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Super Bowl security takes to the sky

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An F-16 moves into position under the fuel boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a training exercise over Minnesota Wednesday afternoon. The refueling in mid-air was part of training for Super Bowl air security. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
The KC-135 Stratotanker prepares to refuel at the Guard Base Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Guardsmen ride the KC-135 on a refueling mission Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
KC-135 pilots Lt. Col. Andrew Wahl (left) and Lt. Dane Christensen fly the Stratotanker on a F-16 refueling run over Minnesota Wednesday afternoon. Wahl keeps a lookout for two F-16s on the approach. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Boom operator Staff Sgt. Lavontia Harper keeps an eye on an F-16 and the boom controls as the fighter jet moves into position to refuel Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

At 21,000 feet above Minnesota's snow-covered ground, an F-16 fighter jet approached the back of a KC-135 Stratotanker.

A Wisconsin Air National Guardsman, suspended on his stomach above a board covered in switches and knobs, watched the F-16 through a window at the back of the Stratotanker while using a joystick to maneuver a boom down to the F-16. Connected to the Stratotanker via the boom, the F-16's refueling began, all at a speed of 315 knots. Within minutes, the F-16 was refueled and disconnected, dipping away and out of sight.

Staff Sergeant Lavontia Harper, boom operator for the KC-135, leans on his stomach as he aligns the boom. (Bob King / DNT)Wednesday's refueling between two F-16s from the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth and the Stratotanker, from the Wisconsin Air National Guard in Milwaukee, was one exercise in a yearlong process to secure the skies above U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis during the Super Bowl.

The exercise saw several federal agencies practice intercepting a mock rogue aircraft entering restricted airspace above the stadium.

The Federal Aviation Administration is imposing a temporary flight restriction in a 30-mile radius around Minneapolis beginning Sunday afternoon. The restriction is to ensure the safety, security and efficiency of the airspace, Andy Gold with the FAA's special operations division said on Tuesday. Ahead of the temporary flight restriction, the FAA is also managing increased flight volume due to people traveling to Minneapolis for the game, he said.

The rogue airplane in Wednesday's training was played by a Cessna flown by the Civil Air Patrol. Kevin Dunlevy, a Civil Air Patrol pilot, said the training ensures that Air National Guard pilots are comfortable flying slow and low with a small plane. Pilots practiced communicating with a pilot of a rogue airplane via radio and aviation hand signals in an attempt to guide the plane out of the restricted airspace.

KC-135 pilots Lt. Col. Andrew Wahl (left) and Lt. Dane Christensen fly the Stratotanker on a F-16 refueling run. (Bob King)"It makes me feel like I'm doing good, helping train the pilots, helping protect the country," Dunlevy said.

Training exercises for the event have been held several times throughout the past year, said Lt. Col. Paul Thornton, alert forces commander at the 148th.

A number of units within the North American Aerospace Defense Command could be providing airspace security on Sunday and the 148th Fighter Wing isn't necessarily the unit that will be there. However, they've been filling the role during training exercises to ensure that federal agencies know what it's like to work with a fighter jet, Thornton said. He added that it's been eye opening to see the different agencies' capabilities, because the 148th doesn't typically train with other federal agencies.

"We're very excited to be part of it. We spend most of our time training to go overseas and defend our interests overseas. To get the opportunity to do the air defense mission here and protect Americans and not only Americans, but Minnesotans, is an awesome thing," he said.

The 148th is always training for different missions throughout the year, he said.

 Guardsmen ride the KC-135 on a refueling mission Wednesday. (Bob King)"We have ramped up our air defense training somewhat by being involved in the exercises in the way that we have, but we're always ready to go in some capacity," Thornton said.

After the exercises, the entire NORAD response has been tested and they know what to expect, he said. NORAD also has a good track record of getting an airplane's attention before it goes into restricted airspace, he said.

"I think we'll execute the mission, if we're called upon, very well. I think we're ready," he said.

While airspace security over the Super Bowl is a one-time event for local agencies, security planning is an ongoing activity for federal agencies who are involved in Super Bowl security every year, Gold said. Before last year's game had even taken place, planning was already underway for air security over this year's game in Minneapolis.

"There are already calls for information and calls for support for next year's Super Bowl in Atlanta and we're already starting to work through airspace management and analysis of what that's going to entail. It's a lengthy and very detailed process between the FAA and our interagency partners, both federal and DOD," Gold said.

The air security plan is different each year based on the layout of the city where the Super Bowl is taking place, Gold said.

The KC-135 Stratotanker prepares to refuel at the Guard Base Wednesday. (Bob King / DNT)"Every time an event like this is planned and executed, there's myriad lessons learned as we have those discussions to continuously identify areas where we can improve and optimize the operation," Gold said.

On Sunday, unauthorized aircraft approaching the restricted air space will be tracked and, if needed, fighter jets will come in to guide the aircraft away or try to communicate with it to find out if there's some sort of issue onboard, Thornton said.

If air traffic controllers can't reach an unauthorized aircraft on the radio, fighters will get close in an attempt to communicate with the pilot using known aviation visual signals.

"Since 9/11, NORAD, the air defense system, has been 100 percent successful at safely escorting aircraft outside and away from temporary flight restrictions," Thornton said.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations will likely be the more visible part of air security on Sunday, said Michael Fuller, a CBP air interdiction agent.

An F-16 refuels in mid-air from a boom on the KC-135 Stratotanker. (Bob King / DNT)CPB will provide a quick response force, aircraft intercepts, video surveillance and ground surveillance.

"Customs and Border Protection has a large footprint in this game," Fuller said.

Although this will be Fuller's first time participating in Super Bowl security, the agency has provided security for many of them. There isn't a lot of new training that needs to be done besides becoming familiar with the area of the event, he said.

"All of the things we're doing for the Super Bowl is just normal day-to-day to us," he said.

The CBP went operational at U.S. Bank Stadium earlier this week, said Kris Grogan, public affairs officer with the agency. In addition to air security, they're ensuring that everything going into the stadium is secure.

"It doesn't matter if it's bottled water to Justin Timberlake's halftime show, it's going to be scanned by us to make sure there's no explosives, bombs, anything like that. And, of course, our bigger picture is intellectual property rights of different stuff. We started operations (on Monday) and we've already seized over $100,000 in counterfeits," Grogan said, explaining that many of the counterfeit items are in the form of jerseys and Super Bowl swag.