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Pilots maintain flying hours during pandemic

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 115th Fighter Wing takes off at Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, Wisconsin April 7, 2020.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 115th Fighter Wing takes off at Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, Wisconsin April 7, 2020. The jet took off as part of a practice scramble for the Aerospace Control Alert mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 115th Fighter Wing takes off at Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, Wisconsin April 7, 2020.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 115th Fighter Wing takes off at Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, Wisconsin April 7, 2020. The jet took off as part of a practice scramble for the Aerospace Control Alert mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode)

MADISON, Wis. --

The alarms sound. Maintainers run to their jets to get them ready, while pilots gear up for their Fertile Keynote. In a matter of minutes, the Aerospace Control Alert F-16 Fighting Falcons are in the skies.

Fertile Keynotes are exercises that allow pilots to practice intercepting aircraft, just like they would in a real-world scenario. These exercises, along with practice scrambles, are part of the training alert pilots undergo. These 115th Fighter Wing pilots have a 24/7, near-immediate response mission for homeland defense.

 “When called upon for threats against airliners, or aircraft are approaching restricted airspace, our fighters scramble and are airborne in a matter of minutes to intercept the aircraft in question,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Staats, 115th FW ACA commander.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, their posture has remained the same.

“We are still ready to accomplish our ACA mission and our combat missions,” Staats said. “We have taken a lot of precautions with sanitizing, limiting critical personnel’s potential for exposure and increasing tour length to make sure that there is no lapse in our mission coverage. We started these measures well before they were mandated in the state to ensure the pandemic has no effect on our readiness.”

Pilots must maintain their currency in the F-16, as well as proficiency in all their mission sets, at all times.

“The pandemic has had a large effect on many people in our nation, and now more than ever they need to know that the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard will be able to protect them from threats at home and abroad,” Staats said. “Flying during this time, while adhering to distancing and cleaning precautions, guarantees our pilots will maintain their combat edge.”

Maintaining their combat edge is especially important when real-world threats come in.

“My favorite part of the alert mission is when we accomplish a real-world scramble in response to a perceived threat against a temporary flight restriction or airliner threat,” Staats said. “Knowing how important our role is here at Truax makes all of the training and studying we do on a daily basis worthwhile.”

It also makes the struggle of spending time away from family easier, he said.

“The only time I’ve thought about giving it up is when I see the sacrifice my family has to make in order for me to do this mission,” Staats said. “I’ve been an active member of the armed forces for 18 years, and my wife and daughters have had to deal with a lot when I was deployed or on alert status. I continue to serve in the military because my family and I believe it’s important to protect the freedom and opportunity we have in this country, especially since we benefit from it on a daily basis.”

There is no question that the mission depends on the tireless efforts of other organizations both on and off base, he said. 

“I’m especially thankful for the medical personnel on base and in the community who are ensuring our personnel are healthy while continually advising us on how to prevent COVID-19 from affecting our facilities,” Staats said. “Our base is dependent on the local community for goods and services, more now than ever. We are especially grateful for the agile and unwavering support most employers and individuals in the Madison community have given us during this time. We would not be as successful without them.”

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