Saturday, May 27, 2017

Air guards practice defense of New Jersey, Trump airspace

GALLOWAY - While local, county and state law-enforcement protects President Donald Trump on the ground during his weekend visits to Bedminster, a well-organized coalition of military pilots guard the skies above him.

Tuesday, those combined defense forces scrambled from the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing base at Atlantic City International Airport for a complex drill over the southern coast of New Jersey to practice first responses on aircraft that cross into restricted airspace, not only above Bedminster during the president's weekend visits to Trump National Golf Club, but throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

The "Cross Tell" exercise presented six different scenarios for pilots of U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and armed F-16 fighter jets from three regional Air National Guard units.

"We're trying to solve the inter-agency problems, bringing together the agencies, the Air National Guard, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, all the entities that are involved in making sure we defend the United States airspace," said 177th Operations Group Commander Col. Bradford R. Everman.

"We do a couple of missions, and we can all see the mission from our different perspectives," Everman said. "At the end, we debrief those missions, we take out the lessons learned and share them across all the entities involved. That way, if it becomes a real-world mission, and we actually have to execute this to truly defend the United States, we're better at it, because we've solved some of those inter-agency problems."

The exercise was opened to the media to give them a literal bird's-eye view of the engagements, seating them in single-prop Cessna 182 planes piloted by volunteers from the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), who played the roles of "tracks of interest" in the dramatic sortie.

CAP provides essential and cost-effective support for the combined forces, also conducting 90 percent of all inland search and rescue missions in the continental United States.

Identical CAP Cessnas transported three reporters — one crossing into Pennsylvania — to three different engagement zones. One Gannett New Jersey reporter joined CAP Capt. Kenneth A. Korwin, left, and Maj. Lorraine Denby in the sky between Ocean City and Sea Isle City on the Jersey Shore.

Operating by script, the Cessna was cruising at about 125 knots, at an altitude of 2,500 feet, awaiting a close encounter with the Coast Guard.

"Can you see it yet?" Korwin asked.

Soon enough, an orange helicopter was spotted in the distance, approaching rapidly from behind before settling just above and behind the Cessna, which Korwin referred to as his "blind spot."

"It makes me nervous when they are that close and I can't see them," Korwin said.

A few seconds later, the helicopter dipped and advanced to a position about 500 feet off his left wing, by Korwin's estimate.

"Notice how he positions just low enough so I can see him under the wing," Korwin said.

The radio crackled with the Coast Guard announcing itself "just off your left wing. You have entered restricted airspace and you have been intercepted. Rock your wings to acknowledge."

Korwin complied, rocking the aircraft left and right while maintaining his course. Finally, after transmitting instructions where to land, the Coast Guard pilot acknowledged the end of the engagement and broke away.

The Cessna, however, remained in the same airspace for about 90 minutes, circling as it altered speed and altitude for five more engagements. Three followed a similar pattern, while Korwin was instructed to veer off in another, simulating an escape attempt. In another scenario, he did not respond, maintaining defiant radio silence and course.

Varying the direction, altitude, speed and reaction gave the helicopter pilots a variety of variables to practice reacting to, Denby explained.

"If we were heading like this to the White House, we would be shot down," Korwin posed.

Back on the ground, Scott clarified that since 9/11, NORAD has safely escorted all violators out of restricted airspace.

"I would also note that (shooting down the track of interest) is a final resort, and most times, the violating aircraft is unaware that they have flown into restricted airspace," Scott said.

The FAA posts temporary flight restriction information in affected areas to warn general-aviation pilots about the temporarily-prohibited airspace on their website at

Following the exercise, Everman offered an upbeat assessment of the simulated missions.

"It went amazingly well," he said. "We had a chance to get everyone together. The best way to figure out how this went will happen in about three hours. We get all the players in the room. We'll share the lessons learned that came out in various parts of the exercise. We'll wrap all those up and put that in a report that we can pass along to other units."

"From the Air Force perspective, it really gives us an opportunity to see the other sides of the mission," said Maj. Andrew J. Scott. "The Air Force doesn't always get to see the Coast Guard side of the mission, and the Coast Guard doesn't get to see the Air Force side of the mission, So it's great opportunity for us to share and see the air-defense mission as a whole."

Adding to the relevance of the exercise are the temporary flight restrictions that will be imposed in Northern and Central New Jersey during the president's anticipated weekend trips to Bedminster over the next several months.

"With that happening, the FAA establishes the temporary flight restriction that will be occurring in the Bedminster New Jersey area," Scott said. "NORAD's job will be to enforce that. We can do that through a number of means, by fighter aircraft, also the Coast Guard helos."

"We're always concerned with all of the airspace that's over the sovereign U.S.," Everman said. "Sometimes it's Bedminster. Sometimes it's other places. It really depends on where the president is, and where our other areas of vulnerability are. But we always defend all of the United States airspace, from Maine to Florida, all the way out to the West Coast as well."

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