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D.C. Air Guard unit protects skies over nation’s capital

Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Halvorsen, a pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert Detachment, goes through a pre-flight check in an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft during a training event at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 19, 2018.  Halvorsen is one of several pilots with the detachment, which is tasked with keeping the Washington, D.C., area safe from airborne threats. The ACAD has responded to more than 6,200 alert events since its formation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Halvorsen, a pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert Detachment, goes through a pre-flight check in an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft during a training event at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 19, 2018.  Halvorsen is one of several pilots with the detachment, which is tasked with keeping the Washington, D.C., area safe from airborne threats. The ACAD has responded to more than 6,200 alert events since its formation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – "Scramble, scramble, scramble," a monotonous, booming voice blares from a speaker inside a spotless hangar. As the words echo through the open space, Air Force Col. John Vargas springs into action.

Knowing the voice means a potential threat from the sky, he quickly dons his flight gear and rushes to climb aboard an F-16 Fighting Falcon. After start up procedures, he carefully taxis out to the runway and with a deafening roar from the afterburner, launches into the sky.

Though today was a training event in support of North American Aerospace Defense Command's Operation Noble Eagle, Vargas said the train-as-you-fight mentality never subsides at the District of Columbia Air National Guard's Aerospace Control Alert Detachment.

"Every day when we assume our responsibilities during shift, it's not just another day at the office," he said.

Response times are critical, said Vargas, adding that the quicker the pilots can get to the potential threat and ascertain the situation, the faster it can be resolved, hopefully peacefully.

"Every second that we can shave off will make that difference," he said.

The unit's Airmen are always working to lessen the response time, said Air Force Master Sgt. Jamall Williams, the weapons noncommissioned officer in charge for the ACAD. We stay sharp and proficient in our training. Nobody wants to be the person that slows down the response that could potentially save lives.

Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Newlin, an alert pilot and commander of the unit, relies on "habit patterns" to get out the door as quickly as possible.

For Newlin, the ACAD mission represents the Guard's commitment to homeland security.

"I feel it's the most important mission we do," he said. "We've [the pilots of the unit] been to combat in the Middle East and that's very rewarding to know we were keeping the ground troops safe. But, it's really rewarding to be here, knowing that we are doing our part to keep the local population safe."

For Williams, the weapons NCOIC, prepping the aircraft gives him a satisfaction he wouldn't find in other positions.

"With some jobs, you don't have an instant sense of gratification," he said, adding that here, he feels that each time he gets an F-16 armed for the mission.

Newlin said the responsibility of the mission isn't lost on him, regardless of the number of alert events.

"My heart always skips a beat when you round the corner and you see live missiles on a jet," he said. "It just reminds you that this could be for real and the seriousness of this no-fail mission."