Every time President Donald Trump visits Palm Beach, there is a special group ready to launch into action from the sky to ward off any potential threats.
West Palm Beach-based WPTV went inside the cockpit for an exclusive look at the what kind of training it takes to keep all of us safe.
When the alarm sounds, pilots at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida are ready for anything.
“We are on alert 365 days a year,” explained Captain Brannon Ferguson, the operations director for the Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing, detachment 1 based at Homestead.
That alert is heightened by presidential motorcades, checkpoints and restrictions. All of which is part of the new normal in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.
The people who live, work and visit the area are forced to adapt to the new rules regulating the roads, water and air when President Trump visits.
Particularly in the air, the Federal Aviation Administration places restrictions around the President’s home. No plane is allowed within one nautical mile of Mar-a-Lago, and there are varying rules within buffer zones that extend 35 miles from Mar-a-Lago.
During the President Trump’s first seven visits to the “Southern White House” after his inauguration, the FAA reports 52 planes violated the air restrictions in place.
In nine of those cases, fighter jets from Homestead, and other strategic locations, intercepted the planes and forced the pilots to leave the restricted airspace.
“They are quite surprised when a fighter [jet] pulls up and we can absolutely see their face when we get close enough,”explained Ferguson, who is also a pilot with the fighter wing.
His team at Homestead invited WPTV to get a closer look at an intercept and why constant training is critical to protecting the president and surrounding public.
The pilots at Homestead fly F-15 jets. They can make the 100-mile trek to Palm Beach in minutes to assess any potential risk.
Ferguson said there is no set guidelines for how close a plane has to be to Mar-a-Lago before F-15s scramble. That call comes from commanders watching radars across the country.
In a training scenario, WPTV flew in a plane with the Civil Air Patrol pretending to have violated FAA restrictions.
Once the alarm sounded, Air National Guard pilots jumped into action. Similar to what you’d see at a firehouse, the pilots suited up and then rushed behind the controls of their vehicle; but instead of a fire engine, this group takes off in F-15 jets. Once on the runway, the fighter jets practically jump into the air.
In no time, the jets located the small Civil Air Patrol plane. It’s a sight many flyers will never see: An F-15 cruising past the window. This is called an intercept.
The fighter pilot circled the plane, performing a headbutt. Ferguson described it as the closest thing to being pulled over by a police officer, but in the air.
“Obviously we can’t give a ticket, but you’re basically being told to follow an instruction at that point,” he said.
Ferguson stressed that every second counts in a real-life scenario; whether it’s protecting the Super Bowl or the President.
“You want to give the commanders the ability to gather information to make the decisions quickly and efficiently on how to keep either an individual, or a group, or a population safe,” the captain said.
Fighter pilots collaborate with those commanders from the cockpit on what to do next. Often times, it’s a headbutt to force a pilot out of a restricted air space.
“Anything and everything that happens in the air we could potentially be a part of,” Ferguson said.
That even includes sonic booms like the one residents from Weston to Boynton Beach felt back in February.
Ferguson added fighter pilots only break the sound barrier when the commanders give them special permission.
In nearly every real life intercept, a pilot simply didn’t realize they did anything wrong. Ferguson encourages pilots to stay in radio contact and check restrictions before getting in the air, or you may end up with a surprise outside your window.
You can check notices to airmen by clicking here
Here’s the number of pilots who violated presidential flight restrictions during President Trump’s visits, according to the FAA:
Feb. 3-5: 10 violators
Feb. 10-12: three violators
Feb. 17-20: 14 violators
March 3-5: four violators
March 17-19: seven violators
April 6-9: nine violators
April 14-16: five violators
All of the nine intercepts took place in February and March.
The Civil Air Patrol partners with the Air Force for several training missions including intercept procedure exercises.
“Our air crews take the Civil Air Patrol plane up and we act as a target for the fighter jets to intercept. This allows the [fighter] pilots to get experience to intercept a slower and lower-flying aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Carlson, with the Civil Air Patrol.
The organization is made up of more than 50,000 members across the country. Many of whom are volunteers.
Aside from training missions, the group assists the Air Force and other agencies with disaster relief, delivering supplies, and search and rescue missions. It is well known for taking aerial photographs of areas impacted by natural disasters.
“Our members are very proud to serve both their communities and their country in national events and in these more local training events," Carlson added.
The Civil Air Patrol offers a cadet program built to shape children into community-minded leaders through an interest in aviation.