TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., - In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the 162nd Fighter Wing, an Arizona Air National Guard F-16 training unit, took to the skies to protect the Southwest as part of Operation Noble Eagle.
This month, the unit was named the best air sovereignty alert force in the country.
From all continental U.S. NORAD region (CONR) alert sites, Maj. Gen. Garry C. Dean, the First Air Force commander, selected the 162nd's alert detachment to receive the 2009 Air Sovereignty Alert Unit of the Year award.
Lt. Col. Moon Milham, the detachment commander, accepted the trophy at a banquet here April 13.
Milham's unit, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., earned the distinction after receiving overall outstanding ratings during alert force evaluations. North American Aerospace Defense Command inspectors noted that Arizona's alert maintainers made up the "best F-16 maintenance unit in NORAD."
The alert team was also recognized as the "benchmark in alert training," often traveling to other units to provide training or to fill in for deployed members.
"We were fortunate over the last year to get through our alert force evaluation and have the inspection team recognize our maintenance as the best in NORAD; especially considering the ages of our jets," said Colonel Milham.
The detachment employs the mid-1980s version of the F-16, the block 25. Understandably, NORAD inspectors expect flawless aircraft for this can-not-fail mission, meaning operational needs must be in perfect balance with safety procedures and by-the-book maintenance practices.
Senior Master Sgt. Buddy Nedrow, the alert production supervisor, said not a single detail is overlooked for the sake of readiness or rapid response times.
"We have to stay on top of the aircraft and that means never going below standards," said Nedrow, who has been on the alert mission since 2001. "It's a unique sense of pride because our team knows this is a real-world mission in defense of our homeland."
Eight years ago, the 162nd was asked to take on the alert mission due to its location; and with three flying squadrons, it had the resources to do it.
Today the Tucson unit is responsible for 225,000 square miles of the Southwest. The handful of Guardsmen assigned maintain a heightened state of alert 24 hours per day, 365 days per year to be able to rapidly respond to any potential or perceived threat.
Instructor pilots from the 162nd rotate through alert duty on a daily basis. Each pilot may pull alert twice per month. For maintainers, the alert mission is a full-time job of 25 hour shifts a couple times per week.
In addition to alert, they protect the nation's leaders when they travel, and they patrol airspace over political conventions, major sporting events or any large gathering of citizens in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
"We're the back up for units in nearby states, but we're primarily responsible for the Phoenix metropolitan area and our infrastructure - power plants, storage areas, and large gatherings like the Super Bowl," said Milham.
"It's very fulfilling to provide security to our nation and it's a call to duty. That's what the Guard is for; we're the militia tasked with protecting our families and our land."
Their facilities at Davis-Monthan, only five miles from the 162nd Fighter Wing headquarters at Tucson International Airport, were once used by the Montana Air National Guard for a cold-war era alert mission. With help from D-M, the Guard was able to quickly stand up alert operations where they left off.
"I have to give much credit to our hosts at Davis-Monthan, the 355th Fighter Wing. They put us at number one on their list of missions. Our good relationship with them has allowed us to succeed each and every year," said the colonel.
"When the klaxon goes off, they give us priority and the nation's jets get airborne quickly and safely, and that's a good deterrent."
In 2009, the 162nd Fighter Wing Air Sovereignty Alert detachment also earned an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and the 162nd's Brig. Gen. Ronald L. Kurth Commanders Award.