One of my most memorable flights as a law enforcement pilot was during a low-level surveillance operation. I was flying Maule M-5 235 at 250 feet AGL (above ground level) along a state water system project when in the opposite direction flying at the same altitude was an F-18 Hornet.
The Hornet was on a Military Instrument Route (IR) — a route of which I was aware — yet it is always a surprise to see a fighter like the F-18 at your altitude and flying right at you.
We each banked to the right, rolled level then rolled into a left turn to pass the tail of each plane, which left both of us with plenty of room and space and it was then the F-18 pilot rocked the wings of the jet and made me smile, just thinking how we both loved what we do.
This memory led me to think about how a law enforcement pilot would contact a military aircraft during an aircraft intercept.
An Established Protocol
Normally, it’s the other way around. The military would contact law enforcement through an already-established protocol when assistance is needed to contact persons on the ground or at airports. Also note there is a protocol for LE to ask for assistance from the military (including U. S. Coast Guard) aircraft during major disasters and other emergencies.
What happens if a police pilot conducting normal flight operations sees a military intercept of an aircraft (In-Flight Interception Procedures as used by the military are the same recommended for law enforcement)?
What can be done?
I was able to contact a representative of the 144th Fighter Wing located in Fresno (Calif.) who is assigned to Air Intercept. I asked, and this is what I found out:
Redundancy is Life
There should be two ways for LE pilots to contact Military Aircraft. First, the military has 14 Air Defense Sectors across the United States. Air Traffic Control (ATC) has a direct line to the Air Defense Sector within the air space they (ATC) control for requesting an In-Flight Intercept.
Once the request is made, the military aircraft are dispatched and would be in contact with the ATC facility for the airspace where the intercept will be conducted. Police pilots can contact the military aircraft through ATC or the ATC radio frequency being used for the operation. As stated previously, the In Flight Intercept Procedures are standard, so the actual intercept will follow those procedures.
The second method is to contact the military aircraft on guard — via 121.5 MHz or 243 MHz. The second way is probably the easiest as military pilots monitor guard as the method to communicate to the aircraft they are intercepting.
There may never be a time you as a law enforcement pilot will need to contact a military aircraft. Some military pilots may have never considered having police pilots assist them and thought it impossible.
The fact is, however, that it is easy to quickly contact the pilots of the military aircraft even though it seems unbelievable.
I wish I had known that back on the day I saw the F-18. I would have loved to say to the pilot, “Be safe, thanks for serving our country, and have a great flight!”