Federal agents use counter-narcotics planes to search for missing boaters

US Customs plane covered 4,000 square miles Wednesday

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

CAPE HATTERAS, N.C. - Besides hundreds of volunteers and the Coast Guard, search crews with U.S. Customs and Border Protection are also involved in the search for missing firefighters Brian McCluney and Justin Walker.

The pair, from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and Fairfax County Fire-Rescue, haven’t been heard from since Friday when they launched McCluney’s 24-foot center console out of Port Canaveral, Florida.

The agency deployed two King Air surveillance planes and two long-range P-3 Orion aircraft from Jacksonville and a go-fast drug interdiction boat from St. Augustine -- all equipped with technology and trained crews that can spot movement from miles away.

On Wednesday, News4Jax went along on a nearly 10-hour flight spanning the Atlantic Ocean from Jacksonville to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The flight covered a search area of 4,000 square miles.

The team of federal pilots and tactical flight officers worked tirelessly from takeoff at Cecil Field to touchdown. They scanned the Atlantic Ocean flying up and down the Gulf Stream, up to 80 miles off the coast. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations, which has offices at Cecil Field and Naval Air Station Jacksonville, switched from counter-narcotics to search and rescue over the weekend, at the request of the Coast Guard. CBP agents from the Jacksonville offices typically fly missions in Central and South America, stopping drug smugglers. 

“Finding a 24-foot boat is frankly what we do for a living,” said CBP Air Interdiction Agent and pilot Bill Walsh. “That is not that complicated. If the boat was out here intact, I firmly believe we would have found it or will find it today. I think our challenge now appears to be either looking for two people in the water or two people clinging to a small raft, be it a piece of the boat or debris they encountered.”

This flight was a personal one. Four Jacksonville firefighters volunteered their time as spotters, manning windows on the P-3 Orion aircraft.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Brian personally but I do know his reputation,” said Lt. Ross Stockwell, with JFRD. “I know he’s a stellar guy. A fantastic guy. And I know he’d be out here doing the same thing for anyone of us.”

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On Wednesday’s flight, there was a 14 person crew. Three federal agents sat in the cockpit, flying the plane and scanning the horizon. A total of 10 agents worked in shifts. JFRD spotters manned the four windows in the cabin.

Several tactical flight officers sat at stations in the middle of the plane, glued to screens with radar and long-range cameras. With radar, they are able to identify targets and hone in on them with the camera. The targets can be other boats, trash or marine life. But agents said any one of them could be the missing mariners.

After getting a closer look at the targets, they check them off as false alarms. Flying between 500 and 1,000 feet above the water, the plane does grid searches. The directions and search areas come straight from the Coast Guard, which is coordinating the search mission, spanning from Cape Canaveral to Cape Hatteras.

“It’s certainly worrying,” Walsh said. “You wish (the firefighters) were back with their loved ones already. But thankfully this time of year it is warmer. That’s certainly working in our favor. We have so many people out there looking. Civilians, military, law enforcement. I still think we have a chance.”

CBP has been flying missions day and night, each time agents hoping they’ll find the men alive.

“We haven’t given up hope,” Walsh added.

The fellow first responders with JFRD said they are using their faith to get through this difficult time.

“It’s tough because you want to find somebody so badly,” Stockwell said mid-flight. “It’s difficult being so patient. But while I’m looking out there I’m praying and we always have that. We always have the hope and prayer and we will continue to do that until the objective is met. And the objective is bringing Brian and Justin home to their families.”

The federal agents said they’ll keep flying as long as they’re requested, getting requests and search areas from the Coast Guard to go where they’re needed the most.

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