Thursday, August 01, 2013

Air National Guard fighter jets intercept silent copter south of New Orleans

Louisiana Air National Guard fighter jets scrambled from Belle Chasse Thursday to intercept a helicopter that entered U.S. airspace and approached New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico without communicating with local authorities, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado. The AgustaWestland AW-139 copter landed without incident at a Lafourche Parish heliport in Leeville, northwest of Grand Isle, at 9:44 a.m., Maj. Beth Smith of NORAD said.

The copter belongs to Era Helicopters LLC, an air transportation company based in Lake Charles, a spokeswoman confirmed. The company had no further comment. Era Helicopters services the offshore industry and also provides sightseeing flights. According to its web site, the company has more than 170 copters in its fleet.

The AW-139 is an executive copter, able to seat up to 15 passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into Thursday's incident, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.

Pilots of the intercepted copter reportedly thought their communications equipment was “squawking and talking,” or emitting a signal that can be picked up on radar, Smith said. But the equipment had malfunctioned.

Two F-15 Eagle fighters, with the Louisiana’s 159th Fighter Wing, launched from the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base and intercepted the copter, forcing it to land at Leeville, according to NORAD, the military organization charged with protecting U.S. and Canadian airspace.

Known as the “Bayou Militia,” 159th has kept armed F-15s on alert at Belle Chasse since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, under NORAD control.

Lt. Cmdr. William Lewis, a NORAD spokesman, said incidents such as Thursday’s are fairly common, in which fighters are launched to investigate aircraft because their pilots aren’t communicating. Exact numbers of such incidents were not immediately available, he said.

“We respond to all kinds of different scenarios,” Lewis said. “We can never take any for granted, because you never know what might transpire here. If someone is not on the right frequency, it might be on accident or it might be on purpose. We can’t weigh the risk of not responding as we defend the homeland. That’s the ultimate responsibility of ours, to defend the homeland. Out of an abundance of caution, we react.”

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