Terror attacks lead to changes for Alaska pilots

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Art Warbelow tuned his aircraft radio and heard the tail end of an air traffic controller's instruction to a fellow pilot: ''Squawk 1200 now or they're going to scramble on you.''

In pilot language, that means ''turn on your transponder or you'll be trading hand signals with an F-16 pilot in short order.''

Warbelow, a Fairbanks pilot and air service owner, heard the exchange in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With the nation's military on the watch for more terror from the air, Warbelow and other Alaska pilots have been asked to make a few changes in the interest of avoiding a military scramble.

They're using a designator code for commercial aircraft in their radio communications. They've been asked to turn on their transponders if they have them. They've been asked to ''avoid'' flying close to pipelines, oil refineries and other industrial facilities.

And they've been asked to review their pilot information manuals so they know what to do if they're intercepted by a military aircraft.

For the most part, though, the rules are mostly back to normal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Or at least as normal as things can be when people are thinking about whether a military commander will have to decide whether to order the shooting down of a civilian plane.

Last week, Pentagon officials speaking on condition of anonymity said Lt. Gen. Norman A. Schwartz of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage was one of two U.S. generals with authority to order the downing of civilian aircraft if the situation left no time to call President Bush. The other general is in Florida.

Ralph Scott, civilian spokesman at Elmendorf, said the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, has three regions -- Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada.

The commander in chief of NORAD can delegate ''appropriate authority for mission execution'' to the commander in each region, Scott said. ''NORAD, like most military organizations, employs a system of centralized planning and control and decentralized execution.''

So that's why the job falls to Schwartz in Alaska.

Scott said the military relies on the FAA to notify them of any domestic flights that appear to have gone awry.

''The FAA has procedures to resolve deviations,'' he said. ''If the aircraft appeared threatening, they would call NORAD for assistance. More than likely we would intercept and identify.''

Scott said he couldn't go into detail about what might happen then. There are a variety of escalating options that the military considers ''rules of engagement'' and thus won't discuss.

''Every conceivable means would be attempted to resolve the situation without using lethal options,'' he said.

Joette Storm, spokeswoman for the FAA in Anchorage, said her agency could call the military ''if there were suspicious activity or if a plane appeared not to be on a route it's supposed to be.''

''There's a system set up between us -- the FAA and the military -- that would allow us to alert them to something that is suspicious,'' Storm said. The military also has its own radar, she said.

Warbelow, president of Warbelow's Air Ventures, said he doesn't worry much about misunderstanding leading to an unnecessary downing of a small plane, though.

International procedures describe how to communicate with a military pilot, even if there is no radio contact, he said. ''If you play by the rules, it's not an issue,'' he said.

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