Shooting airliners: Can pilots ever be ready?

As the military expands efforts to defend the nation's skies, pilots deal with the possibility of having to take out a commercial plane.

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, MASS.

On any given day, Major Jethro may fly a Boeing 737 airliner to New York - or prepare to shoot one down.

Jethro, who would disclose only his call name, is a full-time airline copilot and a part-time Air National Guard F-15 "Eagle Rider" - as his patch says.

Like all 32 pilots at Otis Air National Guard Base, Jethro waits for the horn that could scramble him against a new airborne threat: America's commercial airliners. And of the 20 part-timers at the 102nd Fighter Wing, 19 are commercial pilots, which means they literally could be ordered to shoot down their own planes.

That's the new reality around the country, as air bases broaden and strengthen their mission to protect the skies. Prior to Sept. 11, the order to shoot down a commercial plane could only come from the president. Since then, the president has pushed that authority down the chain of command to military generals. The idea is to speed up response time, should an airliner be used again as a guided missile.

Pilots at Otis say they hope that day never comes. However, they insist that they wouldn't hesitate to fire. "Every day we fly, we pray it's a totally quiet day," says one pilot, who goes by the call name Hollywood. "We do not want to shoot down an airliner. We would only do that as a last resort to save further human lives."

During decades of combined active-duty Air Force service, Otis pilots flew ground-attack missions in Desert Storm. One saw his colleagues' bodies removed from a Saudi Arabian military barracks after a 1996 terrorist bombing.

As part-time military pilots, they've chased drug smugglers in Panama and dodged anti-aircraft fire over Iraqi no-fly zones. But men who trained to hunt Soviet bombers or Iraqi fighter planes say nothing prepared them mentally for this new mission. "It's probably the toughest thing a pilot would have to deal with," says retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Fenimore, who commanded New York's entire National Guard at the end of his 38-year military career. "You've got to get square in your mind if this is an order you can carry out."

On the morning of Sept. 11, two of Otis's fighters were the only air defenders protecting the skies above 90 million people who live in an area bounded by Maine, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. Two pilots - one of them also a full-time airline pilot - raced toward New York, but they arrived too late to stop two jets from slamming into the World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, Jethro was watching the attacks on television inside his airline's Chicago operations room. There was laughter among the pilots and flight attendants when someone first suggested an airliner hit the building. But Jethro says the room went "deathly silent" after the second impact.

It was at that moment, Jethro says, that he realized how his job as air defender had changed. "I thought, 'We are going to have to guard people on the ground from our own airplanes.' "

The number of fighters sitting on runways at US air bases and ready to take off on 10 minutes' notice increased after Sept. 11, from 14 to 100. Others also now fly regular combat air patrols over US cities.

On Oct. 10, two F-16s escorted a Delta Air Lines jet to an unscheduled landing in Louisiana after a passenger passed a threatening note to a flight attendant. Just two days earlier, two other F-16s flew alongside an American Airlines jet, as passengers subdued a man who tried to break into the cockpit.

Moving on to the technical

At Otis, pilots say they have accepted their new role and moved on to thinking through the technical details of intercepting commercial airplanes.

Using international signals, fighters approach a commercial airliner from the left side, waggle their wings, and turn in the direction they want the plane to follow, says Col. Don Quenneville, the 102nd Fighter Wing's commander.

If a hijacked plane doesn't respond, Colonel Quenneville says his pilots will follow rules of engagement that now allow generals to authorize an attack. "You're looking at a plane that no longer is American Airlines or United," Quenneville says. "It's, in fact, a guided missile."

Intercepting an airliner, pilots say, isn't much different from attacking the Soviet Bear bombers that lumbered off the East Coast until a decade ago. "You can be really aggressive in getting in close," says Ludes, who has flown in the Air National Guard full time for two years, after a 14-year career in the Air Force - and also disclosed only his call name. "They both move slow, and they don't shoot back."

The daily grind

On a recent morning, Ludes and another pilot flew off with a booming roar in two F-15s for a four-hour patrol over New York.

As Ludes boards his F-15, which is loaded with Sidewinder and AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, he looks forward to a view of his mother's neighborhood in the Bronx. In the cockpit, he packs a turkey sandwich and sugar cookies for lunch.

Jethro and another pilot left behind on 24-hour-long alert say their main enemy is boredom. When they're not filling out paperwork or flying simulators, they sleep and watch baseball or CNN.

Before Sept. 11, Jethro alternated a week of flying F-15s and a week of commercial flights out of Chicago. He now waits eagerly for a call back from his airline. "[Pilots] have just as much duty as Americans to go back and take our turn sitting on the other side," Jethro says, adding that he hopes his willingness to shoot down a commercial airliner will deter future hijackings.

"They have to know they will not succeed," Jethro says. "Even if they get through all the safety nets, there is absolutely no way they will meet their objective."

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