Super Bowl 2019: F-16 fighter jets will patrol the sky as part of massive security operation

F-16s will patrol during the Super Bowl

Last Updated Feb 1, 2019 9:37 AM EST

McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C. — A massive security operation is underway in Atlanta, with thousands of police and other officials ready to protect Super Bowl LIII. But in the sky that duty goes to another force.

If you fly too close to the Super Bowl on Sunday, you will see an F-16 jet fighter, followed by orders to leave the area immediately — or else.

CBS News flew with Lt. Col. Andrew Thorne in the backseat on a training mission before the big game. The F-16 took off from a National Guard base in South Carolina, accelerating down the runway at full throttle. On Sunday, F-16s will be flying over Atlanta, patrolling a 30-mile restricted flight zone around the stadium.

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CBS News' David Martin goes on test flight in an F-16 before the Super Bowl. CBS News

Any suspicious plane entering that zone will be intercepted, like a Cessna, flown by the Civil Air Patrol. For the exercise, it played the role of an intruder. Traveling two to three times faster, the F-16 pulled up alongside, rocked its wings and peeled off.

"It's basically saying, 'Hey, look at me.' We'll rock our wings and then slowly turn away. That's a symbol for usually to follow," Thorne said.

If the civilian plane fails to respond, the next maneuver is called a head butt. The F-16 cuts right in front of the other plane.

"If you're a general aviation pilot flying around and you have an F-16 a thousand feet in front of you, you notice it," Thorne said.

Since 9/11 when these patrols began, there have been hundreds of intercepts over places like the nation's capital and events like the World Series. It always turns out to be an innocent, or stupid mistake. If it looks like an attack, only the Secretary of Defense — or if he can't be reached — the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, can order a plane shot down.

"We would always execute the rules of engagement that NORAD put forth. And we're prepared to do that," Thorne said.

The best thing that could happen on Sunday is that you enjoy the game, but two F-16 pilots will be too busy flying to watch the game.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Andrew Thorne as Andrew Thornton. It has been corrected.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.