Flight school victimized by renter's smuggling arrest

California aircraft used to transport illegal aliens

February 2, 2012

A southern California flight school owner faces the loss of his two-year-old business, along with the Cessna 172 he rented to a well-known customer.

The Jan. 20 seizure of N5283E and arrest of Lino Rodriguez-Chavez by border patrol agents marked the fourth arrest and seizure of a light aircraft involved in the smuggling of people, rather than drugs, since 2010. It is the latest episode in a troubling new trend, according to federal officials: While light aircraft have long been used by drug smugglers, who typically steal a poorly secured aircraft to fly a payload over the border, only recently have human traffickers begun using light aircraft to fly illegal immigrants from airports just inside the U.S. border to population centers like Los Angeles, bypassing numerous checkpoints on the ground.

“Using small aircraft in the human smuggling arena is rare and presents a new challenge in our efforts to combat the smuggling activity as close to the border as possible,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack. “About four or five years ago, we received reports of Chinese nationals smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. trying to use small aircraft and commercial airlines in the Imperial Valley, but it was short-lived.”

But in 2010, the tactic returned.

“We believe the smugglers are using the aircraft to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoints along the highways from Imperial Valley to the Los Angeles area,” Mack said. “Our goal is to identify the organizations and dismantle their operations as quickly as possible.”

It will not be quickly enough to spare Denney Marsh, owner of Hemet-Ryan Flight School, the loss of his only Skyhawk. Marsh said Rodriguez-Chavez, arrested Jan. 20 after allegedly picking up three men from a Motel 6 and driving them to Imperial County Airport, had taken flight lessons at the school. Rodriguez-Chavez is a Mexican by birth and naturalized American citizen who owns a business in the area, Marsh said.

“He's not somebody who just showed up at the door like the newspaper said,” Marsh said. “I have no idea how to prevent this.”

Ironically, the same Skyhawk stopped while taxiing toward the runway with three passengers, identified in court documents as Mexican nationals who had entered the country illegally, has been used to ferry pilots to pick up many seized aircraft, Marsh said.

“Oddly enough, the building that I'm in stores seized airplanes,” Marsh said. “I frequently send my pilots down with 83E to bring back other airplanes for storage that they've seized.”

Marsh's Skyhawk, one of two airplanes in the flight school fleet (the other is a Skycatcher), is being held at an undisclosed location, and Marsh said Jan. 31 that he is not optimistic he will ever see it again. Federal officials have offered few options: Marsh can file a motion with the federal court that, if he loses, is not subject to appeal. Or, he has been told, he can post a $5,000 bond and apply for a hearing, with no guarantee the aircraft will be returned.

Marsh said other flight school owners in the area are giving serious thought to changing rental policies, but he sees no way to prevent a similar situation and still allow students, or certificated renters, to fly solo.

“Everybody in the Southwest is cautious when they have a bigger airplane, because they haul so much weight,” Marsh said. “We haven't been too concerned about 172s, up till this point.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.