Avoiding a balloon at 3,000 feet.
It started out as a routine "Back in the Saddle" (BITS) flight with three instructor pilots (IPs) returning from holiday leave. The plan was to fly to Brooks Country Airport, a small civilian airfield about 50 miles southwest of NAS Corpus Christi.
Being close to the Mexican border, Training Wing Four (TW-4) instructors are aware of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operations. DHS uses aerostats (similar to the Goodyear blimp, except smaller) for surveillance throughout south Texas. These aerostats can reach heights of 2,000-3,500 feet. They don't have navigation lights to identify them or their anchoring cables.
It was a beautiful, clear day. We picked up an IFR clearance from NAS Corpus to Brooks County Airport and requested the GPS approach to runway 35. This approach included a holding pattern in order to align ourselves with the final approach course. Reaching the holding waypoint heading outbound, I noticed what I thought was a smudge on the windscreen. I soon realized it was a DHS aerostat that appeared to be co-altitude with our T-44.
The aerostat was far enough away that we had sufficient airspace to adjust our pattern. We wrapped up our turn and the aerostat passed slightly below and to the right of our aircraft at 3,000 feet.
We landed and notified our safety department that the aerostat was not located in the position listed in the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), which said that it was supposed to be 25 miles southwest of the field. Instead, it was 15 miles southeast and within one mile of the holding track. According to the Terminal Instrument Procedures (TERPS) manual, initial approach fix altitudes must provide 1000 feet of clearance within 4 miles of course and 500 feet of clearance for an additional 2 miles beyond the inner ring. If a training crew had flown this approach procedure at night, in actual instrument conditions (without a discernable horizon), or if they had been off altitude, this aerostat would have been a lethal obstacle.
Within an hour, our safety department had notified the chain of command, the FAA and Corpus Christi and Kingsville approach controllers. The squadron discontinued operations at Brooks County until the aerostat no longer posed a risk to flight operations. Within a day, a new NOTAM was entered into the database, notifying all air traffic (military and civilian) of the actual location and altitude of the aerostat. DHS was also notified, and within a week, they moved it to the originally published location.
Our encounter that day showed how quickly and effectively a safety department and command can act when faced with a hazard. I was proud of our squadron that day. This event reminded us that it is important to always be vigilant and that even in our own backyard we can face unexpected threats.
LT ANDERSON FLIES WITH VT-31.