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A new diligence in the American blue yonder

(Page 3 of 3)

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

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* * *

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.