An Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon was scrambled to intercept a civilian aircraft flying near President Donald Trump’s latest rally in Arizona Wednesday, setting off flares to get the aircraft’s attention, according to North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The fighter jet was dispatched to investigate “a general aviation aircraft that was not in communication with [Air Traffic Control] and entered the Temporary Flight Restriction area surrounding Bullhead City, Arizona, without proper clearance,” NORAD said in a tweet. The incident occurred around 2 p.m. local time.
“The violating aircraft was non-responsive to initial intercept procedures, but established radio communications after NORAD aircraft deployed signal flares,” said officials with the command, which oversees North American operations, to include homeland defense. “The aircraft was escorted out of the restricted area by the NORAD aircraft without further incident.”
Flares are often used as a countermeasure against heat-seeking missiles targeting an aircraft, but can also be used to get the attention of a pilot not communicating with air traffic control. They are not considered munitions.
Jeremy Diamond, CNN’s White House correspondent, who accompanied the president to the rally, spotted the jet overhead before NORAD reported the incident. “A fighter jet just flew over Trump’s rally in Bullhead City, Arizona and appeared to fire off flares, catching Trump & the crowd’s attention,” Diamond tweeted.
Temporary flight restriction areas, or TFRs, are established by the Federal Aviation Administration and supported by NORAD and the Air Force.
The FAA and NORAD typically issue joint statements ahead of time to warn civilian pilots about the restriction — but the message doesn’t always get across.
While restrictions are in place, aircraft “have to be on a flight plan, you have to be talking” to the appropriate air traffic control as part of the TFR, Col. John Ferry, 601st Air Operations Center commander, explained to Military.com in 2018. The 601st, based at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, but part of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, conducts air defense for the continental United States.
Air Force fighters are tasked with addressing airspace violations — either escorting the aircraft out of the TFR, or, in extreme cases, shooting down the aircraft. Fighters that can be scrambled on these missions include F-16s, F-15 Eagles, and on occasion, F-22 Raptors.
Air defenses in the continental U.S. were bolstered after the Sept, 11, 2001 attacks. The operations center works with a number of Air National Guard fighter jet units that sit on alert 24/7, as well as a handful of air refueling tankers and a Boeing E-3 Sentry, commonly known as an airborne early warning and control radar aircraft, or AWACS.