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News | Feb. 10, 2015

In Raptor we trust – all others we intercept

By Air Force 2nd Lt. Michael Trent Harrington JBER Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The phrase "Top Cover for America" was born of black-and-white newsreel footage of leather-jacketed men clambering into fighter jets to stop the Soviet menace. That vision, of pilots in goggles and ear muffs, sprinting across runways and up ladders, is dated.

What the modern imagination should conjure up is an image of two men in rubber suits sitting in a stuffy old hangar at midnight, sipping stale coffee and staring at the falling snow as "House Hunters" reruns flicker in the background.

Yet as Tech. Sgt. Alan King, non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the support section of the combat alert cell, would note, the few dozen Airmen in the alert footprint are probably the reason half of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson exists.

"In the end, really," King said, jutting his thumb toward the alert hangar and the sprawling airfield beyond, "it all comes down to these few guys."

"These guys" are a skeleton crew of 3rd Wing men and women who support the Alaskan NORAD Region combat alert mission.

They're two pilots and 20 or so maintainers, mostly, but also every 24/7 weather, intelligence, airfield operations and snow-clearing unit on base.

The mission is two-fold. Scrambling fighter jets is usually a response to ANR duties, said Air Force Maj. Peter "Toxic" Tymitz, 3rd Operations Squadron distributed mission operations flight commander.

The other alert duty is Operation Noble Eagle - the Department of Defense-wide enterprise behind the Air Force's homeland security role, according to the Air Force Historical Studies Office.

Noble Eagle is the least-known but longest-surviving triplet of the post-9/11 mission world; its sisters were Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The alert cell's motto reads "In Raptor we trust - all others we intercept," a reference to the base's famous F-22 stealth fighter residents, though many of the complex's windows and doors still hail the now-faraway glory of the wing's former F-15 Eagles.

Heritage Park, near the JBER-Elmendorf flight line, is a monument to the litany of other birds to bear the Alaskan NORAD mission through the years: P-80 Shooting Stars, F-89 Scorpions, F-102 Delta Daggers, F-4 Phantom IIs and the F-15s. The 3rd Wing has been in the alert business since it started.

Even the alert cell hangar is a particularly long and blue part of the Air Force line.

"The building was built in 1954," King said. "If it's torn down, it's a historical site - I doubt they could ever build something else."

The stress and expense of the alert cell, and the reasons for bearing them both, are best understood walking through the combat alert hangars.

Plaques listing planes intercepted by JBER's fighter and E-3 Sentry aircraft are layered head-to-toe along the buildings' hallways. Most expressive of all, though, is a map: a wall-sized map of North America is covered with hundreds of multi-colored star stickers.

"The real reason we're still here," Tymitz said, "is to react very quickly and respond to the threat of the unknown." Each star represents an unknown aircraft intercepted and identified.

Most are encounters with Soviet or Russian planes. More than a few are meetings with wayward Cessnas and passenger airliners with communications issues. The Federal Aviation Administration actually publishes helpful diagrams on how to respond to a fighter intercept, so that, for the most part, there are few surprises. That's the idea.

"We're not launching to shoot at something," Tymitz said. "When they send us out, we're the human eyes to say exactly what is out here."
"Here" usually means somewhere within the North American Air Defense Identification Zone, a vast swath of airspace jointly administered by U.S. and Canadian civil and military authorities.

The boundary line is almost entirely over water, so a big worry is whether to freeze to death over water or over land, said Air Force Capt. Wyatt "Smax" Cheek, 525th Fighter Squadron B Flight commander.

"Sometimes it looks like the Michelin man stepping out to the jet," Tymitz added.

The subconscious awareness of all the time-draining things standing between a pilot jetting to meet whatever's out there - the seconds spent becoming the Michelin Airman, putting on additional layers, waterproof gear and G-suits - is part of the reason few fliers sleep well at the alert cell, Tymitz said.

The novelty of even unscheduled alert scrambles wears off, the maintenance crews and pilots admitted, but not the edge.

"Every time you come out here and read your intel report for the day - it's a part of something bigger than your standard training," Tymitz said.

"For the first few minutes, you're the national response."

"When it's a real world mission," King added, "and you don't know what's going to happen when the plane leaves - your heart races."

It's a sense of pride knowing that he and his team are, at the end of it, about as close to all of the of "tip of the spear" cheerleading talk as anyone can get, King said.

They have to be ready to answer the call no matter the time or the conditions. Those are bold words in Alaska.

"The snow [removal] guys were out here during a snow storm Christmas morning," Cheek recalled.

"They were out front of the alert hangars plowing runways for three hours straight," he added, in case the call came in to go, and go now.

In Anchorage's fickle climate, it's not uncommon for 3rd Wing jets to take off on an alert mission and know they'll have to come back somewhere else for bad weather.

Refueling tanker aircraft from hundreds of miles away at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska and E-3s from a few hundred yards away are crucial parts of the alert puzzle, too.

Both join the F-22s soon after they launch for training runs, practice alerts and real-world calls with sirens blaring.

They're used to seeing each another in the cold, friendly skies of the Arctic Circle.

All others they intercept.