Pilots defending U.S. take on grim mission

Sept. 11 attacks raise the specter of firing on a commercial jet

`It's almost unfathomable'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ABOVE WASHINGTON -- Bristling with missiles that protrude like talons, peering with a sharp eye from its lofty perch, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is aptly named for its potentially deadly mission: protecting the nation's capital from an airliner-turned-guided-missile.

Thousands of feet below, a white Delta Air Lines jet floats past, almost angelic, just above the tufted expanse of cloud that stretches nearly to the horizon.

"Isn't that one of yours?" one F-16 pilot radios to his Air National Guard wingman, who until Sept. 11 was a full-time commercial airline pilot and not an armed sentry on alert in U.S. skies.

But the airliner beneath is clearly not a concern: There are no orders from commanders to contact the plane, divert it, force it to land or -- in the most extreme situation -- shoot it from the skies. The pilots silently watch the now toy-like jet innocently drift from view.

The warplanes bank hard to the left and continue their long, loopy rounds. They are in radio contact with local air traffic controllers and their military chain of command, poised to respond to orders.

They are part of the Happy Hooligans, a squadron from the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota National Guard, helping maintain a 24-hour vigil over Washington. When the skies are clear, they can easily spot the Mall and the Capitol. And even though the Pentagon looks no bigger than a napkin from this altitude, the pilots can make out the charred gash in its side.

This is the same squadron that scrambled to intercept the American Airlines 757 that slammed into the Pentagon, but the unit's two jets arrived 12 minutes too late. Some outside the battered Pentagon later that day heard a high-pitched rasp, peered into the sky and were briefly heartened as they noticed one of the squad's F-16s circling high above the building.

These days, that same high-pitched rasp of the fighters can be heard in the capital around the clock, unless heavy clouds bounce the sound and transform it into a hoarse roar. These martial echoes have made Washington and its surrounding suburbs more than a bit edgy.

Farther to the north, similarly unsettling sounds can be heard in New York, the only other city where the Guard and active-duty fighter wings maintain a 24-hour vigil. Elsewhere in the country, the patrols are random, military officials said. Before Sept. 11, there were seven military bases designated to scramble jets for an intercept. Today there are 26.

And before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, these North Dakota pilots were on standby at Langley Air Force Base outside Norfolk, Va., ready to respond within 15 minutes to a possible foreign threat.

Now the North Dakota Guardsmen are constantly in the skies, in their F-16s and F-15 Eagles, together with hundreds of other active-duty, Guard and Reserve pilots throughout the country, searching for a foreign threat inside an American brand name.

They are the military descendants of pilots who began patrolling the U.S. skies in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor. At first they flew propeller-driven P-40 fighters and searched for Japanese planes along the California beaches and the Pacific Northwest. Fellow aviators on the East Coast were on the lookout for Nazi attacks. After the war, the patrols were on the lookout for Soviet bombers, often tailing them in the vicinity of Alaska and Greenland.

Historians say the current anti-terrorist mission could surpass in scope and geographic sweep the nation's largest airborne patrol. It happened during the fall of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fighter jets kept a constant vigil along the coastline from Florida to Texas.

Back at their two-story "alert facility," at the edge of a runway at Langley, the pilots kick back in paneled rooms that resemble college dorms. There are unmade beds and overstuffed chairs. A large TV in the corner of one room drones on with the latest news.

Dressed in steel-gray flight suits or T-shirts and fatigues, the pilots and ground crew are quiet and determined. There is little of the joking or ribbing that normally crackles through military units.

Assembling for preflight briefings, the pilots are focused on the mission. But when they touch down after a sortie, their emotions mirror those of other Americans, a mixture of disbelief and concern about what has happened.

For security reasons, the pilots are not able to give their names, fearing possible terrorist retaliation against their families.

"It dumbfounds us like everybody else," said Viking, the call sign of a lieutenant colonel with the squadron. "It's not what any of us expected to be doing."

"I'm still numb," said Poacher, the call sign of a major who has flown combat patrols over Iraq. "I'm used to flying with aircraft that are fully loaded. I would have never pictured myself in any conceivable way having to shoot down an airliner. It's almost unfathomable."

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