An F-16 sets up a cautious orbit above a Cessna that has wandered into simulated restricted airspace near Washington, D.C., in a Fertile Keynote exercise.
"Given the place where we sit, there’s not a whole lot of room for error," said Brig. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville, commander of the D.C. ANG 113th Wing. "This is a very target-rich environment."
That became only too apparent on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda rammed a hijacked airliner into the Pentagon and might have done greater damage had not a passenger revolt brought down United Airlines Flight 93 well short of the capital.
On that day more than 11 years ago, Sasseville was on routine alert at Andrews. He became the first D.C. ANG F-16 pilot sent up to intercept Flight 93. For him and many others, the day’s events highlighted the need for a thorough overhaul of the post-Cold War US air defense mission.
The D.C. airspace was locked down in the weeks after 9/11. This proved to be an effective short-term defense against renewed attacks. However, maintaining a permanent flying ban was not realistic. Everyone knew it couldn’t last, and it didn’t.
Within weeks, flying activity began to return to a more normal state, with new limits established for where air traffic could fly. With several major airports in the area, the narrow air corridors around the capital are jam-packed with commercial and government traffic.
Today, the 121st Fighter Squadron boasts what is by far the busiest aerospace control alert (ACA) section in the United States. It scrambles, on average, more than once a day—more than 3,800 times since the 9/11 attacks.
Andrews is just one of 16 alert sites in the continental United States. However, the fighter force based there scrambles twice as often as all the other air defense units combined, said Lt. Col. Christopher Hardgrave, 121st FS alert commander.
The alert F-16s are just the most obvious layer of the National Capital Region (NCR) Integrated Air Defense System. This network also features radars, command and control systems, Coast Guard helicopters, laser warning elements, surveillance cameras, and Army surface-to-air missiles.
Because the airspace around Washington, D.C., is so crowded and critical to national security, reliance on this defense setup is a high-stakes affair. Making good use of it requires close interagency cooperation. That takes constant exercising and rehearsal.
Alert pilots routinely exercise every kind of relevant activity, from individual tactics to mass coordination of fighter operations.
Frequent practice scrambles have served to minimize response times. Since fighters normally go aloft in two-ship formations, they can skirmish with each other often to gain valuable experience in intercepting flying targets.
In the real world, however, most unauthorized intrusions into restricted D.C. airspace are carried out accidentally by "low and slow" light civil aircraft. These are not easily simulated with fast fighter aircraft.
F-16 Brave 02 flies over the Maryland countryside as it escorts a Cessna, piloted by a CAP volunteer, to an airfield outside the restricted flight zone around the nation’s capital.
Each month NORAD hosts Falcon Virgo, a dead-of-night, live-fly exercise against multiple targets over Washington, D.C., and its environs. These exercises draw together the full command cast: the NCR Coordination Center, Joint Air Defense Operations Center, NORAD’s Eastern Air Defense Sector controllers, and more.
Falcon Virgo allows fighter pilots to practice their roles in complex scenarios—for example, the receiving of intercept handoffs from Coast Guard MH-65 helicopters or the interception of jet targets with the aid of night vision goggles.
Explained Lt. Col. Timothy Madden, 113th Operations Group commander: "It’s a building block approach. From the practice scrambles, to the Fertile Keynotes, to the Falcon Virgos, ... each layer brings more players in. ... [and] stresses different parts of the system."
The goal is to make sure coordination will be close and seamless. "It’s a no-fail mission, so we have to make sure we’re ready," he said.
The intensity of the preparation was on display on a late August day at Andrews. The alert klaxon suddenly sounded. Hardgrave and his alert wingman, Maj. Matthew R. McDonough, sprang from their seats at the alert facility and bolted through a short hallway to their launch-ready F-16s in the alert bays. The two pilots grabbed their helmets off the canopy rails and strapped in as technicians pulled the chocks and disconnected umbilicals.
The scramble was a Fertile Keynote. Though it was an exercise, both fighters were loaded with live weapons: AIM-9X and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and a full load of 20 mm rounds for the F-16s’ internal cannon. The fighters always fly armed to respond to breaches of Washington, D.C., airspace.
Hardgrave and McDonough were still completing their checks even as they rolled to the runway threshold. After the tower granted clearance, Hardgrave, flying as Brave 01, released the brakes, and pushed full afterburner for a roaring climb out to altitude. Just 15 seconds after he became airborne, McDonough, Brave 02, began his roll, takeoff, and climb out.
As soon as they were aloft, the pilots immediately began coordination with NORAD’s Eastern Air Defense Sector—call sign Huntress—as well as air traffic control, clearing the fighter’s path through civil airspace.
Huntress issued the "investigate" order, tasking the F-16s to intercept and identify an unknown target of interest, in ACA vernacular, to the southeast of the capital.
While the F-16s were getting airborne, a lone Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172 entered the "restricted area" about 40 miles to the southeast of Washington, near NAS Patuxent River, Md. The CAP crew made a quick call to air traffic control—"Baywatch"—confirming that the area it was entering was clear of traffic, and then the Cessna crossed the no-go line at 5,000 feet altitude. It then described a slow, meandering course over the Chesapeake Bay.
The F-16s, hurtling through the air at a speed of nearly 575 mph, quickly closed within visual range of the Cessna. They turned to approach the intruder from behind, on the Cessna pilot’s side.
On the first pass, the F-16s looked for indications that the aircraft or pilot might be disabled or in distress. "At that point, we just passed word to Huntress, let them know what we were seeing," explained McDonough.
To slow down the F-16s, Hardgrave and McDonough had deployed their speed brakes. Even so, the speed differential was so great that the pilots had only a few seconds to observe the intruding aircraft and relay its tail number, make, and markings to Huntress. Then, they overtook and shot past the Cessna.
The F-16s turned to make another pass, during which one of the Guard pilots tried to make radio contact. He asked, "Cessna 229NY. You have been intercepted. Advise. Do you require assistance?"
The Cessna did not respond—a frequent occurrence in real-life intercepts.
The F-16 pilots observed that the Cessa pilot appeared to hear their message well enough and guessed that he might have lost power to answer via radio. They decided to try a different course.
An F-16 pilot said: "If your radio is disabled, but you are able to understand, please acknowledge with a wing rock."
At that, the Cessna emphatically responded, rocking its wings 45 degrees left and right. Communication was established.
"We directed him to go to an airfield that would take him out of the Capital Region and he effectively followed our orders," said McDonough.
Most intercepts since 2001 have been cases where pilots simply failed to contact air traffic control or "squawked" the wrong transponder code.
"Most of the time, it’s just a misunderstanding or a lost position—almost all cases have been that," said McDonough.
However, the few exceptions have been notable—and even bizarre. Example: In August 2010, the Navy lost control of an unmanned helicopter during tests at NAS Patuxent River. The Fire Scout chopper wandered several miles into restricted airspace before the Navy operators managed to rein it in.
During Fertile Keynote events, the F-16s usually fly several intercepts, breaking off and re-engaging to practice different scenarios. It is like cats playing with a mouse, observed CAP Lt. Col. C. Peter Hantelman, exercise pilot and head of homeland security missions for CAP’s National Capital Wing.
Hantelman and CAP 1st Lt. Victor Sanguanboon piloted the Cessna during the late-August exercise. As McDonough deployed his air brakes to slow down for a second practice intercept, Hantelman raised the tension. The Cessna pilot radioed an emphatic, "Allahu akbar"—in Arabic, "God is Great"—followed by a string of threats.
Hantelman then turned the Cessna on a wingtip and broke sharply away from the fighter in a three- to four-G descending turn.
Brave 02 quickly overshot the maneuverable Cessna, but Hantelman didn’t get far. Brave 01 was still directly behind and nimbly banked to follow the Cessna.
Brave 01 reported the situation to Huntress and moments later received orders to execute a "head butt"—that is, to issue a warning to the Cessna to desist from what it is doing or risk escalation.
Hardgrave in Brave 01 carefully approached the Cessna from below and thus remained hidden from the pilot’s view. Next, Hardgrave pulled the fighter directly into the Cessna’s path, lighting the F-16’s afterburner several hundred feet ahead of the small aircraft’s nose.
F-16s with the 121st Fighter Squadron prepare to launch at JB Andrews, Md. The alert facility sits just off the runway to allow the pilots to get airborne as quickly as possible in response to a potential threat.
To cope with the speed differential, the F-16s set up an elliptical orbit around the Cessna, handling the escort relay style. Since the target was "hostile," the F-16s shifted their orbits to stay largely out of sight, approaching from directly behind.
If an intruder, thus warned, fails to respond to orders to leave the area, Huntress will relay orders, up to the point of shootdown. Ultimately, a decision will be made up the chain and Huntress will pass along the orders, said McDonough. "If we’re ordered to fire, unfortunately, we’re ordered to fire."
That, in mock fashion, is what the F-16s wound up doing with the errant Cessna, according to a debrief at Andrews.
The aerospace control alert mission is a 24/7 job that continues uninterrupted through deployments, training exercises, and inspections. The exercise, training, and evaluation cycle for ACA mission is intense.
However, it is not the only task. The 15 ANG squadrons defending key points within CONUS under NORAD deploy and conduct state missions on top of the ACA alert.
"To do two missions at the same time is always a challenge," admitted Sasseville. "We’re trying to basically fight two wars—the home game and the away game."
The squadron’s fighters are split between combat deployment, training, and round-the-clock alerts. There are not enough airmen for all of these operations.
As it turned out, due to the demands of the home-station mission, D.C. was only able to spare three F-16s. The New Jersey and Iowa ANG units took up the slack.
The dual mission poses a training challenge. It is far from easy to keep pilots prepared for defending the capital and for flying the demanding air-to-ground combat mission.
"The mission overseas and the [ACA] mission are completely different, ... and when you’re doing one, you’re not training for the other," said Sasseville. Switching back and forth can lead to "an atrophy of skills" if unit planners are not careful.
One possible solution: Develop two pilot pools, each optimized for a single task. The Air Guard has resisted the notion. "As a unit we decided that there’s not going to be two separate operations going on," said Madden. "When we’re at home, everybody’s partaking. ... I would say that probably 80 to 90 percent of the unit is out there sitting alert" at least once a month.
Because the unit comprises both traditional Guardsmen and active Guard/Reserve pilots, there is a core group of full-time pilots that, for the sake of continuity, sit alert up to eight times a month. Several of these dedicated ACA pilots deployed on the unit’s last rotation to Afghanistan.
The Air Force has said it intends to fortify every Reserve and Air Guard fighter squadron with Active pilots and maintainers through an active association. So far, however, the D.C. Guard hasn’t seen any such infusion.
"We’ve been able to do everything with volunteers," said Sasseville, but he warned, "That’s not an endless, bottomless pit [of personnel]. ... There’s an optempo issue. ... We have to make certain that we don’t burn out our volunteers."
Volunteer Targets, Courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol
Ever since the round-the-clock alert mission began, the Civil Air Patrol has played a key role in air defense exercises around the nation’s capital. CAP pilots and aircraft have been providing "low and slow" targets for interception practice by the D.C. Air National Guard’s fast-moving F-16s.
This began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, airborne terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
"In those days, ... this was all new, and we were going to try something that was literally dangerous," said CAP Lt. Col. Peter C. Hantelman, director of homeland security missions for CAP’s National Capital Wing.
CAP is the official auxiliary of the Air Force. Its volunteer aviators have picked up burgeoning homeland security missions that now rival in frequency and number CAP’s traditional search and rescue operations.
"Civil Air Patrol is a great asset to have," said Lt. Col. Timothy Madden, operations group commander of the D.C. Guard’s 113th Wing. "They do a great job of simulating different [threats]. ... You get the basics of blocking and tackling, going out there making the basic intercept, making sure you get your procedures right."
Maryland, Virginia, and National Capital CAP wings average nine Fertile Keynote events per year.
During Falcon Virgo, CAP Cessnas carry extremely accurate GPS equipment to calibrate National Capital Region air defense radars and tracking equipment.
CAP crews also test and affirm the accurate functioning of the Visual Warning System—eye-safe lasers that warn pilots that they have strayed into restricted airspace.
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Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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