Air Force Range Tests Jet-stopping Equipment

AVON PARK -- Powering up to 100 knots -- about 115 mph -- the F-16 U.S. Air Force fighter jet roared about a quarter mile toward a cable barrier spanning across the runway.

In a matter of seconds, the pilot had soared down the runway and engaged the cable, using a hook on the back of the aircraft, which absorbed the plane's energy, halting the aircraft and slowly pushing it back to a complete stop.

In that instant, one of the ongoing annual safety and regulatory tests that take place annually at the Avon Park Air Force Range was over.

Thursday, Air Force 93rd Fighter Squadron pilots, using two fighter jets flown in from Homestead Air Reserve Base, spent the day getting the base's arresting gear and BAK Certification updated.

"Arresting gear" is the mechanical system used to rapidly decelerate an aircraft as it lands. The gear is primarily used to stop jets landing on aircraft carriers, but on land-based airfields, it's used for expeditionary or emergency uses.

Around 11:30 a.m., base and Air Force officials, along with about six staff members of ASRC Federal Primus -- a private company providing federal government agencies operations and maintenance support -- coordinated the tests.

In his pick-up truck parked about 200 yards from the testing jet, Charles, "Buck" MacLaughlin, the bombing range's director of operations and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, kept in contact via radio the coordinated testing efforts.

He said the significance of the barrier testing was to make sure safety equipment was functioning in case of a "braking malfunction affecting a plane's ability to stop."

He said it was one of the "key elements" in the operation and maintenance of the airfield in order to host military operations located elsewhere use the bombing range to train when necessary.

MacLaughlin said because of the availability of range's barrier arresting system, the region's air shows can host flying demonstrations by the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

"We have a runway inside restricted air space here; there aren't many (bases) in the U.S. where you have that situation," he said.

The "arrestments" were accomplished when the arresting hook on incoming aircraft engaged a barrier.

When a landing aircraft engaged it, the force of the forward motion of the landing aircraft was transferred to a cable routed to an "arresting" engine, located in machinery rooms on either side of the runway.

The engine caused a smooth, controlled stoppage of the aircraft.

MacLaughlin said updating and testing such systems draws more in more use for training exercises from other areas, generating more county revenue.

In 2011, the base's economic impact on Highlands County was $68 million.

The bombing range's Airfield Manager Greg Duncan, who retired from the Air Force after 20 years and also provided logistical help Thursday, said barrier systems are important for landing aircraft on short or temporary runways, or for emergencies involving brake failure, steering problems or other instances when the full length of the runway can't be used.

"It's important for people off base to know the tests confirm we are conducting our airforce operations in the safest manner possible," he said.

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