Operations amplified to support alert mission

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Erik Hofmeyer
  • 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
No midnight kisses, confetti or Auld Lang Syne, just battle dress uniforms and flight suits as a handful of "Makos" from the 93rd Fighter Squadron watched the New Year's revelry on TV from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) alert facility at Homestead Air Reserve Base.

The Homestead reservists volunteered to sacrifice their holidays and stand ready to rapidly respond to potential threats within U.S. airspace in lieu of a detachment of Florida Air National Guardsmen based out of the 125th Fighter Wing, Jacksonville, Fla., who normally perform the alert mission from Homestead ARB.

The Guardsmen fly and maintain the venerable F-15A "Eagle" fighter jets. However, the entire Air Force fleet of about 670 F-15A through F-15D model fighter jets, with an average age of 25 years, was grounded due to precautionary testing for airworthiness problems on Nov. 2.

As a result, the 93rd Fighter Squadron F-16 pilots and maintainers have redoubled efforts to pull both the 24/7 alert mission and train for combat operations. Some reservists already working full-time at Homestead ARB are putting in overtime, and others have volunteered to put civilian careers on hold to support "Operation Noble Eagle," the moniker given to military response to airborne objects approaching North America.

This alert facility is one of many strategically placed around the nation, and its concept and design is similar to a fire station. Instead of sliding down poles, gearing up and taking off on a fire truck, pilots and maintenance crew chiefs scramble to launch fighter jets armed with live munitions within minutes of an alert from NORAD.

These F-16 aircraft on alert are capable of intercepting, identifying, and if necessary, destroying unknown aircraft that penetrate U.S. airspace. In the past, this threat has included narcotics trafficking aircraft, unidentified aircraft straying into restricted airspace and Cuban fighter jets.

"We're the best unit to do this mission because we're right here in place," said Lt. Col. Michael Lesman, 482nd FW alert commander. "There are a bunch of other F-16 squadrons having to travel and go on temporary duty assignments to perform the mission in place of an 'Eagle' squadron somewhere else."

The Makos, maintainers and other support personnel already maintain busy flying schedules ensuring pilots remain proficient and combat-ready. Pulling the alert mission means cutting back on training for combat because more people are committed to supporting the alert mission.

"We're not manned to do this alert mission, but everybody is stepping up to the plate to make this happen," Colonel Lesman said. A team of maintainers and pilots man the facility at all times, working 24-hour shifts, and sometimes, they get off shift at the facility and go on to work at their other jobs. Also, most of the people supporting the alert mission just came back from a deployment to Iraq in August, and have to come back full time in November to support Noble Eagle."

Reservists like Master Sgt. James Tant, 482nd Maintenance Group weapons loader, volunteered to temporarily leave his family and civilian career with the Disney Cruise Line in Celebration, Fla., to support the alert mission.

"My family is used to it by now since 2001. I've actually spent more time in a military status than a civilian. This isn't my first time doing this, so it's not like it was a total shock for my family," Sergeant Tant said.

"It allows me to apply my trade more than two days out of the month," he said. "I can apply it on a daily basis, and it allows me to get a little deeper than what a traditional reservist would see on a unit training assembly weekend."

The fact that all 93rd Fighter Squadron pilots and maintainers have combat and deployed experience greatly assisted in the temporary changeover from the Air National Guard, creating no gaps in national defense.

"What helped us out was that half of our guys have done this before. It's been a couple years since we last supported Operation Noble Eagle in 2004, but overall it's been a fairly seamless transition," Colonel Lesman said.