Marco Island squadron supports Florida Air National Guard

A fighter approaching target CAP aircraft. Submitted

A fighter approaching target CAP aircraft. Submitted

Marco Mission Base and Communications Center located in the CAP Hangar at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Fred Edwards in the foreground and Jim Picone overseeing the mission in progress. Submitted

Marco Mission Base and Communications Center located in the CAP Hangar at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Fred Edwards in the foreground and Jim Picone overseeing the mission in progress. Submitted

CAP target aircraft preparing for departure on a mission at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Submitted

CAP target aircraft preparing for departure on a mission at the Marco Island Executive Airport. Submitted

The Civil Air Patrol, Marco Island Squadron, has been very active in support of the U.S. Army, Florida National Guard, during their summer encampment at Camp Blanding in 2012 and in ongoing support of the US Air Force, Florida Air National Guard since 2010. CAP volunteers include former military from all branches of the US Armed Forces. Civil Air Patrol in Marco Island and the Florida Wing Squadrons across the state are frequently called to assist with the training of our Florida reserve units.

CAP aircraft are painted in bright red, white and bluecolors, and easily identified visually as “friendly” aircraft. These airplanes are relatively low cost training aids for the Air Force to deploy when instructing their flight crews to search for, locate and then force down a threat aircraft. The geography of southern Florida makes our shores and our airspace likely targets for contraband floated or flown into the United States. Since Sept. 11, air traffic controllers have been acutely aware of the role they play in the identification of all aircraft flying over prohibited airspace or entering the country without proper flight plans. The Florida Air National Guard located at Homestead Air Reserve Base is part of the country’s front line of defense and a standby crews consisting of aviators and combat equipped fighter aircraft are available 24 hours a day. They can be airborne in a matter of minutes to intercept unidentified and unknown airplanes. Occasionally, the Marco Island CAP airplane and its crew of two pilots play the role of a “bogey” airplane approaching the Florida peninsula from a point south of Marathon in the Florida Keys.

The Florida Wing of the Civil Air Patrol plans the mission in detail with members of the Florida Air National Guard. Conference calls with the Commanders of the two groups go over the altitudes, the route of flight of the target CAP plane and then plan a flight over water to include an extensive safety plan. Code words are agreed upon to insure the armed fighters are “called off” if there is a safety concern, obscured visual flight over the intercept location, lack of two way communications, or any host of unforeseen issues that could “scrub” the training flight. When all of the planning is complete, CAP crews are notified of their take off time, their latitude and longitude destination point, the scramble time for the fighters, an assigned altitude, and their on-station hold coordinates.

To insure uninterrupted radio communications with the fighter command and the CAP target aircraft, a second CAP aircraft (“high bird”) is launched to act as a maintenance backup and aerial relay station in case the Marco Mission Base radio communications center cannot contact the low flying target aircraft orbiting south of Marathon or Air Guard in Homestead.

When the Air Force flight crew, in the ready room at Homestead, is notified there is a unidentified target aircraft approaching the mainland, the crew leaves immediately for the standby aircraft waiting on the ramp adjacent to their quarters. These two pilots are dressed, their flight gear is on board the fighter aircraft and they have only to climb into the aircraft and start the engines. These aircraft are given priority departure instructions by the military controllers who, by now, have the target aircraft on their radar.

The Civil Air Patrol crew is then instructed to begin the pre-arranged flight path over Marathon and along the west coast of the Florida Everglades and U.S. airspace. It is not very long, minutes actually, before a pair of jets announce to the CAP crew over an assigned frequency that “you are being intercepted by the United States Air Force.” As a pilot who has flown the target, it is very intimidating to hear those words and look to the west and see a fully armed fighter alongside your airplane, so close you can see the pilot of the fighter visually inspecting you. YOU know you are one of the good guys and you HOPE the fighter pilot also believes you are a good guy but the hair still stands up on your neck as he flies past and breaks away.

The Air Force does an exercise called “type and tail (number)” which they relay to their controlling authority describing who they think you are and what type of airplane they are intercepting. A second aircraft appears on the opposite side and again it is announced that you are being intercepted and to follow all future instructions immediately. A heading is given and an order to descend to an assigned altitude. It really gets interesting when the CAP crew responds over the radio that we are “simulating no response.”

The meaning is we are not going to comply nor are we actually talking to you. This would be a big mistake for any would-be bomber or smuggler. The next maneuver is a jet alongside that abruptly turns across your nose in the direction you are to turn and follow. The fighter is large and supersonic but for this exercise he is mushing along at our airspeed “just for the practice”.

The destination you are given is an unmanned location in the middle of nowhere and if this were an actual situation, a small army of law enforcement officials would be on the ground awaiting your arrival. If at any time the intercepted aircraft did not comply or attempted an evasive flight maneuver, the armed fighters could eliminate the threat prior to reaching any populated area. The fighters escort the target to the ground at the assigned location and the exercise is terminated. The entire mission, start to finish, takes just over in an hour.

Sleep well South Florida, your Air Force is awake, vigilant and thoroughly rehearsed should an actual threat present itself over our shores.

For further information on Marco Island Senior Squadron or the Civil Air Patrol in general, contact Larry Harris, Public Affairs officer at (239) 404-0374 or email him at harrisle1@yahoo.com.

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