Inside the Gates: Protecting Alaska’s air space
Already in 2019, President Donald Trump has made a handful of stops in Alaska.
The latest came on June 26 when the president made a stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and spoke with Gov. Mike Dunleavy while refueling. In February, the president made a similar stop and spoke for about 20 minutes on base, after returning from diplomatic talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Any time the president or other high-ranking dignitaries visit Alaska, a temporary flight restriction is enforced and it is up to the 176th Air Defense Squadron and 611th Air Operations Center to protect Alaska’s air space.
"Our job is basically to monitor the air space 24/7 for Alaska, the United States and Canada," said Lt. Col. Shane Wallace, commander of 176th Air Defense Squadron.
What happens is the Federal Aviation Administration will establish a temporary flight restriction, or TFR. It's published through a Notice to Airmen, also known as a NOTAM. Anyone flying commercial or general aviation should read the notice as it will share information about any restrictions.
"Which means that they are going to put usually about a 30-mile ring [of security] around the entire area and then an inner 10-mile ring to further restrict any aircraft in there," Col. Jason Settle, commander of the 611th Air Operations Center, said. "They do that to basically ensure the safety of the president."
Most air traffic flying within the restricted area are local pilots who are unaware that a restriction is in place. That ignorance makes the Air Defense Squadron's mission much more difficult.
"By and large we know that most of the airmen out there, the civilian airmen are just like our military airmen," Settle said. "They are professional, they are disciplined, they want to follow the rules. We know sometimes with these flight restrictions, what we've seen is they may not be aware of the rules or may not be aware that the flight restriction is in place at the time. Which means they will take off in the middle of it."
The pilots flying in and out of an uncontrolled airfield or flying back in from the bush are usually the ones violating the restricted air space.
"Aircraft that take off without those restrictions are Big Lake, Wasilla, Palmer and those types of aircraft that are general aviation, that take off without a flight plan," Settle said. "That's where we run into trouble because we don't know who they are or where they are going."
That prompts the military to send out its F-22s to determine if the aircraft is friend or foe.
"That's where we have to come alongside," Settle said. "Contact them, maybe intercept with our fighter aircraft to get them out of that air space and just determine the intent of the aircraft to make sure it's not a threat to the president or anything else we are protecting."
"There are certain special acceptions," Lt. Col. Wallace said. "Law enforcement, secret service, obviously military aircraft, any kind of life flight or medical emergency. However, as a rule of thumb, more or less, all other aircraft are restricted."
Violators of the temporary flight restrictions face not only a scare from an F-22 but also a possible fine from the FAA. The goal is to reach out to Alaskan aviators to help conduct these missions by complying with the TFR requirements.
By and large, Alaska aviators are professional and disciplined, but there’s always a few who unknowingly violate the TFR and the hope is to reduce that number through outreach and education.
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