Arizona alert pilot named best in U.S.
By Maj. Gabe Johnson, 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 25, 2011
DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- In a post 9-11 world, hundreds of alert fighter pilots across the country know the feeling of sprinting to a jet at the shrieking sound of a klaxon - the piercing alarm that sends them into the skies to meet an unknown threat.
Nearly 10 years after the terrorist attacks on the United States, none would say the feeling is routine.
"Your heart goes to your throat, you can't get out of the building fast enough, you get to the jet and you hope your motor skills can zip and snap the G-suit on quickly. You wonder 'Where am I going, what am I doing, and how serious is it?'" said Lt. Col. Moon Milham, commander of the 162nd Fighter Wing's Air Sovereignty Alert Detachment here.
Milham is a 28-year F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, a long-time member of the Arizona Air National Guard, and is the 2010 Air Sovereignty Alert Pilot of the Year. Maj. Gen. Garry C. Dean, the First Air Force commander, presented him the award at a commander's conference Feb. 24 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
Humbled and honored, the colonel said the award represents the heart and dedication of all pilots and aircraft maintainers who work around the clock supporting Operation Noble Eagle; the domestic mission to defend the nation's skies from aerial attack. For those Airmen, each scramble is a no-fail mission.
Colonel Milham is a Fighter Weapons Instructor School graduate and well seasoned with 4,400 flying hours, 150 of which were in combat during Operations Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Northern Watch and Allied Force. He said the difference between flying into combat overseas and scrambling on alert is indistinguishable.
"Even when you know there is a planned exercise coming up, when the klaxon goes off you jump in your skin," he said.
The scenarios alert pilots encounter are endless. The alarm could be a drill, a private pilot unknowingly flying into restricted air space, or there may be a very real threat beyond the horizon.
"Just prior to taxiing out we talk to the command post who is coordinating with Western Area Defense Sector at Joint Base Lewis-McChord," said Colonel Milham. "They give us our tasking and a rough idea of what direction we are going. While we're talking to the tower, getting clearance for takeoff, we're thinking about the mission and how we're going to be eyes and ears for our leadership - to describe for them the situation in the air so they can make the correct decisions."
But for Milham and his detachment, 2010 proved to be a busy year apart from numerous scrambles.
"Starting in January (Air Combat Command) rewrote the tactics manual for the F-16. By summer I was assigned as the assistant chief editor of the air defense version for the U.S. and Canada," he said. "It's what everybody uses, from Canadian CF-18s to U.S. F-15s, to patrol and conduct aerospace control missions under air sovereignty alert."
Couple that with protecting the Southwest border and providing air defense for two presidential visits in August and October.
"It was a really good year," said Colonel Milham. "There was a lot going on in the written side of our mission with new tactics manuals as well operationally with great teamwork among our maintainers and pilots."
NORAD inspectors conducted a no-notice alert force evaluation at the detachment in November; a definitive and rigorous assessment of unit readiness and compliance with alert procedures. The alert team earned the highest rating of "Mission Ready" with zero negative findings from white-gloved inspectors.
The inspection report cited Milham's leadership and oversight in the execution of the new tactics.
"He keeps us performing at a high level, holding expectations high, reminding everyone to do their job the right way and keep everyone safe," said Staff Sgt. Chris Towns, an alert crew chief for the last five years.
"He leads by example first and foremost," said Sergeant Towns. "He recognizes people when it's deserved. He gives time off when it's needed and during the holidays he and his family come out here to cook for us.
"I had no idea he won. It's good for him, he deserves it."
According to Milham, everyone at the 'Det' is a volunteer motivated by their commitment to duty, honor and country. They all want to be a part of defending the United States.
"This is a grass-roots Guard mission - defending the homeland," said the colonel. "But we're not grabbing a musket like our Guard militia used to; we're strapping on an F-16 and doing the speed of sound to get between what we're defending and a perceived threat."
"It's an honor. It makes a difference in everyday life," said Sergeant Towns. "People don't know we're here, but we know and that's very fulfilling."