It seemed like a normal enough flight to David Brodsky -- a 1,800-mile hop from Concord, Calif., to Boonville, Mo., in his uncle's plane.
But when the Missouri man and his uncle landed in March, they were met on the tarmac by four unmarked police cars. Asking to search his plane, police officers told Mr. Brodsky they got a tip he may be smuggling large amounts of marijuana.
Their source? The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division, which appears to have launched a program to track and search private planes flying domestically in the hopes of making drug busts.
"They think people are flying pot out of California," Mr. Brodsky said. "They're casting a wide net and hoping to catch something -- and trampling people's civil rights in the process."
Over the past year, advocates for amateur aviators say they've seen a troubling spike in Customs and Border Protection searches, which appear to target mom-and-pop pilots traveling in border states. While Pittsburgh flights near Canada and elsewhere haven't gotten the same scrutiny as those in the Southwest, local pilots say they've heard word of the trouble and are preparing themselves.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the AAA of the airplane set, says its members have reported more than 40 searches in recent months, both by CBP agents and local police.
Many follow the same pattern: Having tracked the flight electronically, federal agents meet the pilots at the runway, demand their papers and say they need to take a look around the planes, sometimes with drug-sniffing dogs.
But others read like a scene from an action flick. One pilot reportedly told the association he was tailed by a military helicopter and surrounded by armed agents upon landing. Another said he was awakened and taken out to the airfield in the middle of the night after officers traced his license plate from an earlier flight.
"These are people just out flying their planes, and suddenly they're stopped and there's a Black Hawk on the ground," AOPA spokesman Steve Hedges said. "Some of these stops have been going on a few years. But this has been slowly gaining momentum, and it seems like in the last year or so it's picked up."
Search for answers
The advocacy group has asked for answers, filing more than 40 Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Homeland Security, the border protection organization's parent agency.
So far, they've gotten little response. Border officials won't confirm nor deny a strategy of targeting private pilots, though pulled-over aviators say agents on the ground acknowledge there's an increased push.
When contacted, Jenny L. Burke, branch chief of Customs' media relations division, issued a statement:
"CBP's primary mission is to protect the American public while facilitating lawful travel and trade. This includes ensuring that all persons and cargo enter the U.S. legally and safely through official ports of entry, preventing the illegal entry into the U.S. of persons and contraband at and between [points of entry], ensuring the safe and efficient flow of commerce into the United States, and enforcing trade and tariff laws and regulations."
But there's little question searches are happening. According to a letter sent to AOPA by CBP commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski, Customs and Border Protection is relying on a legal provision that allows federal officers to make "ramp checks" of landing aircraft, verifying their pilot's paperwork is in order and the aircraft is in good shape.
"In the course of conducting a pilot certificate inspection, facts may arise meriting further investigation or search to the extent authorized under the Constitution and consistent with federal law," Mr. Winkowski wrote.
His argument doesn't fly, AOPA argues. For years, ramp checks have been the responsibility of Federal Aviation Administration officials, who are qualified to inspect aircraft. As far as the association can tell, the FAA hasn't asked CBP for any help.
Federal law also requires agents on the ground to have a justifiable reason for searching an aircraft, including an "immediate suspicion" that the pilot is dangerous or is harboring a passenger that means to do harm.
Overall, AOPA says the authority to conduct a ramp check doesn't give a federal agent license to search an airplane further if it's unrelated to its safe operation.
"I have nothing against fighting the War on Drugs," said Thomas Zecha Jr., AOPA's manager of aviation security. "But it's still the United States. You're going to have to do it in a more precise way than casting a wide net."
AOPA has asked lawmakers to look into the searches; on Monday, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., took up the cause.
Writing a letter to the U.S. inspector general, Mr. Graves demanded answers on the searches by Nov. 1.
"If it is determined that CBP is operating outside of its authority," he wrote, "then I request that your office ensure that proper oversight is applied and the agency is prevented from continuing this practice."
Searches by federal border agents is more a concern in the Southern states, where CBP has apparently focused its enforcement efforts. But even in Pittsburgh, which hasn't seen the same attention from federal agents, local pilots are aware of the problem.
Vincent Smith once flew to Canada regularly as a salesman, and he still does now and then. The Butler County man owns two small planes -- a Cessna 182 and a 172 -- and he's become enough of a regular face at the Erie International Airport that customs officials usually wave him through with minimal trouble.
That said, he's taken note of the AOPA's dispatches, looking over their quick-reference guide to handling a CBP search.
"It is alarming," Mr. Smith said. "It just seems to be invading into the private lives of citizens. Under the Constitution, we have a fundamental right to freedom and going about our business."
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Andrew McGill is a reporter for the Post-Gazette: email@example.com, 412-263-1497. David Patch is a reporter for The Blade: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6094. First Published September 15, 2013 4:00 AM