Following the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Defense identified flaws in its security procedures within the airspace surrounding the National Capital Region. In response, Operation Noble Eagle was created to protect the skies of North America.
An important training element of Noble Eagle, Fertile Keynote exercises utilize the Air Force’s civilian auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol.
With the combined support of the Air National Guard’s 113th Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, the CAP’s Congressional Squadron, 1st Air Force and North American Aerospace Defense Command, Fertile Keynote missions simulate responses to unauthorized aircraft intruding into the restricted airspace surrounding the U.S. capital.
Other Fertile Keynote exercises take place every week across the country, with aerospace control alert fighter units and CAP squadrons participating.
Each component is vital to the exercise’s goal of rapidly intercepting low- or high-speed aircraft that show signs of distress or those not in compliance with air traffic control instructions.
Once the mission is initiated, fighter pilots, on 24-hour standby, scramble to practice their ability to get airborne quickly in response to a potential threat.
After establishing communication with NORAD and 1st AF, the pilots intercept the CAP aircraft, which simulate the intruder, or track of interest. After initial assessment, the pilots relay information about the TOI’s condition and intent, which ground personnel are not able to determine.
The aircraft is then either assisted, escorted out of the restricted airspace, or, if the intruder is determined to be a threat, the aircraft is eliminated.
Using aircraft from the Air Force Auxiliary as targets has two advantages; it provides participants with a realistic simulation of intercepting slower aircraft, at significantly reduced operational and maintenance cost to the Air Force. If another Air Force F-16 was used as a target for this exercise, it would cost approximately $10,000, but operating the CAP aircraft, with volunteer pilots, costs approximately $1,000.
Exercises like these are conducted throughout the United States, giving pilots, controllers and NORAD personnel an opportunity to practice air defense capabilities against different airframes. In 2018, CAP aircraft flew 251 Air Defense Intercept training missions, including Fertile Keynote, in the National Capital Region, logging 1,635 flight hours on 861 sorties across the country.