The present DEA aviation program represents an evolutionary process started in early 1971 when the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs acquired its first aircraft. Over the next few years, additional aircraft were acquired from the U.S. military, and the aviation program was made part of the Special Projects Division. Management of the aviation resources came under the direction of a chief pilot, who utilized experienced special agents as pilots, which gave the program the expertise necessary to perform a wide range of enforcement missions that would be impossible with the use of civilian pilots.
Upon the creation of DEA in 1973, the aviation program consisted of 24 aircraft and 41 special agents/pilots. The program continued to grow; and in 1994, the Aviation Section was granted field division status and renamed the Office of Aviation Operations (OA). The chief pilot was redesignated special agent in charge and the two deputy chief pilots became assistant special agents in charge. Today, OA has 106 aircraft and 124 special agent pilots.
Further evidence of the expansion and importance of the OA to the DEA's enforcement mission is the move to new facilities at Ft. Worth, Texas, Alliance Airport in February 1994. The new facility, known as the Aviation Operations Center, is the primary maintenance facility for the Office of Aviation fleet of aircraft, and headquarters to OA's supervisory and administrative personnel, as well as contractor personnel.
OA provides aviation support to domestic offices throughout the United States, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, Special Enforcement Operations, Mobile Enforcement Teams, the Southwest Border Initiative and the National Marijuana Eradication Strategy. These operations consist of air-to-ground, air-to-water, air-to-air, electronic surveillance, and photographic reconnaissance.
OA has Posts of Duty located in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. These country offices, as well as other offices in Central and South America, are supported in operations involving enforcement and logistical missions to include air-to-ground surveillance, overflights, photographic reconnaissance, diplomatic missions, rapid deployment of personnel and equipment, expeditious removal of fugitives from foreign countries, over-water surveillance and search for suspect vessel activity, and medical evacuation.
The DEA's pilots are experienced special agents, as well as highly qualified aviators. Their dedication to law enforcement and OA's internal network of support and cooperation provide numerous advantages to DEA. OA has evolved into an international support entity upon which a high percentage of DEA initiatives have become dependent.