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Photos: CBP helicopter searches for lost migrant

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Adolfo Hernandez, a pilot with Air and Marine Operations, a part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. - Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

More by Paul Ingram

The helicopter takes a series of slow, low turns over a shrinking circle of a cattle tank in the Altar Valley, about 54 miles southwest of Tucson.

Pilot Adolfo Hernandez has his head cocked down to the right as he examines the shade beneath scalded mesquites and dusty ocotillos searching for a woman who may be missing in the desert.

Hernandez has spent most of the last 18 years searching the desert looking for people as a pilot for Air and Marine Operations, a part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. On Tuesday morning, he spends a half-hour circling the ranch, running a pattern that lets him see down into the hidden washes where the women may be hiding, or may be hurt, or unconscious. The call might be fake, or the caller might have moved on, and while the agency has good information about where the call was placed, it's unclear whether there's someone down on the ranch who needs help.

Hernandez tips the helicopter—an AS350 A-Star originally made by Eurocopter under the name "Écureuil" or Squirrel—into another turn and watches as a Border Patrol agent drives into the ranch. Hernandez uses the helicopter to show where the call was placed, and then heads to another request for help, this time near Nogales, Ariz.

Hernandez has spent 25 years in the Tucson Sector. First as an agent, and then as helicopter pilot. And, in that time, he's watched the agency shift away from the "cowboys" who once worked Arizona's deserts to a newer modern force that also includes the MQ-9 Predator drone, as well as more agents, a wide-range of sensors, and the Arizona Air Coordination Center—a facility near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where CBP attempts to track and manage all the aircraft and 911 calls that make up a day's work in the Tucson Sector.

Near Amado, Ariz., just north of the checkpoint on Interstate 19, Hernandez swoops over an agent as he trudges through a wash, following signs that people walked through the sand, along with a Border Patrol dog.

Several agents are working the scene, some coming from the frontage road along I-19, while others track their own path from the north attempting to box in the group of around seven people. Hernandez tips his white helicopter to the right, and begins following the wash, trying to spot signs that someone has hiked through the sand as he also balances flying his helicopter and paying mind to electrical wires that lace the sky.

Over the last decade, the job has gotten harder as people increasingly wear camouflage clothing, and wear carpet-soled shoes. At the same time, smugglers have shifted their tactics. In the 1990s and early 2000s, large groups of people were led by guides, often known as "coyotes" who could lead people from water-source to water-source. And, as a consequence of a CBP policy known as "Prevention through Deterrence" — which assumed that by forcing people into the harshest parts of the U.S.-Mexico border's deserts, people would stop attempting the trip — migrants faced harder journeys.

Now, guides are increasingly directing small groups of people remotely, using directions via social media apps, and keeping them moving through the desert. Migrants who are hurt, or slow the group down, may be abandoned and left without food or water, and they must hope that their cellphone works and they can get help.

In his years, Hernandez has worked to save people and spent nights flying in a sky so dark that campfires were obvious from 10 miles away in night-vision goggles. At times, the work is frustrating, and brutal, including a day when he found three people dead in a single day. However, some days, it's rewarding, including a day last December when he managed to spot a 4-year-old boy so that he could be rescued after the boy spent 27 hours in the desert after wandering away from home.

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