JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the second of a two-part series on the D.C. Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert mission.
The D.C. Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert Detachment recently reached a milestone, beyond comparison of other alert teams with 5,000 alert calls, a historic record as the highest in the nation. See first article of the two-part series.
The sun is not out yet. A new shift arrives at the firehouse-like facility to switch out with an exhausted but still attentive team. Maj. Wyck Furcron, a pilot of the 121st Fighter Squadron, 113th Wing, arrives with his flight equipment and an overnight bag that he places in one of the many bedrooms.
"The entire building is designed to keep us in a home-like environment so you can be as relaxed as you need to be," Furcron said. "When that horn goes go off in the middle of the night, at least you have had a good meal, a little bit of rest and you can focus on the job that you need to do."
The major sets his flight equipment, harness, and helmet near an F-16 parked inside the hangar bay. He performs an equipment check and joins the maintainers as they inspect the aircraft. After the power-on and quick alignment checks and other items on his checklist, the aircraft is ready to be airborne at a moment's notice.
The morning checks are complete and the team has settled in for the long 24-hour shift ahead. The airmen can hear the sound of asparagus being sliced from one of the two kitchens and the daily news from a nearby television hanging above the couches in the day room. An airman sits in front of his computer, focusing on one of the many training courses required of the ACA team.
Another airman prints a checklist for the afternoon inspections. He joins two others in the bay and walks around each aircraft to check for leaks, foreign objects or debris. Master Sgt. Curtis Hills, maintenance alert team supervisor, signs inspections checklist forms to release aircraft for flight.
Meanwhile, maintainer Tech. Sgt. David Cochran checks the hazardous chemical locker for any expired chemicals. There is laughter down the hall. Cochran hears sounds from the gym near the second kitchen, the swoosh of a treadmill belt against the repetitious clanking of a lateral pulldown machine. The 24-hour alert team cannot leave the building during their shift; an outside run on a sunny day is not an option for these airmen.
Suddenly the red alarm illuminates the room with a bright red glow and a loud horn comes to life.
"Scramble! Scramble! Scramble!" The loud horn sounds. "I say again, scramble!"
In mere moments, running airmen fill the hallway, maintainers and pilots alike. They meet at the aircraft bay in the blink of an eye, regardless of what they were involved in just seconds prior to the alert.
"We respond to any threat that approaches the Washington area or within a certain distance to the assets we protect," said Col. W. Mark Valentine, 113th Operations Group commander. "Examples range from a civilian pilot who is lost and unaware he has inappropriately entered protected airspace, all the way up to an armed attack on the United States."
Valentine settles into the cockpit of his aircraft, eyes focused on the red alert light. Furcron sits in the second aircraft nearby. Moments later, Valentine sees the ACA building fade away behind him. He is now airborne and on his way to fly adjacent with a civilian aircraft whose pilot has passed out inside of his cockpit. Valentine will escort this aircraft for several hours, trying every strategy he can to wake up the pilot and prevent a possible catastrophe.
The team returns, mentally exhausted from the real-world alarm red scramble. The 15-man crew regenerates the aircraft to be ready for additional alerts. Airmen prepare and cook dinner in both of the kitchens.
Crew rest is extremely important to this mission. An early bedtime can make a difference in performance if there is an alert during the night. While some bedroom doors may close, indicating lights out by 9 p.m., on any given day other maintainers may be up until midnight due to an ongoing mission. If an aircraft is unfit to fly, the maintainers immediately work on repair. In this critical mission, maintenance issues cannot wait until the next day for resolution.
"Maintenance is the lifeblood of the ACA operation," Valentine said. "Our maintainers do a fantastic job at keeping these airplanes up to speed so that we (pilots) are safe and there are no safety hazards... but there is always a risk to flying. I try never to walk out the door without kissing and hugging my wife and my kids because you just never know."
There is not a sound in the self-sustaining facility, only silence.
It is well past midnight when the bright yellow alarm shines onto sleeping faces. The eyes of every airman in the building open, the horn sounds and they are once again on the run. The fighter jets taxi and wait at the end of the runway. Given the possible real-world scenarios of yellow alerts, they are prepared to launch for any response.
The white "all-clear" alarm announces and the aircraft taxi back to the bay. This particular situation was handled without turning into a red alarm event - this time.
"At the end of the day, one word that would describe this mission is pride," Valentine said. "It's an exhilarating feeling every time I run out to that aircraft to do this mission and to be airborne within minutes. There is some fear and some danger in flying these airplanes... but there is a lot of pride."
The next day
It is sunrise 24 hours later. Lt. Col. John Vargas, the commander of the ACA Detachment, greets Valentine and Furcron as they prepare to leave the unit and return to their families.
"It is humbling every day," Vargas said. "I can't tell you what a unique area of operation this is because there are just so many elements that join together successfully. That is what makes this team so capable of defending the National Capital Region with great pride."