How do drug planes work? Or do they exist?

Living out in the country, we would always have low flying planes overhead. My parents always said that it was the police looking for marijuana patches.

How does that work? Do they try to spot them with the naked eye? Or do they have some special apparatus?

I am not tempted to grow my own plants; I’m just curious, thank you very much.

infared signature - quite distinctive, as I understand

It’s also possible that they do spot/confirm them by eye; I have trained myself to be able to recognise quite a variety of native, cultivated and crop plants on or near the roadside from mere glimpses as I drive past (I used to travel a lot in my last job, often as a passenger; I needed something to fill the time) - it’s not terribly hard to do.

A field of something within a field of something else can raise an eyebrow or two.

So can a giant camouflage tent :wink:

Not quite answering the question, but still on-topic:

It’s an article that follws the Sheriff’s Dept. in KY seeking out and burning pot patches, and also the growers themselves. Linked is a teaser, but the paper issue has the whole story. Mila Kunis and Elisha Cuthbert, too. :wink:

On preview: I should make it clear that the articles follows the pot growers as well, not that the Sheriffs burn them.

Low flying planes out in the country…

Yes, some of them are probably law enforcement looking for drugs.

However, there are many other reasons to fly low out in the countryside. Among them: crop dusting, pipeline survey, and flying in and out of tiny, rural airstrips, of which there are a thousand or so scattered across the continent.

And, my typical reason for flying low over cornfields… because I can. Minimum legal altitudes for flight are considerably lower way out in the boondocks.

Lower still, for helicopters! "…Put out my hand and touched a tree. " :smiley:

Okay, serious answer.

Yes, patches of marijuana are found by overflights. Apparently hemp has a colour that tends to be different from legal crops and is easily recognizable by a trained observer. But do law enforcement actually fly around looking for illegal crops? Probably not. Airplanes are expensive to operate. The cost of the aircraft must be absorbed, and you’re paying over $2/gallon for avgas that is burned at a rate of about 9 gph. You also have to figure in insurance and maintenance, and salary for the aircrew. It’s been a long time since I’ve flown a fixed-wing (Broomstick will be helpful here) but I’ll throw out a ballpark figure of about $50/hour to operate a Cessna 172. A helicopter is more expensive. For example, a Bell JetRanger rents for about $495/hr. here. (That includes profit for the FBO, so the actual operating cost is less.) In short, it is not cost-effective to fly around looking for a crop that may not exist.

But if the agency receives intelligence about an illegal crop they can and do often fly over to check it out. Since airspace is public property, they can fly over the suspected site and look for evidence without having to obtain a search warrant. By making overflights in response to “tips”, the agency reduces the costs of operating an aircraft since they A) have an idea that there is something to look for and B) they know approximately where to look. Once a crop is found by aerial observation they may apply for a search warrant (if it’s on private property) to go to the site and gather evidence.

Yep, deep green patches is what they look for when flying over Big Sur, California. It’s no surprise really since summer is the peak growing season & just about anything growing there is brown. So a big green patch is easy to spot.

Low overflights by small planes can also be aerial photography for mapping purposes. I know. I work in that field.

Mapping done by cameras is infinitely superior to old-fashioned land surveys, & much cheaper, too.

Also the photos can be used to monitor growth of small & large communities, forest management, & many other uses.

Color ones can be iused to locate pot farmers, & even b&w can give useful hints.

Actually they do.

“*Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), headquartered at Biggs Army Airfield, Fort Bliss, Texas, is the Joint Forces Command component that provides Department of Defense counterdrug support to federal, regional, state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the continental United States. Military support is designed to assist law enforcement in their mission to detect, deter, disrupt, and dismantle illegal drug trafficking organizations. All military support to counterdrug operations is based on a valid support request from a law enforcement agency. *”


The military does quite a few training flights. When assigned under JTF-6, they combine military training with placing local law enforcement officials on board to search for “things.”

Many overflights are a direct result of tips. However, many others are not but actual recon activities in search of “things.” They will even use satellie recon as well.

Why call them searching for “things?” Because they now do more than search for drugs and illegal aliens, especially since 9/11.

Yo, Johnny - a C172 is more like $75/hour these days, and if you got one of the new ones, $100 and up an hour.

Still cheaper than rotorcraft. :smiley:

Out here (Chicago area) there are areas more likely to have illeagal crops than others, and those do get overflown. And both law and enforcement and military will combine ariel survey work (like looking for illeagal crops) with training missions.

And a certain amount gets reported as suspicious goings-on by plain old civilian pilots. Tip: if you overfly a field and someone shoots at you, law enforcement will most certainly be interested. A couple of the small planes out at my field have been shot at over the years. If you have a fuel tank spring a leak in flight it’s one of the first things they check for, bullet holes.

Duckster: I stand corrected.

Broomstick: Is that the rental rate or the actual operating cost? Las time I checked (admittedly about two years ago) a 1970 C-172 was renting for $70/hr. Seems to me the operating cost would have been less. Yeah, I can see how a new 172 could cost a lot more to operate. Aren’t they about $180,000? They’d have to charge more to cover the loan.