The federal government opened a base Friday where airplanes, helicopters and high-speed boats will set out to intercept terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants trying to cross the nation's vast northeastern border.
The new Air and Marine Operations facility, formerly an Air Force base in New York's northeastern corner, is one of five that will be responsible for tightening surveillance along the U.S.-Canadian border and will cover a heavily wooded stretch from western New York to Maine.
Department of Homeland Security helicopter pilot Dennis Del Grosso said agents are looking for anything, from low-flying planes trying to skirt radar to drug runners riding snowmobiles.
"Vehicles, boats and airplanes that carry drugs or illegal immigrants can just as easily carry terrorists or weapons of mass destruction," said Charles E. Stallworth II, director of Air and Marine Operations.
Two planes and two helicopters will be based at the new facility, along with about 40 people. Boats will regularly patrol Lake Champlain and other waterways, Homeland Security officials said. Planes also will patrol Lake Ontario and western Lake Erie.
On a demonstration helicopter run Friday, pilots flew a quick, low loop to a stretch of border barely discernible amid an endless expanse of woods. But flying at 580 feet, those aboard could zero in on cars on the highway and people golfing or mowing lawns.
The first such facility opened in August in Bellingham, Wash. Others are tentatively planned for near Detroit, Grand Forks, N.D., and Great Falls, Mont.
Stallworth said the five bases, when operational, will let agents respond within an hour anywhere along the border's more than 4,000 miles.
The northern bases are part of a larger effort by homeland security officials to watch the largely unprotected border more closely after the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001.
Periodic patrols are made by radar-equipped planes from Plattsburgh and other points, but the permanent stations are designed to allow regular surveillance.
Similar air patrols have been conducted along the Mexican border for more than three decades.