Military fighter craft engage in emergency training exercises over lakes area

F-16s of the National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing and planes of the Civil Air Patrol were spotted flying over Pequot Lakes this week. Representatives of the Guard explained pilots were conducting training exercises for airborne emergencies between Brainerd, Bemidji, Park Rapids and Grand Rapids, with some scenarios simulating threats to homeland security.

F-16s of the U.S. National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing fly in tandem in an undated photograph. The 148th are based in Duluth. Photo courtesy of Lockhead Martin

Pequot Lakes residents were treated to a thrilling, if unexpected, sonic spectacle Tuesday afternoon when a contingent of military aircraft flew exercises overhead.

F-16s of the U.S. National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing and planes of the Civil Air Patrol flew above the city between 1:30 to 3 p.m.,Tuesday, July 23, as well as Monday. Two Duluth-based military pilots engaged in a series of training exercises from Brainerd to Bemidji and Park Rapids to Grand Rapids. In conjunction between civil patrol aircraft and fighters of the 148th, pilots undertook training exercises labeled “aerospace control alert” that simulate the intercept of noncommunicative or distressed aircraft in two emergency scenarios.

“It’s not one of our core missions, but it’s one of our missions we train for,” Lt. Col. Paul Thornton told the Dispatch during a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s a matter of homeland defense. We intercept any aircraft who are distressed, or suspected of doing something they’re not supposed to do. If we don’t know what that plane is doing, since 9/11, we go and investigate.”

Residents of Pequot Lakes contacted the Dispatch, expressing curiosity with regards to military flights over the Brainerd lakes area. The Dispatch reached out to representatives of the 148th, who confirmed these training exercises were taking place and military aircraft likely passed Pequot Lakes on two occasions.

Thornton noted central and upper-central Minnesota pose as good areas for these flyovers as there’s less chance for disruption -- both in terms of population density and air traffic. During these exercises, aircraft were flying about 3,000 feet to roughly 7,000 feet high, sometimes engaging in maneuvers at speeds ranging from pacing Civil Air Patrol aircraft at 100 knots, or about 115 mph, to much, much faster velocities on intercept.


Thornton said the pilots are instructed to locate and interact with noncommunicative civilian aircraft through a combination of cockpit-to-cockpit hand signals, specific flight maneuvers and other forms of non-radio communication -- much like universally recognized hand signs used by motorists and bikers in the absence of brake lights.

He noted these situations can run the full gambit -- from broken radios and medical emergencies, to unidentified aircraft entering restricted air zones and plane hijackings.

Thornton said the first scenario entails locating a lost general aviation plane, where the pilot’s intentions are unknown and the plane is unreachable by standard methods. By intercepting the plane, pilots of the 148th determine the pilot is trying to find the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and guide the plane back to safety.

The second, Thornton said, involves a stolen aircraft that may be flying toward a restricted airspace. In this case, pilots are instructed to thwart and maneuver the stolen airplane away from the restricted area.

“We’re not just flying around to fly around,” Thornton said as an advisement to the public. “We’re training for an important mission. These exercises provide us realistic training in crucial scenarios, so we appreciate the support of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

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