The OH-6A family of aircraft has flown more than a million hours, supported more than 9.5 million illegal immigrant apprehensions, and contributed to the seizure of more than 500 thousand pounds of drugs, and after 32 years of service, the last of the these helicopters in the CBP fleet conducted its final flight.
In a ceremony held at the El Paso Air Branch, retired and current pilots gathered together to watch the last flight of the first airframe the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) acquired. Before gaining the helicopters in 1979, the OH-6A had already proven itself in the jungles of southeast Asia, and was the perfect airframe for the USBP to gain the high ground.
"The OH-6 served the legacy Border Patrol on a variety of missions, including humanitarian, all along the border," said Assistant Commissioner Michael C. Kostelnik, Office of Air and Marine. "It was the perfect aircraft for the agents on the ground and with its 32 year history; it is probably the single aircraft that brought us to where we are today."
The Hughes OH-6 Cayuse (nicknamed "Loach", after the requirement acronym LOH - light observation helicopter) was built and developed by the Howard Hughes Tool Company in 1963 as a single-engine light helicopter with a four-bladed main rotor used for personnel transport, escort and attack missions, and observation platform. In 1966 the aircraft set 23 world records for helicopters for speed, endurance and time to climb and was used by the U.S. Army extensively during the Vietnam era.
The USBP received its first OH-6 in El Paso, Texas during the summer of 1979, after the U.S. Army had withdrawn from Vietnam. The second aircraft arrived at Chula Vista Sector, near San Diego, later that year with the USBP eventually acquiring 42 helicopters, stationing them all along the southwest border. During its service life, the OH-6 flew over a million hours in support of border security operations.
“The sound of an OH-6 approaching lifted the spirits of every Border Patrol agent on the line,” said Chief Michael J. Fisher, U.S. Border Patrol. “When introduced in the field, it allowed us to go places and to keep eyes on activity in a way we simply could have never done before.”
The USBP significantly modified the aircraft to fit the border security mission, including engine and wiring upgrades and installing civilian avionics that had night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility, allowing them to conduct FLIR operations. Marfa sector pioneered the use of the NVG, starting a training program in the early 1990’s.
“We had a pilot with us in Marfa who was also in the National Guard,” said Loren Nichols, who retired from the USBP in 1999, and also flew the OH-6 in Vietnam. “Agent Waco Epperson got us hooked into the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Ft. Rucker and they equipped all the helicopters with full NVG compatibility, and even trained two of our pilots to be NVG-certified instructors.”
Over the last several years, CBP has replaced the OH-6A with the AS-350 A-Star, made by Eurocopter. The A-Stars are the latest short-range, turbine powered helicopter to perform aerial reconnaissance missions, and are equipped with EO/IR sensors and video downlink capabilities.
Texas now has more than 100 air assets patrolling the border, as well as the National Security Operations Center in Corpus Christi, operating P-3 and Unmanned Aircraft Systems. In the first half of fiscal year 2011, air assets in Texas accounted for almost $1 million in seizures and more than 12 thousand apprehensions.
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