It’s not every day that the bomb disposal team from MacDill Air Force Base gets called out to deal with a French air-to-air missile. But last Friday was no ordinary day.
Members of the 6th EOD team were called out to Lakeland Linder International Airport Friday after it was shut down in the wake of the discovery of the missile, which had been delivered to Draken International. Based at the airport, Draken has a fleet of about 150 former military aircraft it contracts out to help train current military pilots.
“Our EOD team went out and secured the missile,” Air Force 1st Lt. Brandon Hanner, a spokesman for the 6th Air Refueling Wing, told Military Times. “It was live, but unarmed.”
Hanner said he was told the missile was “like having a gun with bullet in chamber, but on safety. Someone would have to arm the missile to fire it.”
Draken officials tell Military Times that “in the process of evaluating shipments to Draken International’s Lakeland facility” its team “discovered an object with questionable markings indicating it may be explosive.”
“Adhering to the explosive safety rule of exposing the minimum amount of people for the minimum amount of time to a potential explosive hazard, we made the decision to evacuate the facility, inform our surrounding tenants and contact the appropriate authorities as soon as possible,” Draken officials said in a statement. “Those authorities responded quickly, rapidly assessed the situation, and followed their proven protocols. Draken International takes our role in all of the communities we operate in seriously and we have long-standing operating procedures to ensure we perform safely and reliably every day.”
Hanner described the missile as a French-made S-530 air-to-air missile.
That it was a French air-to-air missile “made it kind of unique for our team,” said Hanner. “It was manufactured outside the U.S., but we used the same protocol to respond and secure it.”
After receiving a call from officials in Lakeland, the 6th Air Refueling Wing’s logistics readiness squadron sent a flatbed truck to pick up the missile, which was in a container. The MacDill crews. working with ATF and the Lakeland Fire Department, secured the missile and brought it back to the base, where it is currently being stored until it can be disposed.
“That is likely not going to be here” Hanner said. “It is too big for our range. It will have to be taken off site to dispose it.”
Though the airport was shut down and businesses evacuated, the timing worked out for Draken’s next door neighbor — the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center.
Home to the two WP-3 Orion hurricane hunters named Kermit and Miss Piggy, and a G-IV jet named Gonzo, the NOAA AOC had already completed its missions for the week by the time the alert went out.
“The airport director texted me and explained the situation,” Carl Newman, deputy director of the NOAA AOC told Military Times. “It was roughly 2:25PM and we only had a few employees left at the Center having completed our objectives for the week. We simply cleared out and it did NOT affect our work...luckily. We were all very lucky for which I’m thankful. "
All three aircraft were in the hangar at the time of the incident, Newman said.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.