Operation Coronet Nighthawk
Operation Coronet Nighthawk involved the use of rotational deployments in support of operations to intercept possible drug trafficking aircraft. Starting in 1991, this mission evolved into using all Air Force assets, National Guard, Active and Reserves, before coming to an end in October 2001. Rotational deployments were in the form of 6 air defense fighter aircraft, crews and support equipment, and personnel throughout the year. Unit deployments lasted for 6 weeks.
Air National Guard squadrons rotated through Coronet Nighthawk as part of the effort to detect and monitor illegal drug traffic between South America and the United States. They stood alert and were on-call 24 hours-a-day to go and verify aircraft and determine whether or not they are suspicious. Making drug smugglers avoid a territory raises their cost of doing business and denies them one avenue of importing drugs into the United States. And those who do choose to use the central air route are likely to be greeted by law enforcement agencies once they reach the United States. The information pilots gathered ultimately went to organizations like the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency. If the aircraft continued into American air space, the civilian law enforcement agencies often could detain and search the suspicious aircraft based on the Coronet Nighthawk information.
Some air defense squadrons that supported Coronet Nighthawk operations in Panama began honing their night operational skills 2-3 months in advance of the actual deployment. These air defense squadrons could do this because their deployment dates were known at least one year in advance. "Nighthawk" was the key word because the suspected drug planes generally flew north out of South America so they could reach their drop points after dark, when they were more difficult to detect. They would then return to their home bases under the cover of darkness. Air National Guard units flew only over open waters and not over land. The water surveillance mission was entirely supported by Air National Guard personnel. A suspicious plane or ship would be followed and observed as it made its delivery and was followed again as it returned to the point it originated from. Subsequently, the Air National Guard units would notify local and federal law enforcement agencies of the suspicious ship or aircraft and these agencies would make the arrest.
Initially Operation Coronet Nighthawk deployments were in support of the Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Command, and under the direction of Joint Interagency Task Force-East, with aircraft flying from Howard Air Force Base, Panama. As part of Operation Coronet Nighthawk, F-15s and F-16s would intercept, shadow, and identify suspected narco-traffickers' aircraft. From September 1994 to the end of the decade, the interceptors had been credited with over 33,000 metric tons of cocaine being disrupted or seized. From Oregon to Massachusetts, the 10 fighter units in First Air Force performed the air sovereignty mission 24 hours a day. In the 1990s, Air National Guard units took part in numerous operations, including Coronet Nighthawk and Coronet Oak in Latin America. Coronet Nighthawk took care of just about every unit in First Air Force as they rotated in and out of Panama.
Beginning in 1991, Texas Air Guard's 111th Fighter Squadron took on the Coronet Nighthawk mission for 6 weeks each summer. In November 1997, the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing, located at the Atlantic City International Airport in Pomona New Jersey, participated in Coronet Nighthawk, with a deployment to Howard Air Force Base, Panama. Two of the wing's F-16 aircraft and 53 unit members took part in the defense of the southern United States helping prevent unauthorized or unidentified aircraft from violating United States airspace. The 177th also helped stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country by intercepting and identifying suspicious aircraft. From 28 December 1997 to 7 February 1998, the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Fighter Wing deployed and operated in support of Operation Coronet Nighthawk. Over 150 guardsmen and 6 F-16s were deployed to Howard Air Force Base in Panama.
In April 1999, the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Fighter Wing, the "Happy Hooligans," began deploying to Howard Air Force Base, Panama, to participate in what would be the last scheduled US military mission to the Republic of Panama, to support Operation Coronet Nighthawk. Coronet Nighthawk was scheduled to suspend operations from Howard on 30 April 1999 as part of the return of the Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanian government. With the suspension of Coronet Nighthawk at Howard, the last on-going US military mission in Panama would come to an end. The mission was to resume from another location.
The US subsequently identified Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles and Manta Air Base in Ecuador as locations from which to continue Operation Coronet Nighthawk. Operations resumed in May 1999. Up to 100 Air National Guard members spent 2 weeks at a time flying and maintaining 6 jet fighters at locations like the Hato International Airport on Curacao's northern shore. The planes were not armed with ammunition or live missiles, but their speed and sophisticated radar systems made them a valuable part of an extensive land and sea, military and civilian counter-drug operation. These operations, which had subsequently been transferred to the responsibility of US Southern Command, continued under October 2001.
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