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A new diligence in the American blue yonder

(Page 2 of 3)

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.

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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.