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A new diligence in the American blue yonder

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 2002


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.

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"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."

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.

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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.

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