Military enlists fishing fleet: Local boats create barrier for military munitions tests

Jacob Fuller

The Air Force 96th Operations Group will run bombing tests off the coast of Destin beginning Monday morning and continuing through Sept. 13. The tests are part of the 53rd Wing's Maritime Strike Program.

Pilots will test munitions about 20 nautical miles off the Destin coast. The Air Force has commissioned more than 25 local boats to act as a barrier for the testing area. These boats and their crews will mark the border and warn any approaching boats to stay out of the drop zone.

To see a map of the area of the Gulf that is off limits, CLICK HERE.

Captain Jim Westbrook has been working with the military on such tests for years. His three boats: New Florida Girl, Suzie Q and American Spirit, will all be on border duty in the coming weeks.

"We've got to get up early and craft the whole deal…We get to our mission site and keep everybody out from that point on. Anybody that gets in there, you've got chase them and get them out. This is a live weapons drop. You can't fool around and have some fishing boat out there get locked on target and blown up. That'd be a little silly," Westbrook said. "It's a live target range. It has to be secured for one reason and one reason only. That's safety."

An independent contractor pays captains to participate in the tests. Westbrook said his boats will still be used for fishing on the weekends during the test weeks. He said he doesn't make as much money as he would chartering fishing trips this time of year, but that helping the military can be a welcome paycheck during the off-season months.

"It's sometimes welcome business when everybody is just sitting," Westbrook said.


In a press release, the Air Force warned that area residents may experience loud noise during the tests. Notices to mariners are being issued prior to the missions, and flyers and maps are at local marinas.