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Shaw F-16s intercept shuttle airspace violator

by Senior Airman Susan Penning
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

7/27/2005 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFPN) -- Two F-16 Fighting Falcons, enforcing a temporary no-fly zone around the Space Shuttle Discovery launch site at Cape Canaveral, Fla., intercepted and escorted a small civilian aircraft from the area July 26.

“It was about three minutes from launch when we got the call from our controlling agency that we had a civil aircraft violation,” said Capt. Craig Simmons, one of the pilots who intercepted the airplane.

His aircraft was among six from the 55th Fighter Squadron here protecting a 40-mile radius at the request of U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for defending North American airspace.

Captain Simmons and his wingman, Capt. Joseph Palen, said the plane was about 20 miles from the launch site. After they intercepted the civilian aircraft, the two Air Force pilots escorted it from the area without incident.

“Protecting and controlling airspace is a significant aspect of our mission and one that our pilots do exceptionally well,” said Col. Philip Ruhlman, 20th Fighter Wing commander. “The (F-16) is incredibly effective in the Operation Noble Eagle mission with its Link-16 capability, helmet-mounted cueing system and targeting pod. Our pilots are qualified in the ONE mission in addition to their primary qualifications in the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.”

Flying the mission was an experience one of the pilots said he will never forget.

“I got to hear the countdown and see the shuttle launch. It was really exciting,” said 1st Lt. Bryan Dalton.

“It’s very different to be at altitude and being able to watch a shuttle launch from the ground and see it track across the sky into space,” Captain Simmons said. “It’s amazing how fast that thing gets off the ground.”

Air defense missions have changed dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001, said North American Aerospace Defense officials. Before, NORAD did not execute combat air patrols because the focus was on threats overseas. The focus has changed since the terrorist hijacking and continues to be a potential terrorist weapon.

Federal Aviation Administration officials are investigating the incident with the small civil aircraft.

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