In a field next to the Theodolph Faulkner Administration Building, where Anegada’s police force is based, lie two battered engines and the charred tail section of a small Piper airplane that landed at the island’s airport in the early morning hours of Sept. 20.
The Piper — which was carrying at least 35 kilograms of cocaine — was the second drug plane seized after landing on the island’s runway in the space of five weeks.
No one has been charged in connection with either incident, but police are urging Anegada residents to come forward with information about what officials believe to be longstanding misuse of the island’s airport for illegal purposes.
“Work is certainly required to help to prevent misuse of the airport runway for the transshipment of illicit drugs,” Governor John Rankin said during a Sept. 29 press conference. “That may involve more resources, not just for the police but also for the [BVI] Airports Authority and in relation to customs and immigration.”
Challenges addressing the issue, the governor added, include difficulties associated with tracking light aircraft.
“My understanding is the flights that do come in are very often small planes, at a very low-line level, so this is technically more difficult than you might think,” Mr. Rankin said. “If we could achieve technical improvements to better track them, that would be one way forward for tackling the problem.”
Tracking, however, did alert authorities to the cocaine-laden Piper that landed at the airport on Sept. 20, according to United States Customs and Border Patrol.
“Crash landing..!” the US agency stated in a Sept. 24 post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, adding that its agents had worked with Virgin Islands police to track the aircraft as it headed north toward Anegada.
“The aircraft crashed trying to land without lights. Responders seized almost 35 kilos of cocaine on scene.”
Police Commissioner Mark Collins told the Beacon on Sept. 27 that VI police received intelligence about the plane at roughly 3 a.m. on the night of its arrival. It landed about half an hour later, he said.
Because it was unclear whether the plane’s occupants might pose a serious threat, police did not intercept the plane as it arrived, Mr. Collins said.
He denied that this decision was linked to any scarcity of police officers on the sister island.
“We’ve got … two officers working on Anegada,” he said. “But … there needs to be a risk assessment: We don’t know who’s on the plane. We don’t know whether they’ve got any firearms. You know, there are a number of issues to consider.”
The airport was closed at the time, and no fire officers or other staff were on the scene when the plane landed, according to the commissioner. But shortly after the landing, police responded along with an immigration officer and fire officers, he said.
No one from the plane was apprehended, Mr. Collins said, adding that he didn’t know if anyone besides the pilot was aboard. Since the incident, two people have been arrested, interviewed and released, but no one has been charged, according to the commissioner.
‘Quite some time’
The two recent landings were not the first similar incidents reported on the island, he added.
“We’ve had some reports previously about flights landing in the middle of the night: drop-offs and things like that,” he said.
The commissioner urged Anegada residents to assist police by providing them with information about such activities.
“This has been going on for quite some time, I think,” he said.
After the incident, the governor, Deputy Police Commissioner St. Clair Amory, and other officials visited the Anegada airport to review the situation.
“We have got significant concerns about the security there,” Mr. Collins said. “And we are collectively looking at ways that we can further enhance the security of the Anegada airport.”
Though the US officials reported that the Piper plane had crash-landed, Mr. Collins declined to confirm this information.
“We haven’t had the air investigation accident report yet,” he said, adding, “We know there were no lights on the plane, we know the airstrip was not lit up, but I’m not going to speculate whether it crash-landed. But, certainly, there was a fire afterwards.”
Because two petrol cans were found next to the burnt plane, he said, police suspect the fire was set deliberately.
“At the scene of the wreckage, approximately 35 kilos of cocaine were found, but we believe a large amount was contained inside the aircraft,” he said. “That obviously burnt.”
He explained that burning the plane may have been an effort to destroy evidence if the perpetrators had realised that the authorities were closing in.
He added that no one reported to the territory’s clinics or hospitals with injuries that appeared to be associated with the incident.
Though Mr. Collins declined to confirm that the plane crash-landed, photos taken before and after part of the wreckage was moved to the Anegada’s police station suggest that great force had been applied to the aircraft.
One rear leg of the Piper’s landing gear has been completely shorn off the engine it should be attached to. On the other engine, a leg of the landing gear is still attached, but its adjacent fuel tank is charred.
The tips of each propeller are bent in opposite directions from each other and scraped as if the aircraft landed without its gear.
Mr. Collins said the fuselage was taken to a secure location in the territory for further investigation, though he declined to say where.
The previous plane seizure on Anegada came on Aug. 19, when authorities seized a Cessna carrying about 800 kilograms of cocaine.
That incident also came during a joint operation with US authorities.
No charges have been laid in connection with that plane either.
However, police said Sept. 1 that they had arrested, interviewed and released several “persons of interest” and executed search warrants on several Anegada properties.
An ongoing problem
Security concerns at the Anegada airport are not new.
In 2019, about four months after Andrew Fahie took up the post of premier, he described Anegada’s airport as a potential national security threat.
“What is happening at present is that persons are flying into Anegada without the knowledge of the [BVIAA], customs or immigration, and then those persons are using ferries as domestic travels to move from one island to the next,” Mr. Fahie said at the time.
He also called for a redefinition of the territory’s airspace “to include all the sovereign islands” — a step he said was necessary because aircraft were landing on Anegada with no communication with the control tower at Beef Island.
This practice leads to security risks and the territory losing out on fees, according to Mr. Fahie, who is now on house arrest in Miami charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.
Shortly after Mr. Fahie’s 2019 allegations, former BVIAA Chairman Glenn Harrigan responded, claiming that uncontrolled airfields operate all over the world. He added that prior permission from the BVIAA was required for all arrivals on Anegada and Virgin Gorda.
“This system is functional, and although there is the potential for abuse, we do not believe it is as loose and uncontrolled as portrayed in the premier’s statement,” Mr. Harrigan said at the time.
In recent weeks, VI officials have revisited calls to boost security at the Anegada airport.
After viewing the plane wreckage two days after the Sept. 20 crash, the governor, who is responsible for the territory’s security, issued a brief statement to that effect.
“We must urgently increase security at the airport to tackle its misuse for the illegal transportation of drugs,” he said. “Whilst the growing number of seizures of drugs and guns is encouraging, the scale of the problem is deeply worrying.”
Officials responsible for aviation in the territory declined to comment or didn’t respond. BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal told the Beacon on Sept. 20 that he was “not in a position to answer questions at this time, or any other.”
Multiple officials at the territory’s aviation regulator, Air Safety Support International, did not respond to messages — though Mr.
Collins said the agency had been notified of the recent incident.
A spokesperson for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, a United Kingdom government agency responsible for investigating accident reports in the VI, responded with a brief email.
“The AAIB was notified of an accident which occurred at Captain Auguste George Airport, British Virgin Islands on [Sept. 20],” the message stated. “We are in the process of making enquiries into the circumstances which led to the accident and liaising with local officials.”
Police are urging anyone with information about the seized drug planes or other illicit activity at the Anegada airport to call the police Intelligence Unit at 368-9339 or the anonymous Crime Stoppers tipline at 800-8477 (TIPS)
Freeman Rogers contributed reporting to this story.