ROBERT RIGGS REPORTS FROM OVER NEW YORK CITY
The crisp blue sky over New York City resembled the day that dawned on September 11, 2001 three years earlier.
Ground zero could be clearly seen from the cockpit of F-15 fighters circling above Manhattan Island at twenty-three thousand feet.
That was my vantage point from the back seat of an F-15 of the 71st Fighter Squadron known as the “Ironmen”.
The squadron’s aircraft protected the airspace over New York City as President George W. Bush addressed the United Nations about Iraq on September 21, 2004.
Fighters, wings bristling with live weapons, sharply banked and dived through congested airways to intercept suspicious aircraft.
I strained against “G” forces and my stomach often felt like it was in my throat.
The routine patrol could quickly turn into an adrenaline rush.
In a split second, a pilot could be ordered to shoot a radar guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or a heat seeking AIM-9M Sidewinder missile, or a burst of 20-millimeter machine gun fire into a hijacked civilian aircraft.
Videographer Manuel Villela and I were the first TV journalists given wide access to the post 9-11 air defense mission called Operation Noble Eagle.
The patrol marked the last line of defense if terrorist hijackers attempted another round of suicide attacks.
In the wake of 9-11, fighter pilots must now think about the unthinkable.
“It is true that this is the force of last resort. This is something that we have found totally unthinkable in the past but we think about it and think about it in detail today”, says General Hal Hornburg the Commander of Air Combat Command.
From his headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in the Virginia Tidewater area, Hornburg says pilots will not hesitate to follow orders to use lethal force, “I wouldn’t want it to be me, I wouldn’t want it to be someone that worked for me, but as we in the military that sign up for this, and support and defend the Constitution, there’s no doubt in my mind that training would take over and it would happen.”
Pilots and fighters, mostly from Air National Guard squadrons, stand alert at bases across the Continental United States, Alaska, and Canada ready scrambled after an unidentified aircraft.
Active duty Air Force squadrons routinely fly combat air patrols over high profile events and presidential appearances.
We flew with thirty-three year old Major Brian Gienapp and his wingman twenty-five year old Lt. James Morgan of the 71st Fighter Squadron.
Gienapp, an Air Force Academy graduate and veteran of one hundred combat hours over Iraq, places his confidence in the secret rules of engagement that govern the use of deadly force against a civilian aircraft.
“It’s definitely an enormous thought to grasp and it’s definitely something we have all thought of and contemplated. The bottom line is that these scenarios have been well thought out and there are definitely safeguards to make sure an accident would never happen.”
It is nerve wracking flying armed fighters in the midst of crowded civilian air traffic. The patrols last as long as six hours and require air-to-air refueling.
Lt. Morgan, call sign “Tracer”, gently eased his fighter behind a KC-135 tanker from the 128th Refueling Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard while circling over New York City.
Pulling alongside the tanker’s wingtip made this reporter feel like a fish bobbing on an invisible ocean next to a whale.
Our television lens could not capture the disorienting sensation of moving in three dimensions.
A boom sticking out of the tanker’s tail floated past Morgan’s canopy and scored a direct bull’s eye into the fuel receptacle on the fighter’s port side wing.
Morgan made it look easy but admitted that air-to-air refueling under the best of conditions still makes him nervous. Gienapp chuckled, “wait until you try it in total darkness during a combat mission.”
Morgan, a mechanical engineering graduate of Duke University, says the thought is always in the back of his mind during these missions that something could happen in the next five minutes that could trigger a deadly intercept, “hopefully there’s no problem and we are just ready. It might be a very benign mission that isn’t incredibly challenging. But I think you have to be ready for the challenge at any moment because it’s a much graver situation if we do have to perform.”
Morgan says he and his fellow pilots in the 71st Fighter Squadron trust that the chain of command above them will make the right decision, “we are confident in that we will, if we are given the order, it’s the right order and for the right reason we will do it. For me personally my faith in God goes well above that. To know he would protect me to do the right thing.”
Exclusive Look Inside Tyndall Air Force Base 1st Air Force Command Post
The critical decision making process starts inside the 1st Air Force command post at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.
It monitors six thousand flights at any given time over the United States inside a facility called the Combined Air Operations Center The banks of radar scopes and computer screens resemble the war room in the movie “War Games”.
Hundreds of green blips of light representing aircraft look like a swarm of fire flies on the radar scopes. Battle commanders and radar technicians watch, track, and identify suspicious aircraft around the clock everyday.
Before 2001, the Air Force only looked for threats coming from outside U.S. borders. The need for the air defense appeared to vanish with the fall of the Soviet Union and it was being phased out.
On 9-11 a surreal scene unfolded inside. A simulated exercise was underway when the World Trade Center Towers were hit. Since then a new homeland air defense mission has been engaged in an air war over America.
Major General Craig McKinley the Commander of 1st Air Force fields six serious warnings a day at all hours. McKinley is responsible for alerting the higher chain of command up to the Secretary of Defense and President who may be called upon to make the ultimate decision.
McKinley, a 1974 graduate of the ROTC program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says that the command position has proved so stressful that it has been cut from a four year tour to two years, “sometimes we have minutes or hours to deal with a situation and sometimes we have seconds to deal with it.”
McKinley receives his initial warning from command posts at air defense sectors. The 48 contiguous states are divided into three sectors: Western at McChord AFB, Washington; Northeastern at Rome, New York; and Southeastern which is located in the same facility with McKinley’s command post at Tyndall AFB, Florida.
I was the first journalist ever allowed inside the Combined Air Operations Center and the Southeastern Air Defense Sector which deals with more unknown targets than any other sector in the nation.
We found Major Sharon Nehrings of the Florida Air National Guard focused on a 30 mile ring of restricted airspace around Tampa.
The ring on the radar screen followed President George W. Bush overhead as his campaign rallies moved up the Florida Gulf Coast in late October of 2004.
It’s called a POTUS mission, short for President of the United States.
Symbols of two fighters and a refueling tanker crisscrossed inside the circle.
Nehrings is the mission crew commander on duty during our visit to the Southeaster Air Defense Sector.
A mission filled with hours of boredom and minutes of sheer terror.
The fourteen year veteran is responsible for launching an intercept against a suspicious aircraft, “it’s very intense because you are dealing with people’s lives. It can be hours of boredom and then minutes of sheer terror.”
An unidentified aircraft suddenly interrupts our interview. It flies into the President’s restricted airspace. Nehrings orders air controllers sitting to her right to direct fighters to the target.
It is a hair raising moment as seconds tick away. There’s little time to react if it’s a jetliner moving at eight miles a minute.
As the intercept unfolds, FAA liaison Ron Davidson of Fort Worth keeps an open line of communication to civilian air traffic controllers. They can’t raise the pilot by radio.
The Secret Service also receives a warning in case it needs to evacuate the President.
The order to intercept triggers a chain reaction of response. General McKinley and his staff begin looking at the national air picture for any hint of air trouble elsewhere that might hint of a coordinated attack.
The calculus includes a quick determination if the target aircraft is headed toward buildings or critical infrastructure.
Commanders must weigh the risk of shooting down an aircraft versus the collateral damage that could be caused on the ground.
When fighter pilots make visual contact with an unresponsive target aircraft, they use hand signals, rock their wings, or in a final warning drop flares to tell its pilot to turn away. The fighter pilots use secret codes to authenticate any order to open fire.
The air space violation we witnessed turned out to be the careless pilot of small single engine plane. Fighters escorted it away from the President’s campaign rally, but the roar of came close enough to grab the attention of the crowd.
Military officials complain that such violations occur much too often and that there are no severe FAA penalties for offenders.
More than thirty eight thousand Noble Eagle Missions had been flown without incident by October of 2004.
The hundreds of young men and women working for McKinley have coolly handled situations in which airline pilots have accidentally sent a coded hijacking signal. And two actual hijackings out of Cuba have been safely diverted by fighters to Key West, Florida.
It is an orchestrated effort supported by thousands of airmen. Everyone from Airman First Class Nathaniel Robinson of Barnwell, South Carolina, who makes sure that pilots’ oxygen masks and equipment are in working order to Senior Airmen Tanish Jordan of Waycross, Georgia, who loads missiles.
Air Force General Pledges A 9/11 Will Not Happen Again
The sight of armed aircraft and pilots ready to bolt for their cockpits on Air Force flight lines around the country underscores the seriousness of how the Global War on Terrorism is also being fought over America.
Major General McKinley says the Air Force repeatedly practices and knows what it takes to give an aircraft a chance to comply with instructions but will not hesitate to use force, “we wait until the last possible minute. But we are not going to have a recurrence of September 11, 2001. The American public won’t stand for it and the United States military is on guard to protect American citizens.”