JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska—The U.S. Air Force partnered with the Russian air force Sunday to intercept simulated airliner hijackings during Exercise Vigilant Eagle -- the first time the two air forces have worked side-by-side since World War II.
Air Force officials say it's not a matter of if but when the nation sees another act of air terrorism. They say Sunday's exercise, coordinated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, ensures that Russia and the U.S. can work together effectively to keep their citizens safe.
At a glance, you wouldn't know you were watching history -- but what was accomplished during this joint exercise could shape the future.
“This is the first time we've done live aircraft,” said John Oberst, operations officer of the 176th Air Control Squadron. “I think history has shown us that terrorist acts occur. I know that Russia has had, as well as America, hijacked aircraft -- and with the air traffic in the world, it continues to increase, we just know that these things occur statistically.”
The Alaskan NORAD Region teamed up with the Russian air force to simulate the hijacking of an airliner flying out of Anchorage.
“We get that squawk about 25 miles outside of Anchorage -- the FAA is alerted because it's under their control and we are as well, so we respond with assets that are available to us,” Oberst said.
NORAD launched F-22 Raptor fighters and an E-3 Sentry AWACS radar aircraft to investigate and shadow the hijacked plane. The agencies diverted the flight into Russian airspace -- a handoff that was the focus of the training exercise.
“A lot of times, militaries, we have commonalities even through there is a language barrier, so we're able to work through that professionally and then personally with our experiences,” said Master Sgt. Doug Patchin with the 176th Air Control Squadron. “Also, most of us have a good base background, we can work through that and make it run really smooth.”
The handoff happened far from Anchorage over the Bering Strait, but the controllers on duty don't need to see it to understand its significance.
“This is a current threat, if you will, of what we face today,” Patchin said. “And given our past events, to have an impact on what could lead to the future and a safe recovery of a bunch of individuals, you know -- it's ground-breaking.”
Even though the exercise went smoothly, these agencies hope they will never have to do it for real -- but if the do, they're ready.
There will be a similar exercise on Tuesday. The second simulated hijacking will start in Russia and be handed off to U.S. forces.
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