U.S. Customs' hurricane-relief Blackhawks pulling press duty

The crews for three U.S. Customs Blackhawk helicopters stationed at Crestview Airport in Florida are "livid" because they have not been directed to provide full-time support for the ongoing hurricane-relief effort in the nation's Gulf Coast region, according to Mark Conrad, a former regional Internal Affairs supervisor for U.S. Customs.

Conrad says instead of helping people left desperate in the wake of Katrina's wrath, the Blackhawk's actually were slated to transport a CNN news crew to take video shots of those people.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection leadership in Miami is behind the press-play strategy, Conrad says.

"They have three Blackhawk helicopters and crew just sitting there doing nothing, just so they can look good for CNN. The crew is livid," Conrad says. "They made one trip earlier and flew over Biloxi, (Mississippi) where there are dead bodies everywhere. Those are highly trained crews and Blackhawk helicopters can carry a lot of food and water. They could be doing something." A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official familiar with the Blackhawk operation in Florida confirms Conrad's report. The official, who asked not to be named, says the Blackhawks were flown in from as far away as San Diego to supposedly assist with hurricane-relief efforts. They were stationed in Florida primarily to assure adequate refueling services.

“There are three Blackhawks from various parts of the country with extended tanks, which means they can hang out for four to five hours (in the air),” the DHS official says. “Each has a crew of about five, plus there is a fixed-wing aircraft and a light helicopter.”

The DHS official says the Blackhawks have been in Florida since Tuesday morning and have flown only one mission in two days. The original mission involved “flying a CNN news crew to take photos.” However, the official says maintenance problems led to that plan being “rescinded.”

Instead, the Blackhawks were ordered to fly to Biloxi to deliver supplies, but then were ordered back immediately.

“The helicopters are available, but nothing is happening,” the DHS official says. “They were going to be used for a photo mission, but that was cancelled fortunately.”

The DHS official himself is upset by the apparent indifference of Customs and Border Protection's management in Miami, which oversees the operation. (DHS is the parent agency of U.S. Customs.)

“Those Blackhawks could be used to deliver supplies to people in New Orleans and other devastated areas,” the DHS official stresses. “They could be dropping water, food and radios. That might be the difference between someone holding on a day or two longer, or dying.”

In fact, the DHS official says more of Customs' air assets could easily be redirected to the ravaged Gulf Coast region by “concentrating on that mission” instead of patrolling the Southwest border.

“This is serious,” the DHS official says. “Peoples lives are at stake.”

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