PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (AP) – Beefed up air patrols designed to intercept terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal aliens along the nation’s vast northeastern border will be launched from a base commissioned Friday.

The new Air and Marine Operations facility at a former Air Force base in the northeast corner of New York is one of five that will be responsible for tightening surveillance along the U.S.-Canadian border.

The first facility opened in August in Bellingham, Wash. Others are tentatively planned for near Detroit; Grand Forks, N.D and Great Falls, Mont.

National security is a main concern. But Department of Homeland Security helicopter pilot Dennis Del Grosso said agents on patrol are looking for anything from low-flying planes trying to skirt radar to illegal aliens or drug runners trying to sneak over the border on snowmobiles.

“We’re looking for anybody crossing the border who is not following through the proper checkpoints,” Del Grosso said

Charles Stallworth, director of Air and Marine operations, said the five bases, when up and running, will give agents the ability to respond anywhere along the more than 4,000 mile border within an hour.

Border patrol agents say they have noticed more air smuggling efforts over the border recently. Just as pilots fly drugs in from Mexico, authorities fear planes carrying terrorists or explosives could come over the northern border.

“It will be more secure. Why? Because we have people who can respond,” Stallworth said.

Planes from the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base will patrol the largely wooded border east to Maine, and along Lake Ontario and the western portion of Lake Erie. High-speed boats from the base will regularly patrol Lake Champlain and cross into the St. Lawrence River and other waterways as needed, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.

Two prop planes and two helicopters will be based at the new facility, along with some 40 people. On a demonstration helicopter run Friday, pilots ran a quick, low loop to a stretch of border barely discernible amid an endless expanse of woods. But flying at 580 feet, riders could zero in on individual people golfing or mowing lawns, as well as on cars rolling down the Northway.

Similar air patrols have been conducted along the Mexican border for more than three decades.

The new northern bases are part of a larger effort by homeland security officials to keep a closer eye on the largely unprotected border in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The government already relies on periodic patrols by radar-equipped planes from Plattsburgh and other points, but the permanent stations are designed to allow regular surveillance.

The aircraft will allow agents to track suspicious flights when the pilot doesn’t report to customs or talk on the radio. Federal pilots could follow rogue aircraft or direct agents on the ground.

The new operation represents a return to regular national defense duty for the Cold War-era air base, which hosted nuclear-tipped bombers before it closed in 1995. The base has since been retooled to host a collection of businesses and housing developments, which will share space with the new border patrol operation.

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AP-ES-10-08-04 1353EDT

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