WADS keeps airspace secure during Super Bowl LI

  • Published
  • By Kimberly D. Burke, Western Air Defense Sector Public Affairs

While a large portion of the world tuned in Sunday for Super Bowl LI to watch the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons, the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) was busy guarding the skies over NGR Stadium in Houston, Texas, as part of NORAD’s Operation Noble Eagle air defense mission.

The Super Bowl is considered a high profile event which brings together dozens of federal, state, county and local agencies working in a consolidated effort to ensure the safety and security of airspace around the event.

In order to protect the skies around this type of event, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary 30-mile radius flight restricted area around NGR Stadium from 4 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. on game day.   This type of U.S. air defense mission began in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

 “For the past 16 years, we’ve worked closely with the FBI, FAA, Customs and Border Protection, and local law enforcement to defend the skies above the Super Bowl,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Williams, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region commander.

The FAA establishes temporary flight restrictions for any major event that requires extra security measures, such as presidential travel, inaugurations, United Nations general assemblies, republic and democratic national conventions, and other special security events. 

WADS was responsible for command and control of the F-16 fighter jets from the 138th Fighter Wing, Detachment 1, Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, Houston, Texas, that enforced the flight restriction zone by flying air patrols and air defense deterrence missions.

WADS also worked with Customs and Border Protection’s Cessna Citation (C-550) interceptors and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, based out of Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., which conducted airborne patrols over the stadium and restricted areas as well.

During the Super Bowl, WADS responded to more than 10 aircraft which either tripped thresholds of the restricted area, or were of potential concern to air defense efforts. 

Several of these aircraft were intercepted with F-16s. This number is typical for air defense operations with high visibility events.  

Training key to successful execution

Just like the Super Bowl teams, the NORAD air defense mission required months of planning and practice prior to game day execution since it required working with some many different interagency partners. 

“There is a huge difference between the normal day-to-day TFR enforcement compared to a high profile event TFR,” explained Major Tony Braun, mission control commander for the 225th Air Defense Squadron.

“The Super Bowl LI (flight restricted area) required months of specialized planning for the WADS so interagency partners could respond to airspace violations effectively,” said Major Jason Davis, 225th Air Defense Squadron air battle manager.   “In order to provide continuity and help build relationships with our interagency partners, a special WADS augmented crew was formed and a liaison officer from the WADS was deployed to the Joint Air Support Operations Center in Houston, so the same people would work together during the spin up through execution day.” 

While it's not typical for members of WADS to travel to carry out their mission, the nature of the event made it imperative.

“WADS normally doesn’t deploy members to a (flight restricted area) location unless it is a very high profile event,” said Braun.  “Captain Angela Chesley, who is the 225th Air Defense Squadron senior director, deployed to the JAOC to work with all of the federal, state, county and local agency representatives.  The JAOC allows for direct person to person contact with interagency representatives to help with the security of the event where agencies share resources, intelligence and provide security.”

Months prior to the event, a notional schedule was developed to identify the augmented crew and the number and type of exercises needed.  

The team was made up of members from the 225th ADS: Major Tony Braun, mission crew commander, Capt. John Dalrymple, mission planning cell chief; 1st Lt. Krosby Keller, senior director;  1st Lt. Jason Allenton, air weapons officer; Master Sgt. Steven Spaulding, weapons director;  Staff Sgt. Derek Holmgren, senior director technician; and Staff Sgt. Kayla Sharpe, weapons director.  

The team conducted many simulated computer aided exercises and multiple table top exercises before the actual live-fly exercises began.  Live-fly Felix Hawk exercises tested WADS’ intercept and identification operations ability using scenarios involving possible hostile aircraft. 

These exercises allowed the crew to command and control the F-16s and the Customs and Boarder Protection assets who flew air patrols during the Super Bowl.  

“The final full dress rehearsal live-fly exercise, Falcon Virgo 17-Super Bowl 51, was conducted Feb. 1 where all interagency partners participated,” said Col. Brett Bosselmann, 225th ADS commander.  “The fact that the greater Houston area wasn’t aware of our presence on Super Bowl Sunday is a testimony to our ability to enforce the TFRs successfully and continue to demonstrate NORAD’s quick-response capability.”