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Air unit says it's ready for war

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

By Pedro Ramirez III

Since Sept. 11, the 174th Fighter Wing has doubled its training flights, pilots have practiced with a new targeting system, and everyday duties have taken on renewed relevance.

The Air National Guard unit's 1,000 members, who recently held their first weekend drill since the terrorist attacks, have been preparing - just in case.

Unit leaders updated their members' contact information. Pilots double-checked their equipment bags, including gas masks. They made sure their life insurance records are properly filed with the unit.

And they are saying goodbye to 73 non-aviation members of the wing who recently were activated for jobs - some of them headed overseas.

In the days since the attacks, pilots have started learning more about Afghanistan's weather and topography, Afghan customs and other information a pilot might need if shot down there, one pilot said.

So far, much of the pounding in Afghanistan has been delivered by Navy fighters leaving aircraft carriers. The active-duty Air Force has participated, too, but not the Syracuse-based Guard unit, which flew combat missions with distinction in the Gulf War.

Still, they're getting ready. One pilot said training flights start about an hour earlier than usual. Pilots started night-vision training, the pilot added.

The training flights have doubled, said Staff Sgt. Scott Schwalm, an aircraft avionics technician.

The 174th Fighter Wing, based at Hancock Field, is made up of about 300 full-time members and about 700 Guard members, who are considered part-timers and report for duty at least one weekend a month and two full weeks a year.

In the first days after the terrorist attacks, the 174th took on the unusual role of flying patrols over the Northeast. Since then, the 174th has flown only training missions - albeit far more than usual.

"We're ready to go to war daily," one pilot said.

'We want to go'

Part of the preparation is mental, members said.

Schwalm says the possibility of being activated worries his wife, who is seven months pregnant.

He said he tells her: "You be strong; I'll be strong. I have my duties; you have yours."

Staff Sgt. Melinda Haines says she and her husband are willing to go to war. Haines runs the dining hall. Her husband is in civil engineering.

"To die defending your country - if you have to die, why not go that way?" Haines said. "We want to go."

She worries most that one spouse will go and that the other will be left behind. The 174th consists of 10 units - including aircraft maintenance, medical technology, vehicle and grounds maintenance and airfield management. Any unit or combination of units could be deployed.

One pilot says he's torn between wanting to get in the fight and not wanting to be away from his family. (The fighter wing has asked that the names of pilots not be published.)

He said many pilots, upset over the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, want "payback." He said pilots talk of the justice of seeing fighter planes with an "NY" insignia - like those of the 174th's F-16s - drop bombs in Afghanistan.

New targeting system

That desire to get into the fight seems to go all the way to the top.

"My idea of an appropriate response would involve New York forces," said Col. Robert Knauff, the 174th's commander.

Knauff was asked whether unit leaders asked to be activated. His answer: "Maybe."

The unit recently borrowed LANTIRN targeting pods from another unit. The LANTIRN system (for "low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared system for night") allows F-16 pilots to conduct precision strikes after dark and in bad weather.

The 174th can keep the equipment until it's adequately trained, said Lt. Jeff Brown, the wing's spokesman.

Knauff said the unit has been working on getting LANTIRN training for a long time. He declined to say whether the timing was moved up because of the current military action.

Role overseas?

All the training and a desire to serve may not matter, experts say, because the United States and its allies have enough aircraft around Afghanistan to do the job.

For that reason, Air National Guard units seemed more likely to receive homeland defense missions, said retired Rear Adm. Stephen H. Baker, a former Navy pilot and a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank.

If the war deepens, units such as the 174th could be among the first to go overseas, says retired Maj. Charles Heyman of the British Army and now editor of "Jane's World Armies," an international defense publication.

"They would be far, far nearer a recall than most units," Heyman said, "simply because they've got recent operational experience."

The unit's last overseas mission was in August and early September, patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The 174th was one of only two Air Guard units to see combat in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

© 2001 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.

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