Flying homeland defense missions over the Pacific Northwest can be a lonely vigil. But it’s 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 Washington’s 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 14-year career.

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 didn’t 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 ground.

There was no doubt in Claw’s mind that he and his wingman had to engage the MiGs — and it wouldn’t be a friendly encounter.

“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 wingman’s missiles missed. But both of Claw’s 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, it’s 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. 11’s terrorist attack. But now it’s a way of life for Claw and hundreds of Guard and Reserve pilots from coast to coast. They’re flying combat air patrol over the nation’s 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 won’t be the same as over Bosnia, he said. Now there would be doubt in his mind, Claw said. He’d wonder if he was doing the right thing.

But he’ll let those who make that decision do their job. And he’ll stick to his.

“I can’t afford to second guess,” Claw said. “Because if I don’t shoot, a plane could take out the Seattle Space Needle or crash into downtown Portland.” So if ordered to shoot, he’ll shoot.

“Because if you’re airborne with a lot of doubts, you’re 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. That’s to say, it was until Sept. 11.

A new day
It’s a new day and the Air National Guard is playing a key role in making sure another terrorist attack doesn’t occur. It means a new mission for some units. Or a new focus.

“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 123rd’s parent unit, the 142nd Fighter Wing. “The sensors are now looking inward, too.”

Those “sensors” are looking in all directions these days. But they’re 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. We’re 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, it’s 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.

That’s 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.

That’ll take a total change of the military’s “business as usual” mindset. The services must think more about homeland defense. And nowhere is that easier to see than at the Oregon Guard.

“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 we’d be doing this mission at home? You can look down and see your house, and that’s 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.

“There’s 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 wing’s 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. — Oregon’s airmen are standing alert. On call for when needed. They’ve 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.

“We’re 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 doesn’t follow Federal Aviation Administration rules.

New duty
Of course, no wing pilot wants that to happen, including “Coma.” He’s been flying Eagles from Portland for a bit more than a year. But in his short time on the job, he’s realized things aren’t the same. Each time he takes off for a patrol now, he’s on the defense.

“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 wing’s weapons element, said though national defense has always been the wing’s 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, she’s content to stay at home.

“People keep asking me when I’m going to Afghanistan,” she said. “But I keep telling them we have a just as important job here — protecting the home front.”

Stepping up
The wing earned a bigger role overnight. But like service members across the nation, the Oregon Guard has stepped up to the plate. People in Portland and across the nation have noticed.

After Sept. 11, a woman in Portland wrote the wing to say she couldn’t sleep at night, fearful of another attack, Dean said. But hearing the wing’s jets flying overhead helped her sleep again.

“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 he’s on alert.

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, he’s only had to run to his Eagle two times since Sept. 11. He’s glad of that. It proves the homeland defense effort is working, he said.

He’s had no training for engaging airliners. And it’s a job he hopes to never do. But that doesn’t matter.

“More or less, we’re 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.

 
 


SafeGuarding U.S. turf, skies

The National Guard has done a host of homeland defense missions on the ground and in the air since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

The Guard patrols airports and safeguards America’s skies. Its members supplement nationwide security work at airports, bridges and other locations.

Meanwhile, others patrol the skies, said Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, commander of 1st Air Force. Based at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., it has 10 F-15 and F-16 fighter wings under its command across the country, and air defense sectors for the northeast, west and southeast.

It’s important for any country to be able to safeguard its land borders — and skies — from intrusion or attack by potential adversaries, Arnold said. In the United States, air sovereignty encompasses both law enforcement and national security domains.

“Air sovereignty in the broader sense means — in combination with the other agencies — controlling our skies, controlling our borders,” he said. So 1st Air Force works closely with the Federal Aviation Administration.

If aircraft approaching U.S. airspace don’t have proper FAA clearance, he said, “then it becomes our responsibility to go out there and identify them.” With suspected smugglers, 1st Air Force calls law enforcement officials to “grab hold of these folks.”

But air sovereignty is also a national defense issue, Arnold said. During the Cold War, U.S. air defenses focused on long-range Soviet bombers. Afterward, the U.S. military prepared for the threat of terrorism from the air, but not originating from within the country and certainly not involving the use of U.S. commercial airliners as flying bombs.

Before Sept. 11, he said, “we were concerned about a terrorist attack from outside of the United States, possibly by a cruise missile being launched from a ship, or some kind of aircraft flying in that had hostile intent toward the United States.”

American radars and sensors focused “on the periphery” of the United States. The Air Force shared radars with the FAA. Radio capabilities were along the borders, so “we could connect our fighters with the people who were running the radar scopes controlling our borders,” he said.

Since the attacks, U.S. officials worked “to see on the interior of the United States and talk to fighters on the inside of the United States, as well,” Arnold said.

— Gerry Gilmore, American Forces Press Service