Listen To An F-16's Intercept Of An Army Cessna That Violated Airspace Near The United Nations (Updated)

We have the full air traffic control audio of the F-16 that ran down a U.S. Army Cessna after it strayed into restricted airspace over New York City.

Red Tails F-16 New York Intercept
187th Fighter Wing Public Affair—Public Domain

It got very lively in the skies over New York City today when a wayward Cessna belonging to the U.S. Army strayed into restricted airspace around New York City that was in place to protect the annual U.N. General Assembly, at which President Biden was in attendance. The light aircraft was intercepted by F-16C Vipers from the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard—the famous Red Tails—that were on temporary duty providing air patrols for the high-profile event. The homeland air defense mission, in general, falls under the purview of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). We now have very rare audio of radio communications between air traffic control and the Vipers, which usually communicate on UHF so they are not recorded on standard VHF frequencies, trying to find the aircraft, intercepting it, and then the Cessna pilot's response. 

As you can hear below, the action began around 2:00 PM local time. One of the F-16s checks in with New York Approach using the callsign NOBLE 12 and asked for vectors to the TOI, or Track Of Interest. The fighter pilot had trouble finding the Cessna on radar, which is not surprising for a low-flying small aircraft operating around a metropolis like New York City. From there the intercept unfolds. You can feel how complex and tight the airspace by the exchanges.

Original audio is via the awesome LiveATC.net:

It's worth noting that having constant air patrols overhead these types of high-security temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) is common. The fighters do so with the support of tankers. Often times units from around the United States will deploy to a particular region to help provide around-the-clock coverage for these events, which is a very consuming affair. 

From images and video of the intercept, as well as from the audio, we know that one of the F-16s flew above the Cessna and dropped its gear, in order to indicate that it needed to land ASAP.

At the end of the recording, you can hear the pilot communicating with air traffic control, which informs him an F-15—a mistake, it was an F-16—was above him. He then gets clearance to land and to call the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at a certain number once he is down, as is customary when these incidents occur. The F-16, NOBLE 12, eventually returns to his CAP (Combat Air Patrol) point, after some frustration in getting cleared to do so.

The homeland air sovereignty mission is performed by specially trained crews that work closely with various air defense sectors. Special communications, rules of engagement, intercept procedures, and even equipment are used to accomplish the high-stakes mission. You can read all about how they execute these intercepts in this past piece of ours.

As for the restricted airspace violating Cessna 182, it is one of just two that belong to the U.S. Army. In fact, they are the only single-engine piston manned aircraft in the Army's inventory. They serve West Point as part of an interesting program that AOPA provides a nice summary of here:

Today, most officers who graduate from West Point and become military aviators go on to fly helicopters; only a few will go on to fly fixed-wing aircraft. Many of them gained their passion for aviation as cadets through participation in one of West Point’s not-so-well-known general aviation activities. About 30 minutes to the northwest of West Point, “over the mountain,” lies New York Stewart International Airport (SWF). Stewart is a dual-use military and civilian airfield and is home to the 2nd Aviation Detachment, the “Wings of West Point.” In their hangar, across from two UH–72 Lakota helicopters, you will find the Army’s only single-engine piston fixed-wing aircraft. The two Cessna 182s are operated by the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering. These Skylanes are used to support the academic flight program, which is part of the aeronautical engineering minor in the mechanical engineering major. The cadets in the program take an in depth look at the engineering aspect of flight, how the aircraft works, and why. Cadets develop hypotheses, make test plans, and take measurements in flight.

US ARMY

Image of one of the Army's West Point Skylanes.

West Point’s best-kept aviation secret is the West Point Aviation Club (WPAC). Many of the cadets and faculty involved in the academic program also devote time to WPAC. “The mission of WPAC is to provide leader and military skill development opportunities to cadets interested in Army Aviation as well as achieve consistent success at regional and national collegiate flying team competitions,” its charter says.

The West Point Aviation club also operates a well-maintained Piper PA–28-140 Cherokee and rents other Cherokees or an Archer for flight training and competition practice. The club is led by Army and Air Force officers with a range of aviation backgrounds in both military and civil aviation. In addition to providing cadets with leadership opportunities and exposure to the general aviation community, the team competes against other colleges and service academies in the region under the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). These competitions reinforce a safety culture, maintain the knowledge required to be a successful pilot, and hone vital flying skills. The team competes in two events per year: a regional NIFA competition in the fall, and an invitational event in the spring with the Naval and Coast Guard academy teams.

The person flying the Army Cessna was actually an instructor pilot, according to Davis Winkie of Military Times, who writes:

West Point spokesperson Lt. Col. Beth Smith acknowledged that the Army pilot “briefly violated” the flight restrictions.

“A West Point fixed wing aircraft flown by an Army instructor pilot conducting a cadet flight lab in support of ME481, a Civil and Mechanical Engineering class, briefly violated temporarily restricted airspace this afternoon near the George Washington Bridge,” Smith told Military Times. “Once they realized they had violated the airspace, they immediately left the area and returned to the airport.”

So there you have it, some very rare audio of a real-life intercept at probably the highest-profile VIP event of the year. Thankfully, in this case, it was just an Army aviator who likely hadn't checked the notices to airmen (NOTAMs) in the area where he was flying that day. But it is a good reminder of what is up there waiting to move in at a moment's notice during these types of high-profile events, just in case. 

Author's note: A huge thanks to our friend @thenewarea51 for their help in preparing this article. 

UPDATE:

Someone had also recorded the UHF conversations between the F-16 pilots, as well as Huntress (NORAD), before, during, and after the intercept. There is some great back and forth banter between the F-16 pilots throughout this recording, but it also gives new insight into the intercept itself. You can check it out at the Google Drive link, which is public, here

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com