By Angela Pope
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Pilots assigned to Aerospace Control Alert units have a unique mission - to defend the U.S. and Canadian homelands by controlling that airspace and being prepared to respond to threats.
Because of that enormous responsibility, these units routinely train for this mission. And since the aircraft they would be charged with intercepting aren't fighter jets, ACA pilots rely on more realistic "adversaries" to train with.
Enter the volunteer force of the Civil Air Patrol and their fleet of small aircraft. Throughout the year, CAP wings across the country take to the skies during unit training exercises as "tracks of interest" to give the alert pilots a chance to practice scrambling and intercepting aircraft in a safe, controlled environment.
"CAP, as the Air Force Auxiliary, is part of the high-fidelity training that ensures the United States Air Force is ready and able to execute the ACA mission around the clock and continue a vigilant watch," said Mark OBrien, CAP-USAF liaison to 1st Air Force. "The training the ACA units get from these exercises is crucial, and it's training they can't get unless they actually go up in the air and fly against small, general aviation aircraft."
Aside from Air Force ACA pilots, CAP trains with agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, depending on the region of the country and the needs inherent to that region.
"Our primary mission in flying these types of sorties is to provide tracks of interest for the Air Force, the Air National Guard and the Coast Guard," said CAP Col. Leo Burke, Michigan Wing commander. "We fly a specific flight profile or multiple profiles that test the ability of the ACA units to respond to various threats."
Burke, who has planned and flown at least 25 of these missions, has seen the teamwork involved and the resulting benefits.
On one such mission, in the early morning hours over the skies of Michigan in January 2006, just before the Super Bowl in Detroit, Burke was piloting a plane a few thousand feet off the ground when a Coast Guard helicopter intercepted him and a second CAP aircraft. At the same time, Air National Guard F-16s were busy intercepting a jet flying over the Detroit River. Nearby, a KC-135 orbited the area, ready to provide fuel to the participating aircraft, and somewhere above it all, an E-3 AWACS plane monitored the exercise.
"As a pilot, that made me feel pretty cool," Burke said. "A lot of pilots never even see those aircraft at an airshow, let alone get to participate in a mission with them."
Then, in April 2009, a student pilot stole a Cessna 172 from his flight school in Ontario, Canada, and flew south into U.S. airspace. Fighter jets from Wisconsin and Ohio scrambled, intercepted the plane and shadowed it for nearly seven hours until it landed in Missouri. When Burke talked to the units later, they told him the scramble and intercept mission "went perfect. Everything we practiced with CAP paid off."
"As a CAP officer, that made me feel pretty cool," Burke said. "That was confirmation that everything we were doing was critical. We are directly contributing to the safety and security of our nation."
For the alert pilots, this training is invaluable.
"The relationship Barnes Air National Guard Base has with the Massachusetts CAP Wing is a strong one. There are multiple benefits of this relationship and this training. One of the top benefits is valid threat replication," said Capt. Osme Benedict, a fighter pilot with the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. "It is always a challenge to find them. CAP carries out a set of special instructions designed to train our pilots on intercepting, inspecting and guiding suspect aircraft."
Without CAP, the fighter pilots would have to improvise to simulate the threat.
"If CAP wasn't able to provide this type of 'threat,' we would have to use an in-house jet to replicate a track of interest similar to civilian aircraft," Benedict said. "But to accurately replicate a civilian track of interest, you need just that ... a smaller, slower aircraft."
Because of the CAP training, Benedict said he feels more confident in his ability to respond to a track of interest.
"In our occupation, action needs to be innate and second-nature, and the practice we get as alert pilots with these aircraft directly correlates to our action in real-world scrambles," Benedict said. "It's always a benefit to get as many 'practice' intercepts in before the real one happens."
In delivering this crucial training, CAP participates in more than 200 air defense training exercises a year, totaling more than 1,900 flying hours at the bargain price of $135 an hour.
"That amount covers the prorated maintenance and fuel costs for a CAP aircraft," said Lt. Col. Chris Sabo, Air Force Auxiliary Plans and Programs chief. "If the Air Force had to contract for a similar asset, they could easily pay up to $7,000 per hour."
That $7,000 per hour equals out to approximately $13.3 million for an average year of training, making CAP the more fiscally responsible choice with a price tag just north of $250,000 a year.
"But the real cost benefit is that CAP is a volunteer organization and the members are not paid for their services," Sabo said. "They typically give their time and talents just for the opportunity to serve our country."
Though the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought airspace protection into sharp focus, CAP has been providing for homeland defense longer than the Air Force has been a branch of the military. In December 1941, CAP was founded by more than 150,000 citizens who were concerned about the defense of America's coastline.
"In a post-9/11 world, this is a way for private citizens to directly contribute to the defense of America," Burke said. "Why wouldn't we do this for America and the ACA units?"