The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, conducted an air defense exercise called Felix Hawk last Thursday in the skies over Southern Humboldt and Mendocino County. The object of the exercise was to simulate two scenarios involving hostile aircraft -- in this case a supposed civilian airliner and a small single-engine Cessna.
"Today's particular exercise, it was a C-21 pretending to be an airliner that had some sort of disturbance on board," Lt. Col. Shawn Navin told KMUD News' Terri Klemetson. "The other scenario was a Cessna, a little small airplane."
Lt. Col. Navin works with the California Air National Guard's 144th Fighter Wing, in Fresno.
"The pilot of the airplane was distraught after he had been fired from his job and was now flying an aircraft around the city," Navin said after reminding the audience that this was purely hypothetical. "His wife called the police and said ‘Listen, I think my husband might be suicidal.' So we get sent out there to provide whatever assistance we can. In this case, when we get there we start talking to him on the radio. Our first job is to get him away from any populated area. The second job, if we can, is to get him to land at an airport."
"Did you have any hypothetical engagement with weapons?" Klemetson asked.
"We never hypothetically use weapons. It's just not a good practice for us, as you can probably imagine why. So we take it verbally to a logical conclusion. For instance, today, when we get to that C21," he said, "we take that to a logical conclusion."
In this case, that meant making verbal contact over the radio, verifying that everything is all right on the aircraft, then waiting for a general at the top of the chain of command to issue orders for the fighter pilots on how to proceed. The Cessna in this exercise had a working radio, but things could get more complicated if the NORAD jets are unable to communicate with the other pilot.
There was some discussion of canceling Operation Felix Hawk due to weather conditions here along the North Coast, but Lt. Col. Navin said that was not necessary.
"For these missions, we do take weather into strong consideration. However, the F-16 is an all-weather fighter," Navin told KMUD. "It can fly in anything. Hail is not going to bother it. Snow is not going to bother it."
Sometimes the flight pattern might get modified to accommodate the civilian aircraft involved, but these exercises frequently take place at high altitudes -- well above any weather disturbances.
The Redwood Times tried to call Lt. Col. Shawn Navin at the 144th Fighter Wing, but he could not be reached by deadline.