Wing has over 100 fixed-wing planes
and helicopters. It is a mismatched group of aircraft due to the variety
of sources for the aircraft. Many were transfers from the military,
some are seizures from drug dealers under the asset forfeiture program,
a few are trades with manufacturers and a few are direct purchases.
Today the Air Wing flies over 15 different types of aircraft.
Foreign Field Divisions
DEA El Paso Intelligence Center