|Staff Sgt. Brent Lanier, an emergency action controller inside Cheyenne Mountain, watches North Americas skies with the help of a piece of software called Flight Explorer (shown in background), tracking thousands of aircraft flights each day.||
Cheyenne Mountain operations evolve
For all its technological majesty, the trillion-dollar
North American air warning network, with connections spread around the
world, could best be personified by one innocuous cloth-bound log book
resting on a counter.
Labeled FAA Log, the handwritten record of
out-of-the-ordinary happenings for aircraft monitored by the Federal Aviation
Administration like the airline passenger who decided to climb
on the beverage cart and use it as a toilet is integral.
The inch-thick record is a chilling reminder of the air
warning mission, which is now the most public portion of the Cheyenne
Mountain operations centers charge. But theres more to this
mission and to this team of aerospace sentinels than what goes on in the
Housed on the grounds of Cheyenne Mountain Air Force
Station 7,000 feet above sea level near Colorado Springs, Colo., the operations
center gave mutually assured destruction and Matthew Broderick fame in
WarGames. Its the epicenter for a worldwide network
of satellites, radars, sensors and 5,500 multinational, multiservice military
and civilian guardians watching over North American air and space.
Canadian and American national defense officials realized
they needed a continental home alarm system to track Soviet bombers in
1956. A year later, Russia launched Sputnik I, and Defense Department
leaders added the ballistic threat to the centers mission. They
broke ground in 1961 and opened the $142 million facility nestled in 2,000
feet of granite in 1966.
Cheyenne Mountain is the worksite for three major commands:
the North American Aerospace Defense Command, formed in 1958 with combined
U.S. and Canadian forces; Air Force Space Command, created in 1982; and
the U.S. Space Command, created in 1985. Scattered throughout Colorado
Springs and surrounding towns, Cheyenne Mountain forms the Orion
the warrior of the DODs space force constellation.
For four decades, its mission went relatively unmodified.
Then one morning, hijackers used four passenger airliners as weapons of
mass destruction and changed the playing field.
Before Sept. 11, our focus was outward, said
Col. Steve Allen, deputy director for operations at Cheyenne Mountain
and a 22-year veteran of space operations. Now theres a whole
new ballgame. If we dont do our job, the consequences are pretty
A new focus
Stood up days after the Sept. 11 incidents, this outside-in
watch has controllers watching a computer monitor that, thanks to radar
and sensor data, draws a picture of the North American continent, Alaska
and Hawaii. Over the top of the map crawl thousands of pixel-small dots,
representing some of the more than 12,000 aircraft that fly throughout
the continent each day.
Controllers see at least one unidentified aircraft daily,
called a track. To assist them in identifying the track, controllers contact
the Continental United States NORAD Region at Tyndall Air Force Base,
Fla., which gathers data from one of the three Air National Guard-run
air defense sectors. They also work closely with a newly installed 24-hour
FAA representative who can reach out to the administrations 20 centers
across the country.
The region and the FAA feed supplemental data back to
the air warning center. They analyze it and attempt to identify the aircraft.
If the track still cannot be identified, NORAD will scramble jets to chase
it. All of this happens in about five minutes.
While controllers identify most tracks, not all aircraft
are identified. In 2000, there were 115 remaining unknown tracks and 179
On Sept. 11, there were more than 50 people training
inside the battle management warning center during a NORAD exercise. Shortly
after the second airliner smashed into World Trade Center Tower No. 1,
the exercise ceased. The mountains massive blast doors closed as
a protective measure for the first time in more than 20 years, and the
inner space watch began.
As an air warning center controller team crew chief that
morning, Tech. Sgt. John Sterling expected a day of the usual.
Nothing, he said, prepared him for the surreal events that unfolded in
front of him.
Ive never seen anything like it, Sterling,
a 15-year Air Force veteran, recalled. For impact, on a scale of
one to 10, it was an 11.
Sterlings team and everyone who remained behind
from the exercise moved at light speed. In addition to his
regular duties, Sterling coordinated the first medical aerial evacuation
flights into Washington, D.C., and New York City that morning.
Everything we did that day mattered, Sterling
Cheyenne Mountain buzzed like a hive of bees. In the
command center, where aerospace data merges and forms the big picture
for American and Canadian decision makers, Staff Sgt. Brent Lanier, an
emergency action controller, believed the day couldnt get more frenzied.
Then while coordinating information between the centers
leadership and national command authorities, Gen. Ralph Ed
Eberhart, the leader of all three space commands, asked Lanier to do something
hed never done before make a direct call to Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Lanier later sent out a message with an alteration
to the nations defense condition, or DEFCON, status.
Id sent out false DEFCON messages during
exercises, but I never thought Id have to send out an actual DEFCON
change message but I did. It was frightening.
Whatever this nation does, wherever they do it,
theyre not going to leave home without us, he said. The
capabilities we provide ... are very important in the ongoing Operation
To that end, Cheyenne Mountains missile warning
center now tracks strategic and theater missiles as well as space launches,
from the multiple warhead-topped ICBM to the theater-based Scud missile.
Big or small, the center has less than five minutes to assess it. The
missile alert, called a quick alert, appears as a thick red
circle on one of the command centers large warning screens. Defense
support program satellites and controllers at radar stations can then
track its path, projecting when and where it will land.
Its like watching a baseball being thrown.
Eventually, you know where its going to land, Allen said.
But theres more to the missile watch than spotting
and tracking. Allen said there are rigorous safeguards to ensure the system
and its people are working properly. That includes the use of two independent
sources, called dual phenomenology, to discover if a missile
threat to North America is real.
Space control is a tad tamer. Currently, the United States
and Canada are the only countries cataloging whats up there. All
told, more than 8,300 objects are orbiting Earth. Approximately 7 percent
of those, about 580, are active, including a wealth of commercial television,
wireless telephone and automated teller machine data satellites. More
than 27,000 objects have been cataloged since 1957, and controllers provide
more than 100,000 location updates each day.
Cheyenne Mountains controllers are also good pathfinders.
Every time a space shuttle goes into orbit, controllers create a best
flight path simulation, keeping the shuttle crew from bumping into
North Americas new charge
Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, who leads the mostly Air National
Guard-staffed 1st Air Force, the numbered air force in charge of those
aircraft, said the ability to quickly meet any threat is paramount.
We work tirelessly to meet our nations requirements
for rapid response to any air sovereignty threat, Arnold said. This
rapid-response capability is a reflection of the teamwork and professionalism
of our service members. When were called upon, were ready
to act and act fast.
For Arnold and the entire aerospace security team, acting
fast means a continuance and improvement of the air, space and missile
watch missions, even if it means writing about disruptive passengers and
weird aircraft happenings in a cloth-bound federal diary. Allen, whose
three decades of service has taken him from the missile silo to the Cheyenne
Mountain command center, said Canadians and Americans expect and deserve
the best aerospace sentinels their nations can provide.
For about 200 years, we thought we were safe, Allen concluded. Youd like to think that after all America has been through and given to the world, weve earned that.
Canadian air force Majs. Gary Clarke and Pierre Berube watch an unknown aircraft fly into North American air space. The United States and Canada have been partners watching and defending North American air space for more than four decades.
Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station doesnt look like much from above. Thats because the combat operations center the installations nerve center is hidden beneath more than 2,000 feet of granite.