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Images of DEA in the Air
Keeping Them Flying
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.

DEA Aircraft
Some of the 100 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters DEA uses and maintains.

Operation Snowcap
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
The 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
The Beginning
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 Skymaster.

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 Agent/Pilot.

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.

The 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 weather changes.

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.

Additional Information:
DEA Aviation Division
DEA Foreign Field Divisions
DEA El Paso Intelligence Center