By Tech. Sgt. Catharine Schmidt
New York Air National Guard
The unit, based in Latham, flies the UH-72A Lakota, supporting Counterdrug's mission and local law enforcement agencies in keeping drugs off the streets in New York State.
"The aircraft seats about five people in the back," said a pilot with the unit. "It also has a great open cockpit and cabin so aerial reconnaissance is very easy in this aircraft because of the good panoramic view that we have."
The helicopter is also equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, giving pilots the ability to see clearly in both day and night, as well as a search light capable of lighting up a football field.
"We support local law enforcement, whether it be local sheriffs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, state police ... any type of law enforcement agency that gives a request through the Counterdrug office, we can support for a number of things."
While the unit has the ability to support local law enforcement agencies with just about any kind of aerial reconnaissance missions, its primary mission during harvest season is eradication.
"This is when you can really start to see the plants," said the pilot. "We'll pick up a law enforcement agent (LEA) and bring them up in their respective jurisdiction areas. We go around to either points they are familiar with or points they have gotten tips from, and we basically just look on the ground for marijuana."
With the aircraft's camera capabilities, they can zoom in on a plant to see exactly what it is, and the infrared capability also helps to spot marijuana plants.
"If we see it, we either mark it for eradication at a later time or we talk to (law enforcement agents) on the ground and lead them to where it is. (The LEAs) will then pull it and destroy it."
While the crews may not find what they're looking for during some missions, other missions make up for that. One day a mission could produce nothing, and the very next day, the crew will find exactly what they've been looking for and sometimes more.
"A lot of people are moving their plants inside," said another pilot. "But when we do find fields of marijuana, just like that, someone's annual income is gone."
The support the aviation unit has given law enforcement hasn't gone unnoticed.
"They really appreciate us coming out to aid in their role to keep their counties clean," said the pilot. "We're helping them keep drugs off the street and out of schools, and they love when we are able to come out. It's a very good relationship."
Aviation is just one of Counterdrug's many programs to keep drugs off the street. According to the National Guard Bureau's Counterdrug Web site, aircrews, using both fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets, have supported law enforcement Counterdrug operations nationwide with aerial observation, photo imagery, full motion video and interagency communications since 1991.
As of Aug. 23, New York Counterdrug Task Force as a whole has supported in the seizure of more than 8,300 pounds of drugs over the fiscal year. Drugs seized include cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. Of that, 3,036 pounds of cultivated marijuana was destroyed with Counterdrug's help, with a street value of more than $12.5 million.