|Flying homeland defense missions over the Pacific Northwest can be a lonely vigil. But its a job the Oregon Air National Guard has been doing for decades. Its F-15 Eagles have a lot of range to cover from California to Canada. On this flight, two 142nd Fighter Wing jets zoom over Mount St. Helens, in Washingtons majestic Cascades Mountain Range.||
Oregon Redhawks stand guard over Pacific Northwest
Flying combat air patrols is nothing new to Claw.
The veteran F-15 Eagle pilot has flown many during his
About three years ago, he had a run-in with two Serbian
MiG-29 fighters over Bosnia on one of those missions. The Serbs were flying
at him and his wingman a clear violation of Bosnian airspace and
NATO no-fly zone rules.
Was it a game of chicken or a move to shoot them down?
Claw didnt know.
It was his job to find out, though. To avoid a conflict,
he and his wingman flew their Eagles farther inside Bosnian airspace.
But the MiGs kept coming toward them and friendly forces on the
There was no doubt in Claws mind that he and his
wingman had to engage the MiGs and it wouldnt be a friendly
We knew what we had to do, he said. Then
our training took over.
Following orders from controllers, the airmen maneuvered
the F-15s toward their foes. Then they locked onto the MiGs with their
radars and fired AIM-120 missiles. The wingmans missiles missed.
But both of Claws missiles hit home. Scratch two MiGs.
I knew when I pressed the button that it was the
right thing to do, said Claw, then on active duty. He now flies
with the 123rd Fighter Squadron of the Oregon Air National Guard.
The aerial kills made him an instant celebrity.
Records show he was the first pilot to shoot down two aircraft on a single
intercept using radar-guided missiles.
Things are different now.
Today Claw flies combat air patrols, but in a new kind
of war. Called Noble Eagle, its a war against an uncommon enemy
over an uncommon battleground the United States. After taking off
from Portland Air National Guard Base, he flies homeland defense missions
over the Pacific Northwest.
Homeland defense. Not a common term to most Americans
before Sept. 11s terrorist attack. But now its a way of life
for Claw and hundreds of Guard and Reserve pilots from coast to coast.
Theyre flying combat air patrol over the nations biggest cities.
On the lookout for suspicious air traffic.
For the first time, the U.S. military is defending America
from home not in some far-off land like in other wars. Instead
of MiGs, it might face crop dusters or helicopters. Commercial airliners
with innocent people on board.
That fact weighs heavy on the minds of Claw and his fellow
pilots. If he has to scramble today and gets an order to shoot
it wont be the same as over Bosnia, he said. Now there would
be doubt in his mind, Claw said. Hed wonder if he was doing the
But hell let those who make that decision do their
job. And hell stick to his.
I cant afford to second guess, Claw
said. Because if I dont shoot, a plane could take out the
Seattle Space Needle or crash into downtown Portland. So if ordered
to shoot, hell shoot.
Because if youre airborne with a lot of doubts,
youre useless, he said. And the American people expect
us to carry out our orders.
Shooting down an unarmed airliner seems far-fetched.
Like the scenario from a Hollywood thriller. Thats to say, it was
until Sept. 11.
A new day
We used to have all our sensors looking outward,
on the approaches to our nation from the seas and from the north and south,
said Col. Garry Dean, commander of the 123rds parent unit, the 142nd
Fighter Wing. The sensors are now looking inward, too.
Those sensors are looking in all directions
these days. But theyre centering on aviation and airborne threats
to the nation [See Inner Space].
Our focus can no longer be just on our overseas
missions, Dean said. We must take care of business at home,
too. Were not just defending our nation, but our whole way of life.
The Oregon Guard knows that, and is well-suited for the
role. After all, its been in the air defense business since the
end of World War II. Now it has picked up an air superiority mission as
well. Dean said his troops welcome the change.
Thats what awaits the U.S. military. A transformation
that falls in line with what President Bush has in mind for the armed
forces. He wants to change it from a threat-oriented to a capabilities-oriented
force. To do that, the Pentagon must assess future threats and adjust
its forces, equipment and doctrine to counter them.
Thatll take a total change of the militarys
business as usual mindset. The services must think more about
homeland defense. And nowhere is that easier to see than at the Oregon
For one thing, the distance from takeoff to our
area of responsibility is zero, said Col. Bradley Applegate, the
vice wing commander. Who would have ever thought wed be doing
this mission at home? You can look down and see your house, and thats
a very strange feeling.
The wing has stepped up to meet the added mission. Everyone
wants to help, said Senior Master Sgt. Dave Marshall, the wing production
superintendent. Traditional guardsmen who normally serve one weekend
a month are volunteering for short and long active duty tours.
Theres a new feeling in the air. People feel
more connected to the mission, Marshall said. You see a different
attitude. People are pumped up.
But the wings operations tempo has only gone up
slightly. Unlike their East Coast cousins some who are flying around-the-clock
homeland defense missions over big cities like New York and Washington,
D.C. Oregons airmen are standing alert. On call for when
needed. Theyve surged to 24-hour operations, but only a few times
since Sept. 11.
Still, their mission is no less important, given the
wing defends a much larger area. Each time a jet goes on a combat air
patrol, it could stretch from California to Canada and last five hours.
Apart from training sorties, the wing has flown
on average some 46 homeland defense sorties a month since September.
Pilots are on the lookout for the unusual, Applegate said.
Were the eyes and ears of the decision makers,
he said. Besides the president, two Air Force regional commanders in the
United States may give the order to fire on aircraft.
On patrol, pilots identify, challenge, divert, escort,
force to land or as a last resort shoot down any aircraft
that doesnt follow Federal Aviation Administration rules.
I woke up that morning [Sept. 11] and found myself
living in a designated war zone, Coma said. Only military aircraft
could fly the day of the attack, and for days afterward. It was
like we had a no-fly zone over the United States. I knew that from then
on things would be different.
It was a new kind of mission on the ground, too. There
was a renewed sense of urgency felt by all the troops who ensure the Eagles
take off on time.
Senior Master Sgt. Greg Van Acker, in charge of the wings
weapons element, said though national defense has always been the wings
mission, it has more meaning now.
The impact we have on the community and nation
has increased, Van Acker said. We all feel the pressure of
the extra duty. But we welcome it.
One of his troops, Senior Airman Jessie Reilly, had never
seen a live missile before Sept. 11. She loads them on Eagles all the
time now. And while U.S. troops in Afghanistan get all the press, shes
content to stay at home.
People keep asking me when Im going to Afghanistan,
she said. But I keep telling them we have a just as important job
here protecting the home front.
After Sept. 11, a woman in Portland wrote the wing to
say she couldnt sleep at night, fearful of another attack, Dean
said. But hearing the wings jets flying overhead helped her sleep
Nobody wants to go to war. But nobody wants to
get hit with a stick, either, Dean said. The wing provides a presence,
deterrence and warning to potential terrorists. And we give peace
of mind to the American people.
Claw stays busy in the alert barn. Across
the runway from the alert facility, commercial aircraft taxi near the
Portland International Airport terminal. Instant reminders of why hes
If the alert horn sounds, Claw sprints to his jet, climbs
in and is airborne in less than five minutes. Ready to follow the orders
of his chain of command. So far, hes only had to run to his Eagle
two times since Sept. 11. Hes glad of that. It proves the homeland
defense effort is working, he said.
Hes had no training for engaging airliners. And
its a job he hopes to never do. But that doesnt matter.
More or less, were doing the same job, he said. Except now our targets are different.
Claw, an F-15 pilot, will tell you practice is the key. The veteran combat pilot with two MiG-29 kills climbs into his Eagle during a practice scramble. Helping him are crew chiefs Staff Sgt. Brent DeGreen (left) and Master Sgt. Ken Argo.
The Redhawks like crew chief Staff Sgt. Kriss Wade say they have the best-maintained and cleanest F-15s in the Air Force. Their top-notch mission capable rate proves that. Why? All the extra work maintainers do during routine maintenance.
The old and the new. The 142nd Fighter Wing has both. It flies the oldest F-15A Eagle in the Air Force number 089 made in 1973. That was nine years before crew chief Senior Airman Matt Maurice talking with aircraft generation squadron maintenance boss, Chief Master Sgt. Rich Rydman was born.