Military operation in Riverside helping keep nation's skies safe

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, eyes are glued to computer screens that keep track of what's happening in the skies above.

About two dozen people man "The Floor," as it's known to employees at the Air and Marine Operations Center. Security is tight. Cell phones and anything with Bluetooth connectivity isn't allowed inside.

"They don't have a job, they have a mission," said Tony Crowder, executive director of the Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC) in Riverside, located on March Air Reserve Base. "It's a busy job, because they have a lot to keep up with."

Their mission requires their undivided attention. Computer screens are filled with dots, lines and symbols indicating non-commercial airplanes in the skies.

"It's more art than science," said one of the operators, who didn't want his name made public. "It can be pretty busy when you're looking at all these tracks and targets to make sure they're going to the proper places."

One radar screen showed the U.S.-Mexico border along California. Another screen showed the entire state of Texas. The main screen at the center of the wall was focused on Washington, D.C.

"We are the guys watching," said Crowder, who described their job as "policing the skies," looking for criminal activity.

"The criminal networks that we encounter most often are moving illicit drugs," he added.

But one of the Air and Marine Operations Center's busiest days was on September 11, 2001, when all civilian aircraft over the country were forced to land.

"We worked with the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration to ground every aircraft in the nation," said Crowder. The center was also critical in protecting the president.

"I remember the president was airborne, so we were tracking the president and trying to put a bubble around him," he said.

But their job isn't just crime prevention.

"Our core skills apply not only to people who don't want to be found, but also people who need help," said Crowder.

He said 2017 was a very busy year for them, because of all the natural disasters. He described one day in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

"I'm sitting behind one of my operators who's on the phone with a lady from Houston, who says she's on the second floor of her home. She has three kids, the water's rising. She needs help."

That help came from the Air and Marine Operations Center, which helped direct one of their rescue helicopters into the location.

"The lady says OK, I hear a helicopter," said Crowder. "So we know we're getting close."

The demand for what the center does is sky high, so they are expanding into a new building scheduled to open next week.

Meanwhile, they watch -- staring at computer screens and trying to figure out which radar tracks should be there and which ones shouldn't.
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