Air Force patrols over Chesapeake mean business

`It isn't going to work again' is veteran pilot's message to terrorists

November 04, 2001|By Katherine M. Skiba | Katherine M. Skiba,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HAMPTON, Va. -- Keeping America's skies safe is a job that falls to pilots such as Wisconsin's Tom Bergeson.

The Air Force lieutenant colonel is boyish and bookish, but his handle -- "Guns" -- hints that he's all business at the controls of an F-15C fighter jet.

When he and his heavily armed $34 million airship tear into the clouds over Chesapeake Bay, it's the start of another hours-long mission to police U.S. airspace. He's done it many times since Sept. 11.

"Any potential hijacker should know," Bergeson says, "it's not going to work again."

He adds:

"Privately, nobody wants to shoot down an airliner, but then nobody wants to see another incident like what happened on Sept. 11. I can tell you, we all take it extremely seriously, but there's no time for a moral crisis in the heat of battle."

Born in Austin, Minn., Bergeson, 38, moved with his family to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., while he was in fourth grade. He wasn't out of adolescence when he became fascinated with military aircraft.

He remembers watching Air National Guard planes from Volk Field at Camp Douglas conduct operations at the Hardwood Bombing Range not far from his new home.

"I didn't see the grander aspects of it, I just got intrigued by it," he said at Langley Air Force Base in southeastern Virginia, where is he stationed.

A couple of visits to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- Bergeson had a relative there -- and his childhood fancy was on its way to becoming a career.

With a nod from U.S. Rep. David R. Obey of Wausau, Bergeson got an appointment to the Air Force Academy and graduated in '85. Next: pilot-training class. In his group of about 50, he ranked first in his class. His standing meant he had his pick of aircraft, and he chose the F-15, part of the Air Force's fleet since '79.

Known as the Eagle, the plane can handle speeds up to 1,875 mph. Its ceiling is 65,000 feet. Bergeson's F-15C is a single-seater, equipped with laser-guided and heat-seeking missiles and a 20mm Gatling gun, plus 940 rounds of ammunition.

He counts about 2,500 flying hours in the F-15. He's been handpicked to study and teach at the elite fighter-weapons program at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. He's picked up three master's degrees during his military and aviation training.

Now he leads the 71st Fighter Squadron, one of three squadrons in the Air Force's 1st Fighter Wing. The position has him commanding 300 people, about 24 of them fellow pilots.

Bergeson was at Nellis on Sept. 11, doing advanced training in preparation for an expected deployment in December over Iraq.

He was relieved that day that his wife, like him, an Air Force Academy grad (and fellow marathoner) was not at work that day at the Pentagon, where, as a reservist, she sometimes serves.

Soon after Sept. 11 Bergeson shifted gears, becoming part of what is called Operation Noble Eagle, the homeland security mission to guard the skies from more acts of terrorism since four commercial planes were commandeered Sept. 11.

So far, there have been instances of U.S. fighter planes being scrambled when trouble was suspected aboard commercial planes -- but no major headaches. Or nightmares.

Bergeson operates knowing he could be called upon to shoot down a civilian airliner. He says personally, it's a disheartening prospect; professionally, he has a job to do.

"There are a number of safeguards and precautions," he notes. "We have strict rules of engagement. We're not looking to shoot somebody down. It's the last thing we want to do, quite honestly.

"But we will, if we have to."

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