In 1971, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs created an aviation program with one plane, one special agent/pilot, and a budget of $58,000. The concept of an Air Wing to support drug law enforcement was the idea of Marion Joseph, an experienced former U.S. Air Force pilot and a veteran special agent stationed in Atlanta, Georgia. For a number of years, Special Agent Joseph noted that police were using planes for surveillance, search and rescue, and the capturing of fugitives. His analysis led him to conclude that a single plane "could do the work of five agents in five cars on the ground."
As drug trafficking increased nationwide, it became evident that it had no boundaries and that law enforcement needed aviation capabilities. Although Joseph convinced his superiors that the idea of an air wing was a good one, there were no funds for such a program. Special Agent Joseph then turned to the U.S. Air Force. Under the Bailment Property Transfer Program, which allows the military to assist other government entities, he secured one airplane: a surplus Vietnam War-era Cessna Skymaster.
The benefit of the air support to drug enforcement became immediately apparent, and the requests for planes grew rapidly. By the time DEA was formed in 1973, there were 41 special agent/pilots and 24 planes operating in several major U.S. cities. Most of these planes were single engine, piston-driven, fixed-wing airplanes that were used mostly for domestic surveillance.