National Crime Agency turns to plane spotters to help catch smugglers using private airfields


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The Independent Online

The country’s elite crime fighting agency is seeking to recruit plane spotters and nosy neighbours to plug a loophole in border security that can allow gun-runners and drug smugglers to enter the country without passport checks.

A series of inquiries have identified lax security at thousands of private airfields that can be exploited by organised crime gangs bringing illicit gear into the country. MPs last year said that it was “staggering” that a private aircraft could land and take off at one of more than 3,000 airstrips, farmers’ landing strips or helipads without anyone on board being checked.

The National Crime Agency has launched its “Pegasus” project to encourage reports of unusual activity among some 90,000 light-aircraft private flights that come into the country every year.

David Armond, Director of the NCA’s Border Policing Command, said: “You might have seen unfamiliar people in sensitive areas of the airport, or unusual patterns of activity such as night-time airdrops. That information could be key to an investigation into an organised criminal network or terrorist group.”

The Border Force confirmed last year that it was unable to meet and check the private planes arriving in the UK under its £604 million budget, which faces further cuts, according to a report by the Public Accounts select committee. The committee said information it received on incoming private planes was “notably poor” and that private passengers could evade border checks.

The NCA said yesterday that there were nearly 50,000 licensed pilots in the UK. The duty rests with the pilot to give more than four hours warning of incoming travel from overseas to private airfields, but the industry said that it would be easy to avoid filing flight plans.

Private airfields usually have no security and it is the pilots’ responsibility to inform border control. Keith Reynolds, the manager of Damyns Hall Aerodrome, in Essex, which has up to 100 private planes landing every day, said that police and border staff visited every six weeks to check on unusual activity.

He said he was once asked for information on a pilot who used the aerodrome to fly to France for suspected drug running. “Most people land get out with a bag, walk off and get a taxi to London,” said Mr Reynolds. “They come back with bags throw them on the aircraft. We don’t know what’s in them. We’re not in the business of policing.”