JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the first of a two-part series on the D.C. Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert mission.
The 113th Wing's Aerospace Control Alert (ACA) Detachment reached a milestone of responding to 5,000 alert events, a historic first in the nation, March 21.
"We have had 'Capital Guardians' on point, vigilant and ready to do what is necessary to defend the nation and the National Capital Region," said Lt. Col. John Vargas, commander of the 113th Wing's ACA, which was created on Sept. 11, 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. "As we approached this milestone of 5,000 events and with the region we protect here, our operational tempo is more than any other alert center in the country."
The 113th Wing's ACA mission includes aerospace control forces as part of the federal government's efforts to protect U.S. airspace and respond to alert calls with around-the-clock alert teams ready to launch F-16 Fighting Falcons and other aircraft at a moment's notice for a rapid response to airborne threats and air emergencies. The D.C. Air National Guard's F-16s and ready trained personnel are part of a multi-layered air defense system for the nation's capital.
Here, the D.C. Air National Guard has four components to the immediate local ACA team. Command post controllers listen for alerts and regularly communicate with higher headquarters. Secondly, the active duty component of the 11th Wing Security Forces provides security to the D.C. ANG's ACA location and compound area. The remaining two components of the ACA team are comprised of pilots and maintainers.
"To be able to stand out and stand alone in numbers comparatively, that is a testament to the individuals here - our commander, our pilots, our team," said Master Sgt. Curtis Hills, maintenance alert team supervisor. "That milestone is a first and you really cannot put it into words the impact that it does for the individuals here to achieve that. It is phenomenal to hit that milestone and for everyone here to be a part of that because it really is a team effort."
Although the 113th Wing's pilots, maintainers, and controllers drive the ACA mission 24/7, the entire D.C. Air National Guard works alongside their active duty counterparts in the 11th Wing to form a cohesive team that oversees operations, maintenance, mission and medical support.
"This truly is a total force effort," said Brig. Gen. George Degnon, 113th Wing commander. "We are enabled by the hard work and efforts of many airmen working behind the scenes. A tremendous amount of coordination is continually being conducted between multiple agencies prior to us getting the call. Our pilots are highly trained and ready to go at a moment's notice."
When the alarm sounds, there are no questions, no hesitation, and no debate. Pilots and maintainers dash through the hallway and literally run to the aircraft bay and generate aircraft - all in a matter of minutes.
"Every day that we come down here to the alert facilities, we don't come with the mindset that this is another day at the office," said Vargas. "We arrive with the mindset that today is the day, the day that my actions are going to prevent an attack on our nation's capital. Every second that we are able to save in our response is a second that we know could be the difference in mission success."
The D.C. ANG's ACA has been the most active alert detachment in the history of the Department of Defense, according to Col. W. Mark Valentine, 113th Operations Group commander. To understand the significance of the achievement, he explained the difference between the numbers of alert calls of the D.C. unit with those of other units from around the country.
"There are approximately 15 units total," Valentine said. "If you add up all of their alert calls and double that, that doesn't come close to the amount of activity we have had. This is a welcomed result of being next to the nation's capital."
After the ACA detachment was created on Sept. 11, 2001, specific flight rules were also established, including special restrictions around D.C. and regional icons. Aircraft and airmen were soon placed on a 24/7 status and ready to take whatever tactical actions necessary to defend the National Capital Region from any threat from that day forward.
"We have members who have been here since 9/11 who work and live in the D.C. area, and are able to leverage our experience and familiarity with the local public," Degnon said.
Valentine remembers that day clearly. For him, this milestone is personal as Sept. 11, 2001 was his first day in the Air National Guard here at Joint Base Andrews. He was receiving a tour of his new work station when an intelligence officer announced that an aircraft had hit the World Trade Center.
"I will never forget the moment looking at that TV screen. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I realized that it was a beautiful day out with not a cloud in the sky and I knew that was not an accident," Valentine said. "After the second plane hit, it felt like we stared at the screen for hours, but in reality it was only a few seconds. Everyone immediately began executing their part in getting the aircraft airborne."
"That was the day that the ACA mission was born. I was here when the first sortie took off for this emergency and I am here now almost 15 years later to witness us pass 5,000 alarm events."
Similar to Valentine's unforgettable alert experience in 2001, the 5,000th alert also marked a special event for 1st Lt. Jacob Zuberi, who joined Vargas to respond to the alarm. Zuberi, the youngest mission-ready pilot in the unit, happened to be serving on his first alert shift.
"Having Lt. Zuberi on shift for the 5,000th mark sends a message that we will remain vigilant and ever ready," Vargas said. "To date, the 'Capital Guardians' have had a great deal of success in the defense of the National Capital Region. We will treat our 5,001st event with the same intensity that we did for every event in the last 14 years and for years to come."
For more coverage of this historic event, go to