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

 

Crime Correspondent

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power