Hiding In Plane Sight

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The Velocity airplane is visible to the eye, but to America's best radar system it is virtually invisible. And that, says U.S. law enforcement, makes the near stealth Velocity a tool for smugglers.

Joe Bendig, the director of U.S. Customs' state of the art radar center says the system has a problem finding small fiberglass aircraft like the Velocity.

"The radar pretty much gets absorbed by the skin. The only thing we really pick up is the engine, which is metal," he said.

Until last spring, reports CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews, no one in law enforcement thought the Velocity to be much of a factor in drug smuggling. But then came a joint U.S.-Mexico drug crackdown the DEA called Operation Marquis.

In the process of making some 300 drug arrests, the DEA says it learned that Arturo Beltran Leyva, a man the U.S. calls one of Mexico's top drug transport chiefs, owned five Velocities.

"We've made our Mexican counterparts aware of this Velocity aircraft," said Rod Benson of the DEA.

He says most drug smuggling by air happens with metallic planes visible to radar.

The planes skirt the U.S. shoreline, or land in Mexico just short of the U.S. border, with the drugs then loaded onto vehicles of every type you can imagine — even school buses.

Benson says so far, invisibility is mostly used by smugglers inside Mexico.

"It's not just one transportation organization. We've identified others that have dabbled and are beginning to look at these Velocity aircraft to move their drugs."

As for Velocity the company, it's based in two hangars in rural Florida and the plane is a mail order kit that is shipped in boxes to hobbyists who assemble it.

The company is not under suspicion and its Vice President Scott Baker calls invisibility a coincidence.

"There's nothing about the aircraft that was designed with the idea of hiding from radar and none of our marketing whatsoever speaks to stealthness."

Even now, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks with military radar planes blanketing the border, officials admit Velocity would be tough to find. Until America's multi billion-dollar border radar can spot fiberglass, it can be beaten by an airplane built in a garage.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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