All stoners have moments, deep in the grip of a good bake, when they dream of marijuana falling from the sky. But what happened outside San Diego was a little more serious than that.
An ultralight aircraft carrying about 250 pounds of cannabis crashed in the mountains east of San Diego, federal agents said. The pilot apparently escaped unhurt and left the booty behind.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents discovered the plane March 21 during a routine air patrol. Agents trekked into the remote Laguna Mountains, where they found the wreck, along with gloves, a helmet and other gear.
Agents also spotted a pair of footprints leading away from the site of the crash. They speculated the pilot wasn’t hurt because they found no signs of blood.
It isn’t uncommon for smugglers to bring drugs over the border using ultralight aircraft. They typically drop a few hundred pounds at a time onto pickup zones in rural areas along the Mexican border.
The number of these planes crossing into California has increased each year as border agents have put increasing pressure on ground and sea routes.
In 2012 Customs and Border Protection spent nearly $100 million on a sensor system to catch the aircraft. Ultralights fly too low to show up on conventional radar systems.
The planes are cheap, lightweight and easy to fly. They don’t require a pilot’s license, making them ideal for Mexican cartels smuggling into California.
“In my mind, it’s awesome,” said Detective Nick Acevedo of the Nogales Police Department. “How they can come in and successfully drop 280 pounds of marijuana basically on somebody’s lap.”
But ultralights can’t fly very far – a few dozen miles at most – because the gas tank holds just a few gallons and the engine produces only 25 horsepower. They’re safe for those who use them safely, but smugglers fly them at night, in the wind, over uncertain terrain.
“Plus they have a payload on board, and all of a sudden they’re 200 pounds lighter,” said Steve Bass, an ultralight pilot. “And it’s more difficult to control in the wind at night.”
Smugglers have died bringing weed over the border on ultralights. A crash into an Arizona lettuce farm killed a pilot several years ago.
The first ultralight smugglers started hitting the San Diego area in 2010 and have increased their presence in the years since. They mostly target the sparsely populated mountains east of the city.