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NAS JRB New Orleans
ajor Jeff “Foxworthy” Vaughan cycled his flight controls and checked his engine instruments one last time as he took the runway in his F-15C. He looked over into his canopy mirror to see the taxi light of his wingman three hundred feet behind him as Major Jake “Buzz” Bronson followed him onto the runway.
It was dark out. The airfield was still closed, and other than the ambient lighting from the city of New Orleans a few miles away, the relatively clear skies were pitch black. The runway edges were barely illuminated from the pilot controlled lighting that stayed on after field hours.
With the tower closed, Foxworthy had contacted New Orleans Approach for takeoff clearance and coordination for their scramble. It had only been barely fifteen minutes since the klaxon had gone off, waking him from his nap. He and his wingman had been scrambled to intercept an unknown aircraft crossing the Air Defense Identification Zone out over the Gulf of Mexico without talking to anyone.
Foxworthy lined his aircraft up on runway centerline for Runway 22 after making the short taxi out from the alert hangars at the end of the runway and lit the afterburners. He watched his engine instruments, confirming the nozzle indicators showed “two good swings” as the afterburners lit and rocketed his F-15 down the ten thousand foot runway. Seconds later, Foxworthy’s wingman took the runway and followed suit as the two climbed out to the southeast toward the target.
“WatchDog, Bayou Zero One airborne, passing one-five-thousand,” Foxworthy said as he checked in with the military controller that would be directing the intercept. He pulled out his Night Vision Goggles from their case, clipped them to the bracket on his visor, and flipped them down over his eyes. The green image changed the abyss of darkness in front of him to a green monochrome presentation. The moonlight illumination was low, and even with the goggles, there wasn’t much of a discernible horizon or clear delineation between the dark, calm waters and the sky.
Foxworthy had flown the F-15 as an Air National Guard pilot for nearly fifteen years. He had seen the unit transition from the F-15A to the basic F-15C and finally to the upgraded F-15Cs with AESA radars. He had been scrambled more times than he cared to count on varying targets from crop dusters to helicopters to airliners.
Airliners scared Foxworthy. Since 9/11, the mission of the alert pilot had changed significantly. Gone were the romantic musings of being scrambled up against the hoard of MiG-29s invading the U. S. Mainland and fighting to save the day. It had long since been replaced with the idea of terrorists using passenger jets as weapons against critical infrastructure targets. The harsh reality was that he might have to use one of the eight radar-guided air to air missiles on his wing to shoot one down to prevent an even bigger catastrophe. It was not a very palatable thought for the crusty Major.
But as Foxworthy looked over to see Buzz rejoin in a combat spread formation a mile and a half off his left wing, he was confident that tonight’s mission would be relatively benign. The initial Intel they had received when they checked in with their Command Post for the tasking was that it was a slow-moving aircraft located seventy miles southeast of New Orleans. The aircraft was not responding to WatchDog’s repeated identification calls and required a visual identification.
“Bayou Zero One, bogey BRAA one-zero-zero, fifty-nine, five thousand, cold, maneuver,” the WatchDog controller responded, giving Foxworthy the Bearing, Range, Altitude, and Aspect of the unknown aircraft. As they cruised along at seventeen thousand feet and four hundred knots, the aircraft was just under sixty nautical miles away from their current position.
“Sounds like he’s in WHODAT,” Buzz said over the auxiliary radio. The WHODAT airspace was the name for the military working airspace they used during training to practice their air-to-air tactics.
Foxworthy checked his radar. Seconds later, the Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar had picked up the target and track file indicated the radar was tracking the aircraft. He moved his cursors over it and took a lock. The unknown aircraft was moving at just under ninety knots and had appeared to be orbiting at five thousand feet.
“Bayou Zero One, radar contact,” Foxworthy said to alert the controller that he was now tracking the unknown aircraft and required no further point outs.
“WatchDog copies,” the controller responded. “No traffic between you and the bogey, cleared to elevator at your discretion.”
“Bayou Zero One,” Foxworthy replied sharply. At almost four in the morning, it was not surprising that the controller had given them unrestricted ability to descend to the target’s altitude. Except for the cargo air carriers, there were few aircraft out flying, which was the only thing that bothered him about the aircraft they were intercepting. It was rare to get scrambled so early in the morning on an “Unknown Rider” call.
“Two cleared wedge,” Foxworthy directed as he started his descent down toward the aircraft. His wingman said nothing and collapsed from his perfect line abreast formation to a fluid formation behind Foxworthy’s aircraft.
Foxworthy watched the radar indication as the unknown aircraft continued to orbit. He pulled up the Sniper Pod display above his right knee and tried to get an infrared look at the target as they closed inside of twenty miles.
Leveling off at ten thousand feet, the clear summer night’s sky became even more difficult to discern from the calm waters below. They were flying in an area peppered with oil rigs that stayed lit up twenty four hours a day, making it easy to momentarily confuse up for down. Foxworthy remained cautious as they sped toward the orbiting aircraft. He knew it might be easy to get spatially disoriented if they weren’t careful.
“Two’s eyeball bogey,” Buzz said on their auxiliary radio, indicating he had picked up a visual on the aircraft through his Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. “Looks like a multi-engine prop of some sort,” he added.
“One copies,” Foxworthy replied. Seconds later, the white-hot infrared image of his targeting pod showed the same thing. It appeared to be a four engine propeller-driven aircraft with a twin boom tail configuration. Although they were still too far out to get sufficient detail, the initial image was confusing to Foxworthy. He couldn’t quite identify it.
Foxworthy checked his radar display again. They were nearing fifteen miles. As he started his descent down to intercept the aircraft, the radar suddenly broke lock and filled with chevrons, indicating it was receiving electronic jamming.
As if on cue, Buzz piped up on the auxiliary radio, “Two’s clean, strobes east.”
Foxworthy acknowledged and went back to his radar display, trying to make sense of it. He had fought against jammers before in training, but had never seen or heard of it happening on a real world alert scramble. It just didn’t make sense. He turned his attention back to his targeting pod image. The aircraft had rolled out of its orbit and appeared to be descending straight ahead. Foxworthy opted to continue the intercept visually.
“One same,” Foxworthy finally responded on the radio. “Have you ever seen anything like this, Buzz?” Although Buzz had spent time in the Active Duty Air Force unlike Foxworthy, the two had been in the same squadron together for nearly a decade.
“I was hoping it was just my radar,” Buzz admitted as Foxworthy looked out and saw the surprisingly large aircraft flying slowly over the water.
“Let’s set up an orbit here at seven thousand, I don’t know what this guy is doing,” Foxworthy said as he leveled off. He could see the aircraft through his NVGs, but the targeting pod image was fairly clear as they leveled off and set up an orbit just outside of five miles. It was a large cargo aircraft of some sort. Foxworthy wasn’t sure, but it looked Russian.
He looked back at his radar screen. Still jammed. As he looked back out at the aircraft through his goggles, he noticed it getting lower and slower. It appeared to be completely blacked out with no lights on at all. He tried picking it up using his naked eyes, but all he could see were the lights from nearby oil rigs.
Foxworthy zoomed in using the targeting pod infrared image. The aircraft’s flaps appeared to be down, but its gear was up. Seconds later, the aircraft touched down on the calm waters. It landed! A float plane? Foxworthy’s mind was racing.
“Dude did you just see that?” Foxworthy yelled excitedly on the auxiliary frequency.
“What’s a floatplane doing out here?” Buzz responded after a pregnant pause.
“WatchDog, Bayou Zero One, the target aircraft appears to have landed,” Foxworthy said to the controlling agency.
“Say again, Bayou,” the controller queried. It was obviously not the response he had been expecting.
Foxworthy double-checked what he was seeing in his pod by zooming in and out. The seaplane slowed to a crawl as it approached one of the oil rigs.
“Bayou Zero One, I say again, the target aircraft has landed and appears to be approaching one of the oil rigs out here,” Foxworthy repeated.
“WatchDog copies,” the controller responded. The confusion was evident in his voice as well.
As Foxworthy continued watching the seaplane taxi up to the oil rig, a low-pitched beeping caught his attention in his headset. He looked up at his Radar Warning Receiver. The green circular display had just lit up as the beeping intensified. He was being targeted by a surface to air missile. Nothing made sense.
“Bayou Zero One, spiked,” Foxworthy announced over the interflight frequency. His heart started racing. Is it real? Or related to the jamming? The adrenaline began surging as the indication grew stronger. He had never seen anything like it.
“Two same!” Buzz responded.
His Radar Warning Receiver was lit up like a Christmas tree, indicating that a SAM’s target acquisition radar was locked to him.
“Bayou Zero One, WatchDog, I checked with the Director. The aircraft is in international waters. You’re cleared to disengage and RTB at this time,” the controller directed.
“Bayou Zero One is defensive!” Foxworthy responded as the indication changed pitch and his RWR indicated that a target tracking radar was engaging his aircraft. He knew he was just seconds away from a potential missile launch.
“Bayou Zero One, you are directed to disengage, do you copy?” the controller said firmly. “Vector two-seven-zero and RTB at this time.”
Ignoring the call, Foxworthy lit the afterburners and executed a break turn while expending chaff to attempt to break the lock of the radar. His wingman followed suit in the opposite direction, using their in-flight data link to keep track of each other.
“Bayou Zero One, WatchDog,” the controller attempted again.
“Standby,” Foxworthy replied as he strained under the G-forces.
He continued maneuvering his aircraft away from the target aircraft’s last known position. As they cleared ten miles, the Radar Warning Receiver suddenly fell silent.
“One’s naked,” Foxworthy said on the auxiliary radio.
“Two same, I’m at your five o’clock and seven miles,” Buzz replied.
“Cleared rejoin,” Foxworthy replied, trying to stay calm as he turned back toward New Orleans.
“What the hell was that?”
“I have no idea,” Buzz replied, still breathing heavily.