The Washington Post

September 20, 2001, Thursday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 706 words

Recent Air Patrols Frighten Some, Fascinate Others

BYLINE: Marc Fisher

You hear them all night, swooshing and droning across the night sky. You can see some of them, their lights darting beneath the stars.

Maybe they wake you in the small of the night; maybe they add to the unease of these days of waiting.

Since the morning of the attacks, fighter jets and AWACS aircraft have patrolled the airspace over the Washington area nonstop. This is a comfort to some, a fright to others, a grinding sleep deterrent to many.

At the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado, Capt. Sean McKenna tells me the U.S.-Canadian military organization, which defends North America from air attack, is keeping jet fighters on "frequent combat air patrols from New York to Washington." NORAD's jets "are only responding to FAA requests" and would intercept suspicious flights.

The military won't divulge details of the operation -- what planes, how often they fly. But everyone who lives in these parts hears the patrols, and this being America, plenty of folks have made it their business to figure out exactly what's passing overhead.

"It's lots of F-15s and F-16s, some AWACS, most likely off the coast, and then there's an FBI airplane, a Cessna, that's been driving everyone nuts," says Alan Henney, a freelance newshound in Takoma Park who monitors radio transmissions and heads up the Capitol Hill Monitors, a group of local hobbyists who like to listen.

In bedroom bunkers, "listeners" sit surrounded by stacks of radios, eavesdropping on the chatter among pilots and air traffic controllers patrolling our very own version of the no-fly zones we've seen on TV from far, far away. These are the same guys -- they're almost all male -- who monitor police and emergency radios; in severe cases, they spend every waking minute scanning the airwaves for action.

What they've found in a week of intensive listening is extraordinary commitment by military pilots who have logged long days of protecting our skies, and equally trying boredom on the part of pilots who -- luckily -- have found nothing amiss above Washington.

In one exchange recorded by a local listener, Combat Air Patrol pilots passed the time with idle sightseeing:

Pilot No. 1: "Look to the southwest of Washington National Airport. Looks like a target, or big bull's-eye on the ground."

Pilot No. 2: "Ooooh yeah, now I see it, that's Taco Bell! Isn't that the target the Mir space station was going to hit?"

Pilot No. 1 laughed.

Avid hobbyists trade the frequencies and call signs (Bully and Quint, Tazz and Flop) of the fighter pilots, which leads some to wonder if it's right to be swapping such information at this sensitive moment.

"Please consider your content and act responsibly," admonished listener Brian Flues on an e-mail list many local hobbyists subscribe to. "We scanner listeners are proud of our skills, but it is time to become proud of our discretion also."

But Larry Van Horn, a listener who also is assistant editor of Monitoring Times, a hobbyist magazine, counters: "The bottom line is that if I'm hearing it, then it ain't important. There are many other places and modes that [the Department of Defense] and the U.S. government have to keep sensitive information out of the hands of our enemies."

NORAD's McKenna concurs: The military has no position on scanners. "I imagine they have many innovative ways of figuring out what's flying."

So the scanning -- and its related hobby, spotting, in which guys with heavy-duty binoculars and telescopes identify aircraft by tail markings -- continues, and the Web is sizzling with lists of sighted and heard fighter jets and KC-10 and KC-135 in-flight refuelers.

Henney, 34, spends most of his listening time on the police bands, where he continues to hear numerous calls about the planes overhead. "People are definitely scared," he says, telling of worried citizens calling in to report flights or seek assurance. The listeners can't stop the noise, but they are filling the information vacuum -- another reminder of the advantages of an open society, something to keep in mind as we close some of our security gaps.

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