On literally thousands of occasions since the day America changed, military interceptors have taken to the skies to track down general aviation airplanes whose pilots were guilty of nothing more nefarious than lousy flight planning or navigation.
Enforcement issues aside, sparking an intercept is a really bad idea. It brings into play military hardware that can ruin your day. It increases the cost to taxpayers. It ties up air traffic control resources. It generates publicity that could lead to increased regulation.
The Associated Press reported in December that general aviation aircraft had been intercepted by military aircraft more than 1,700 times since Sept. 11, 2001, but the Air Force says the number is substantially higher.
Ive asked our assessments division to provide an exact answer. They say that the number is higher than that, but they consider the exact number of intercepts classified, says Maj. Gerrold Heikkinen, chief of safety for the 1st Air Force, which is responsible for NORAD intercepts in the United States. The exact number would potentially give out details of our operating posture, response capabilities and potential limitations. Suffice it to say that our fighters continue to intercept tracks of interest whenever required, and we have a high rate of success completing those intercepts. Occasionally the intercepts are skipped or terminated when ATC is able to provide identification.
While general aviation pilots tend to think of intercepts as an inconvenience that may get them in hot water, the military considers them deadly serious. The bottom line, palpable when talking to military fliers, is that GA pilots are perceived to have a cavalier attitude toward the TFRs that lead to most intercepts.
Air defense has changed since the 2001 hijackings. The military network was concerned about general aviation primarily to the extent that light aircraft and drug smugglers sometimes went together.
Now, however, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has shifted some of its resources toward monitoring general aviation, particularly but not exclusively around areas covered by TFRs. U.S. Customs has some armed helicopters. The U.S. Army has deployed anti-aircraft defenses around some locations, including Washington, D.C.
In short, air defense in some ways has moved from a Cold War leftover to a key component of the governments war on terrorism.
NORAD says most intercepts involving unknown or unauthorized aircraft turn out to be the result of a lost or confused pilot, someone deviating from their flight plan or somehow failing to comply with air traffic control directives. Some involve drug traffickers or are otherwise connected to law enforcement efforts.
Our flight tactics have evolved to allow us to successfully intercept and shadow virtually any aircraft at any speed or altitude, Maj. Heikkinen says. We work closely with the FAA and military controllers to make sure this is done with the utmost safety to surrounding traffic, but there are obviously times when conflicts exist. The best option for everyone would be if nobody ever got lost, no transponder equipment ever failed, and nobody ever violated restricted airspace. In the real world, though, these things happen. So NORAD fighters will continue to scramble to identify and track any unknown aircraft.
Each scramble is a coordinated affair that involves the military pilots as well as crew chiefs, command post personnel, military controllers, FAA controllers and even the pilot of the target airplane. Scrambles are considered more risky than normal departures because of an emphasis on quick response and operation in all kinds of weather. In addition, the intercept may occur in crowded airspace, and the military aircraft must therefore deal with other air traffic in the vicinity.
Suspicious targets are generally first detected by FAA controllers. They usually involve aircraft approaching U.S. airspace or those flying in the vicinity of TFRs.
If the FAA is unable to identify an aircraft, they may request special assistance with in-flight identification or surveillance, Maj. Heikkinen says. All of this has to be performed in accordance with official civil and/or military mission responsibilities. Any aircraft that doesnt comply with ATC directions or violates restricted airspace is liable to be intercepted.
The first indication of impending trouble is generally an FAA controller, who will warn you of the restrictions and, if necessary, give you vectors to avoid or leave the airspace in question. If you fail to comply or the controller cannot make radio contact, military helicopters or jets may be scrambled to intercept.
Just because you dont see them doesnt mean they arent there, however. They approach from behind and, should you be deemed not to be a threat, may peel away before even reaching your position.
If they do intercept, it will typically be off your left wing and above, as described in chapter five of the Aeronautical Information Manual. There are other nuances you should understand, including night and in IMC. The military says it does, indeed, go by the book when intercepting general aviation pilots.
But the decision to intercept is not automatic. Although the military refuses to say exactly what criteria it uses, for obvious reasons, both military and FAA controllers stay alert for what they describe as any deviation or track of interest to NORAD authorities.
It is a safe bet that even a light single engine aircraft busting a TFR just by skirting the edge, may result in a scramble and an intercept, Heikkenin says.
The pilot of the intercepting aircraft will expect you to follow any commands that are issued but to maintain safe control of your airplane. Communications will be attempted on local ATC frequencies as well as 121.5. If radio contact fails, the intercepting aircraft will signal you according to the standards outlined in the AIM.
If you dont have an AIM on you and your mind goes blank at the sight of a military airplane with loaded hardpoints, the basic scenario is this.
The interceptor will fly alongside and rock its wings or flash its lights. Rock or flash yours back. It will then start a slow turn in the direction it wants you to fly. Turn that way. If youre being ordered to land, it will head to an airport and lower its landing gear. It wont land, but you should. When youre being released, the interceptor will abruptly break away in a maneuver you couldnt hope to match.
Sounds simple enough, but one problem occasionally arises due to the speed difference between a piston airplane and a fighter. Published reports put the F-16s landing approach speed at 135 knots and its touchdown speed at 120 knots. Other reports say the airplane can fly as slowly as 105 knots.
A light single may be hard pressed to fly as fast as an F-16 must fly for adequate controllability. In that case, the interceptor will fly orbits. On each pass, it will rock wings. If you acknowledge, the next pass may lead to that slow turn.
NORAD is very specific in its contention that the interceptor pilots will steer clear of dangerous interference with the intruding airplane, so try to remain calm and fly predictably. They have trained for this, you have not, so try to let them do all of the heavy lifting.
Attempt to make contact on 121.5. Squawk 7700. If you get instructions over the radio that are counter to what you think the interceptor is telling you, request immediate clarification. When in doubt, follow the interceptors commands, because the guy on the radio may not be the one with the guns.
Under no circumstances should you slow down to try to get the interceptor to leave you alone. Not complying with the interceptors commands runs counter to the rules, sure, but it can also cause danger for the interceptor and for you. Says Maj. Heikkenin succinctly, It would be an unwise and ill-advised maneuver.
If you run afoul of TFRs or other restricted airspace, the FAA has ultimate enforcement responsibility, and the punishment you get will depend on a lot of different circumstances. The militarys role continues until it has determined there is no military or terrorist threat involved. At that point, the interceptor may (or may not) direct you to land. It may end its role when you have turned away from the restricted airspace.
Because mistakes happen, intercepts are likely to be with us for as long as there are TFRs and other restricted airspace – which is to say forever. But in the political debate over whether TFRs are right or justified, a larger concern has to acknowledged: These military guys are doing the job the nation wants them to do.
We in the fighter business are on your side. We like to think that we are good guys, Maj. Heikkenin says. We will fly our aircraft safely and professionally any time we are conducting intercepts to protect the nation. We know that we can count on our colleagues in general aviation to fly their planes smartly, and help us accomplish our ultimate objective – to ensure the safety and freedom of the US airways and air traffic.
Also With This Article
“Basic Intercept Procedures”