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Local NORAD Station Keeps Eye on The Sky

Source: Seattle Times Newspaper (

Airman First Class Juliana D'Aprile at the control center of the Western Air Defense Sector literally would be the first to spot a hijacked or terrorist plane.

By Erik Lacitis

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maj. Erin Goebel, mission crew commander at NORAD's Western Air Defense Sector, monitors the "air picture" in the operations control center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Maj. Erin Goebel, mission crew commander at NORAD's Western Air Defense Sector, monitors the "air picture" in the operations control center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The base's command center is responsible for all territory west of the Mississippi River — 3,300 miles of border.

Photo of Col. Paul Gruver.


Inside a windowless, three-story building with thick concrete walls, past a heavy metal door with a sign that says, "WARNING. Restricted Area ... Use of deadly force authorized," on this recent afternoon you can find Airman 1st Class Juliana D'Aprile, who is all of 20 years old.

Sitting in front of a bank of flat-screen monitors at the control center of the Western Air Defense Sector that combine information from 172 radar sites, she literally would be the first to spot a hijacked or terrorist plane.

The sector doesn't make the news unless it's a story about a sonic boom created by a jet scrambled to intercept a potential threat.

"Our measure of success is that nothing happens," said Col. Paul Gruver, commander of the sector.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, no terrorist planes have done anything in the United States, perhaps because they, too, are aware of how they could be tracked since the radar system was dramatically changed after the tragedy.

In this world, D'Aprile, a 2008 Spanaway High School graduate, spends her days looking at screens full of moving dashes and dots and streaks in bright white, green, purple, red.

She is quite at ease with the blips.

Why not?

She does not know a world in which Microsoft did not exist. She was 8 when Google was founded. In kindergarten, she was playing with computer games, she says.

Given how much she has to focus, she sits in front of the monitors for an hour, then does other work, then returns for another hour, a typical shift to keep them sharp for those doing this kind of work at the sector.

"It's always exciting," D'Aprile said as she zoomed in on a plane about to cross into the United States through Texas. "I want to know if this is a friend. I want to know who this guy is."

Air space

D'Aprile is a tracking technician with this state's Air National Guard. If she seemed a tad bit nervous, it was because Gruver was a few feet away as she was being interviewed for this story.

But Gruver, 53, was quite proud of the young woman and the technicians around her, a good many in their 20s and 30s.

"I'm the dinosaur," he joked about commanding the young troops.

Gruver said he remembers what his late father, Walter Gruver, a World War II Marine, told him: "The safety of the nation always depends on the youngest out there. We have a long history of America putting the youngest and brightest out front."

Gruver's background includes flying jets in the Middle East, and, he says, in some ways, tracking planes over there is considerably simpler.

"We own the air space over there," he said. "Here, we might have 15,000 planes flying at the height of the day."

The Western Air Defense Sector covers three-quarters of the country — everything west of the Mississippi River. That's 3,300 miles of border.

The sector has 230 military members. At any one time, a little more than two dozen technicians and officers are in that control room.

D'Aprile is among the first line of technicians who assess the radar blips. Behind her is an array of other technicians and officers, eventually leading to a weapons section for scrambling jets.

It used to be, back in the Cold War days, that we worried about Russian bombers and nuclear missiles coming across the Arctic.

That's why the United States and Canada created NORAD, which stands for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Canadian military personnel also work at the Lewis-McChord air-defense control room.

The system was depicted in movies such as 1964's "Dr. Strangelove" and 1983's "WarGames," with a young Matthew Broderick hacking into NORAD computers.

But those days are gone.

NORAD this year even conducted a joint exercise with the Russian Federation Air Force in responding to a simulated hijacking of a plane en route to the Far East.

Radar tracking

When 9/11 happened, the agency made drastic changes to its radar tracking.

A slide it shows graphically depicts its radar coverage before that day: It was all at our borders, using military radar; the inside of the country was pretty much void.

Its computers now combine Federal Aviation Administration radar, and the country is blanketed.

Still, real-life computer stuff is never quite like depicted in movies.

Just like people, Radar A might be better at its task than Radar B, and so the technicians have to decide which one is giving correct information.

Or that might not be a plane the radar is detecting, but a flock of geese, or a thunderstorm.

And so the sector relies on the technicians to make the correct call.

"That's part of the art and science," Gruver said.

To keep its edge, he says, the sector regularly runs various exercises.

These range from scrambling jets in a make-believe terrorist scenario to having technicians track planes while simultaneously dealing with computer failures and even a co-worker having a heart attack.

At some point, in a decision that has to be made in minutes, if not seconds, fighter jets will be have to be scrambled.

At the Western Air Defense Sector, that happened 179 times in 2009.

One such scramble took place on Aug. 17, when a pair of F-15 jets caused two loud sonic booms over the Seattle area.

The military jets were pursuing a seaplane that breached a 10-mile restricted zone when President Obama visited the city.

The plane landed in Lake Washington, and photos show a chagrined-looking pilot at the dock after talking to Secret Service agents. The plane had been flying from Lake Chelan to Seattle, and the pilot apparently hadn't checked air-restriction notices.

Something that the fighter pilots can do that the radar can't is fly right next to the unidentified plane and look directly at its pilot.

"My billion-dollar system is very good at telling me where they've been, but it tells me nothing about what's inside that person's head," Gruver said.

At the control center, D'Aprile continues looking at the blips on her monitor, making decisions about whether that digital signal is a friend or a potential foe.

"It's hard to explain what you do to friends and family," D'Aprile said. "But what you're doing is protecting the U.S."

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

UFOs Northwest Comment: One wonders how many of the 109 scrambles in 2009 were after UFOs?