The new tactic took flight last month, when officers seized 995 pounds of marijuana valued at almost $6 million at Burns Municipal Airport, arresting Harvey Allen Gabel, 56, and Brian Jeffrey Lindroos, 39, who had landed in Burns to refuel after a flight from British Columbia.
The British Columbia residents were transferred to federal custody in Eugene last week after being held since their arrest in the Harney County Jail on $1 million bail each.
They are facing federal charges of importing cocaine and marijuana and eluding U.S. customs inspectors, and up to 40 years behind bars if convicted.
Police say it's intuitive that smugglers would make use of rural airports for nighttime refueling runs.
"It's easy in and easy out," said Harney County Sheriff Dave Glerup. "Most rural agencies don't have 24-hour patrols, let alone 24 hours at the airport."
Pilots need only to key their radio microphones to switch on the runway landing lights and then pump the fuel themselves once they're on the ground, he said.
The extent of smuggling by air is "probably greater than law enforcement knows," Charles J. Karl, director of Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Programs in Salem, wrote in a letter this month to the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C.
According to a report in The Oregonian, Karl cited "the availability of numerous small airports and rural airstrips" around Oregon, and specifically mentioned the Alvord Desert in the state's southeastern corner.
Authorities believe methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are smuggled into Oregon from Mexico, while marijuana is brought across the Canadian border.
Karl suspects smugglers shift their illicit cargoes from aircraft to aircraft or to vehicles to escape detection. Then they transport it to areas as far away as Chicago, he said.
Authorities are now combing through self-service fuel records at rural airports, hoping that will yield a fuller picture of the extent of drug smuggling in the region.
The information will go into the Oregon Department of Justice's computerized intelligence network, Karl said. It will be available to federal, state and local agencies around Oregon and accessible by law enforcement agencies in five Western states, he said.
Still, even with a paper trail of fuel records, small-town police chiefs and sheriffs say they'll be hard-pressed to mount regular smuggling surveillance given their small numbers and wide open spaces.
Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo of Pendleton predicted air smugglers will change their routines in the wake of the Burns arrests and records checks.
All a smuggler would have to do is land in a hayfield or on a remote road and refuel from tanks mounted onto farm pickups, he said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)