Watch F-35 ‘Headbutt’ Private Plane During Low-Level Intercept Over Marin

Video has emerged depicting the moment a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighter intercepted a Mooney M-20J single-engine airplane over San Francisco earlier today. According to an official announcement by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the intercept concluded without incident.

The intercept was one of three coordinated by NORAD on June 20 in response to violations of temporary flight restrictions (TFR) in place over much of the Bay Area. The temporary restrictions are there to help protect President Joe Biden as he continues his visit to San Francisco where he is fundraising for his 2024 re-election campaign. Air Force One landed at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California, on Monday, and the president will remain in the Bay Area through Wednesday.  

In the video, we see the F-35A, callsign ‘NOBLE 11,’ performing what’s known as a ‘headbutt’ maneuver on the offending aircraft at low altitude. As we have outlined in the past, this typically involves flying close to the intercepted aircraft, before pulling up in front of them, sometimes in a steep climb. Headbutts can also include an approach from overhead, at varying distances, as well. In any case, the generation of wake turbulence can be used to get the attention of or even be used to harass another aircraft.

After NOBLE 11 was cleared to “headbutt [the aircraft] left, with no flares” over Marin County by the Western Air Defense Sector (callsign BIGFOOT), the M-20J appears to have made a speedy return to Navato Marin County Airport from where it began its journey. The low altitude of the intercepted was likely a factor in no flares being authorized.

An outstanding depiction of events as they unfolded using open-source flight tracking, radio communications, and video can be seen in @aeroscouting ‘s tweet below:

The M-20J, with the registration N531DD, belongs to a private owner. A close-up photo of the F-35A circulating online reveals the fighter is based out of Hill Air Force Base located in Davis County, Utah, owing to its ‘HL’ tailcode. Hill is a master F-35 base for the USAF and hosts an expansive community of the jets, which you can read more about here.

Also clearly seen is the F-35A armed with AIM-9X Sidewinders on its external outer-wing pylons.

As already noted, this was just one of three airspace violations that occurred today above San Francisco. According to the open source intelligence (OSINT) account @airplaneian , another of those intercepts involved a Piper PA-28 Cherokee.

According to our friend and prolific aviation tweeter @thenewarea51 , the F-35A — NOBEL 11 —  was one of three aircraft enforcing flight restrictions over the Bay Area today. This included its wingman, ‘NOBEL 12’, and a KC-46 Pegasus tanker, callsign ‘SWATH 13.’

This mix is interesting as all are new generation aircraft for the USAF. F-35As being used for the homeland air sovereignty mission, and especially fighter combat air patrols (CAPs) for presidential visits, is still somewhat of a new development. Usually, California’s airspace is defended by the 144th Fighter Wing based out of Fresno, a California Air National Guard unit, that flies F-15C/Ds. The South Dakota Air National Guard also augments this capability, often standing alert out of March Joint Air Reserve Base to cover Southern California’s airspace with their F-16C/Ds. But it isn’t uncommon to bring in fighter aircraft from other units, even from afar, to help with providing CAPs for VIP-related temporary flight restrictions.

As The War Zone has outlined in the past, CAPs are standard procedure for presidential visits. Having fighters constantly overhead is extremely expensive and resource-intensive, however, but it offers far quicker response times to potential threats.

Contact the author:

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent's Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone's military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.