A new diligence in the American blue yonder

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Capt. Dave Winjum pulls back the joystick in his F-16 and shoots skyward. The Virginia coastline falls steeply away as the fighter jet noses up through scattered clouds over Langley Air Force Base and speeds north, covering the 120 miles to Washington within minutes.

"There's Reagan [National Airport]," says Capt. Winjum, an Air National Guardsman, glancing down through the cockpit's bubble canopy as he banks into an earth-tilting turn over the capital.

Suddenly, so fast they appear mere flits of motion, two F-15s streak past in the blue expanse overhead. The jets, fully loaded with missiles, belong to an Air Force unit whose call sign is "King Kong."

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They veer briefly into formation with Winjum and his wingman, 1st Lt. Brad Lorentz, as the pilots exchange radio chatter. "Thanks, Kong," Winjum says, as the F-15s head off for midair refueling.

Warplanes like these careening over Washington 24 hours a day are mostly invisible miles below on the ground. But at midday or in the broken still of night, a constant, hollow roar of engines reveals the fighters are there, ready to intercept suspicious aircraft, and – as a last resort – shoot them down.

Patrolling America's skies as never before, Winjum and other Air National Guard and Air Force pilots have flown more than 20,000 missions since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, compared with only 150 in 2000. More than 13,000 people, 100 fighters, and a total of 150 tankers and AWACS surveillance planes have joined the effort. So far jets have scrambled from the ground against potential targets 320-plus times.

Indeed, the pilots of Operation Noble Eagle, the new homeland defense mission, are on the front lines of a dramatic about-face in US air defense – a shift from only looking outward to also looking within. The change began at exactly 8:46 a.m. EST on Sept. 11. In that single minute, two events occurred: Hijackers plowed American Airlines flight 11 into the World Trade Center and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) ordered the first US combat jets that morning to scramble.

Today, the Monitor looks at the ultimate enforcers of safety over America and the new US air defense system emerging post-9/11 – from the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, to a regional NORAD headquarters, to a bunker of pilots on ground alert.

* * *

The scramble horn wailed, and the green launch light flashed on. Capt. Craig Borgstrom, operations officer for a detachment of the North DakotaAir National Guard at Langley,raced to the hangar with two on-duty pilots. It was 9:24, Sept. 11: The chaos had just begun.

"How many planes can you get airborne?" the NORAD dispatcher asked in clipped tones over a secure line dubbed the "bat phone."

"I have two on battle stations," replied Capt. Borgstrom from the control tower near the hangar.

"That's not what I asked," the dispatcher snapped. "How many planes can you get airborne – total?"

"I can give you three."

"Then go!"

In less than six minutes, the three pilots were hurtling toward Washington in their F-16s, the first jets scrambled to the capital that day. They were 12 minutes away when the hijacked American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Borgstrom saw a plume of smoke rising from a gaping hole in the tan complex, and confirmed to NORAD that it was on fire.

Yet while Borgstrom was at the tip of the spear, he knew nothing about the crisis unfolding. One of a handful of pilots who might have been ordered to bring down a fourth hijacked jetliner – he "had no idea" the Pentagon or World Trade Center had been struck by suicide terrorists piloting airplanes. Indeed, the confusion seemed to grow as he circled the city, enforcing orders to ground civilian planes and watching the skies grow cluttered with other military jets.

"It was a mess," he recalls. One thing seemed clear from the tense voices crackling over his radio: "We're at war," he thought. Four hours later, when he landed back at Langley, ordnance was everywhere.

"It looked like World War III," he recalls.

* * *

Hundreds of miles north, in a dark, windowless operations center, Col. Lanny McNeely stared at a mass of blips on glowing green radar scopes, as his staff worked desperately to locate hijacked aircraft. Stepping back into his glass-enclosed "battle cab" above the operations floor, he ordered fighters to their targets.

Colonel McNeely is operations director for NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), a little-known military post in Rome, N.Y. that directs US air defenses from Maine to Virginia. Known as the "mole people," NEADS employees work mainly in the dark. On Sept. 11, they pushed the buttons to scramble fighter jets over New York and Washington.

But Sept. 11 caught much of the US military and civilian air-control apparatus by surprise.

"The threat was perceived to be outside. It was a cold war mentality," says McNeely. For decades, NEADS had looked for incoming Soviet Bear bombers or South American drug smugglers. "Quite frankly, we were not expecting an attack from within."

Since the strikes, McNeely has been at the center of an unprecedented, inward shift in US air defenses. The goal: to provide the military and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with a complete, real-time view of America's skies. The military radar system is expanding over the US to dovetail with the existing FAA system. New mobile radar units are filling blind spots. Technology is being installed that can "paint" aircraft and track them even if they aren't "squawking" their transponders – instruments that hijackers apparently turned off on Sept. 11. NEADS' workforce has almost doubled, putting dozens more pairs of eyes on US airspace. New direct phone lines and liaisons speed links to the FAA.

"My visibility into the interior ... improves every day," McNeely says.

* * *

Lt. Col. Mike Wobbema is a Hooligan – and proud of it. A stocky veteran fighter pilot with a high tolerance for "Gs" (gravity force), he commands the Langley detachment of the North Dakota Air National Guard, whose nickname, "Happy Hooligans," is emblazoned in red on the tails of its fleet of aged F-16s.

For six months after Sept. 11, he directed a non-stop operation of combat air patrols (CAPs) over Washington, eating up his unit's whole year's worth of 3,800 flying hours. "If [a plane] moved wrong, we were gonna put some fighters on it," he says.

The detachment's cramped 1951 bunker housed an extra 50 or 60 pilots, mechanics, and other airmen.

"Cots were everywhere," says Tech. Sgt. Jay Jonson, a mechanic. Amid the constant roar of jets taking off and frequent scramble horns, adrenaline was never in short supply. "It's automatic, you hear the horn and start salivating," he says.

The Hooligans are part of the biggest US combat air-patrol operation ever, surpassing those of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Before the attacks, the Air National Guard, a reserve for the Air Force, handled US air defense with fighters on alert at only seven bases. Today, more than 100 Guard and Air Force fighters are on alert at 26 bases nationwide.

But the 24-hour patrols over Washington and New York, and random flights over other cities, are taking a toll on the men in olive-green flight suits. CAPmissions, which cost $30 million a week, are cutting into training, degrading combat readiness in the Guard and Air Force. They put wear and tear on aircraft, forcing mechanics to work overtime on older planes like the Hooligans's 1981 F-16s. As for leave time, it's a distant memory.

"It was wreaking havoc on units," Wobbema says. So, last month, the Air Force started a regular, 90-day rotation for units flying CAP, integrating Operation Noble Eagle patrols into the force-wide system that handles US air missions from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Today, the Hooligans are on "strip alert" – prepared to scramble within 15 minutes. Pilots and mechanics lift weights or relax in overstuffed chairs, watching videos. The scent of brewing coffee permeates the air, and St. Pauli Girl stickers and mugs on hooks line paneled walls. Rocket, a tiny, longhaired papillon dog, leaps from man to man.

But when the klaxon screams, Wobbema will be ready. "Failure," he says, "is not an option."

* * *

High over Washington, Capt. Winjum nudges his F-16 close to the underside of a KC-135 refueling tanker, a flying gas-station. A 70-foot boom extends from the belly of the tanker, guided by a bespectacled airman lying on his stomach and peering from a window.

"Contact cleared," the tanker radios Winjum. After a few tries, the boom smoothly connects with the F-16 just aft of the canopy, completing the delicate hook-up cruising at 300 to 500 miles per hour. With a full tank, the F-16 can patrol for about two or three hours.

Tankers, AWACs surveillance planes, and other fighters are Winjum's comrades on the CAP missions. Everything else is potentially a target: a civilian plane that is not "squawking" its transponder codes, diverts from its flight path, or ventures into restricted airspace, as a Frontier Airlines flight did this month. Indeed, several airline pilots who've fallen off course by mistake or due to emergency have had the unnerving experience of a pair of fighters pulling up alongside.

Winjum has several options for intercepting suspcious aircraft: to fly close to identify the tail number; to execute a covert "shadow," hanging back by day or shutting off the lights and using night vision goggles in darkness; to try to communicate via radio or hand signals (rock his wings in a "follow me" command); or to force a turn by curving in front of an aircraft, and heading it off.

A full-time Air National Guard pilot since 1997, Winjum knew he wanted to fly ever since he was a boy growing up near an airfield in Twin River Falls, Minn.

"I was a fanatic from Day 1," he says. In the air, he maneuvers the F-16 into a series of high-speed turns, enjoying a plane designed to act as an extension of the human body. With a flick of his wrist on the joystick or a touch of his foot to a pedal, the jet dips and turns with dizzying fluidity. Snug and high in his ejection seat, Winjum virtually sits on the clouds.

Yet as Winjum trained in air combat, he never imagined he'd be in a position to shoot down a hijacked commercial jet, ending American lives to save more on the ground. He accepts thepossibility by describing himself as a tool of higher authorities – the "bullet in the gun" – not the one making the decisions. Under new, rules of engagement for taking down civilian aircraft, NORAD "authenticates" the targets. Depending on time, the president, Defense secretary, or one of two NORAD generals could give the order to fire.

"I'm just the executor," Winjum says.

Still, he knows the day could come. Despite uneven improvements in airport security and cockpit safety, he believes the Air National Guard should maintain a high state of alert.

Sometimes, he winces when buddies chide him for not taking time off, or going hunting with his dog, "Gunner." "They say nothing's going to happen – the war's over," he says somberly. "I think this is just the beginning."

Training for a two-hour thrill

Three days at Langley Air Force Base offered me a glimpse of what US fighter pilots go through to keep us all safe. For my two-hour flight with Capt. Dave Winjum, I trained for two days.

In an altitude chamber I experienced losing oxygen at 25,000 feet. (You can't do math problems; you turn blue, and eventually faint.) I practiced the "straining maneuver" that pilots use to stay conscious during sharp increases in "Gs," the force of gravity. (You tense your lower body and breathe out in short, explosive bursts – sort of the way women push in labor.)

I learned how to eject from an F-16 and parachute down. (Useful tips include how to use the knife in the left leg pocket of your flight suit to cut tangled parachute lines – only the tangled ones, mind you.) The flight was exhilarating, from the thrust of take-off, to taking a turn at flying, to the high-G maneuvers at the end.

After this primer, it's hard to fathom the skill required for combat, or for landing on an aircraft carrier at night.

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