By Army National Guard Sgt. Darron Salzer
National Guard Bureau
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (1/25/13) – The 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, stationed here as the quick reaction team, responsible for intercepting airborne threats to the nation’s capital, has reached a notable milestone, recently responding to their 4,000th alert event in more than 11 years.
Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Hardgrave, the 113th Wing alert forces commander, who was part of the 4,000th mission, said every event is broken up into different categories or postures depending on what happens.
“[There are times] where we do not actually get airborne on a sortie, and in this event we didn’t … we got to the end of the runway and they were able to identify the aircraft and they were able to pull us back before we actually ended up taking off,” Hardgrave said. “We’re very, very busy – we get out to the runway almost daily … but we do not get airborne as often as people think.”
The men and women of the wing’s Aerospace Control Alert Detachment may not fly as often as one would think, but they’ve been protecting the District of Columbia longer than most realize.
“[Sept. 11] was one of those events that changed the world,” Hardgrave said. “We started flying here 24 hours a day, seven days a week in response to it for about three to four months, followed … after by the steady-state alert mission for the next 11-plus years.”
“We’ve had over 500 events each year for the past two years, averaging almost one-and-a-half per day where the [alert] horn goes off in the national capital region as part of the alert forces,” he said.
Hardgrave explained that the Eastern Air Defense Sector is responsible for determining anything east of the Mississippi River that could be a threat to the District of Columbia and the seat of the U.S. government.
When alerted, “we can respond very, very quickly to what we’re defending,” he said.
The rapid response, however, would not be possible without the near flawless efforts of the crews that maintain the aircraft used for the mission to ensure their readiness 24-hours a day.
“It’s a ‘no fail’ mission,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Curtis Hills, a crew supervisor with the detachment. “What we have here on our team is what I like to say are top-notch [aircraft] maintainers.”
The purpose of the maintainers is to ensure that the aircraft are ready to go at a moment’s notice, because you never know when the alert horn can go off, said Hills.
“We don’t have that luxury [of failure],” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that we have on our minds when we’re down here – we cannot fail. Everybody has to stay at the top of their game 24/7 whenever they are on watch.”
Being on watch, regardless of the sacrifices of the pilots and the crews, is one duty that many of the Airmen take personally.
“I live in D.C.,” Hardgrave said. “When I’m out here and my [crews] are out here, they’re protecting my family and I’m protecting my family as well. It’s something that we take very seriously.”
“Knowing that we can do a mission to provide that [type of] security for the people within this area gives us a great sense of security here,” Hills said. “The other aspect … is that [our mission] keeps our families safe and our friends safe – I think that’s more important than anything else.”