Air Guard Fighters Protect U.S. Skies
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J., Feb. 21, 2002 Terry Ford and Vince Cooper live with the reality of terrorism each day. They know they could be ordered to sacrifice some American lives to save many.
Ford, who goes by the call sign "Blaster," and Cooper, known as "Sparky," are two F-16C fighter pilots who now patrol the skies over New York City and Washington, D.C. Both are majors in the New Jersey Air National Guard.
Shortly after last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ford left his civilian job with American Airlines to report for active duty with the 177th Fighter Wing. Cooper was already serving as a full-time guardsman with the unit.
Since Sept. 11, 177th pilots have provided air sovereignty protection in the Northeast Corridor as part of Operation Noble Eagle. They've flown more than 825 combat air patrols totaling more than 3,100 flying hours, double the number of hours they'd normally fly in the same time frame.
Previously, Air National Guard duty for the pilots primarily involved routine training missions and occasional overseas deployments. In the wake of 9-11, Ford, Cooper and their 177th peers began flying 'real' combat missions, armed with live air-to-air missiles, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Instead of flying overseas in places like the Persian Gulf or Southwest Asia, they now fly over American soil. What's strange about the patrols, Ford noted, "is being in the combat mode over your nation's capital or over New York City."
For each two-jet patrol, the pilots check in with the unit's mission director and intelligence officers. On the flight line, they do pre-flight inspections, making sure munitions have been loaded correctly. Once airborne, they're in the sky for several hours on guard.
Anything suspicious would be reported to command and control officials, who could order the fighters to identify or escort an aircraft or force it to land. Only in extreme circumstances would a patrol be ordered to use lethal force, and numerous safeguards are in place to ensure such an order was properly authorized.
"We would go through absolutely every step before we would have to take that final and ultimate step," said Col. Mike Cosby, wing commander. "Time permitting, the order would come all the way from the president of the United States."
Cosby, a veteran F-16 pilot from Boerne, Texas, flew 87 combat sorties during Operation Desert Storm and has a total of about 300 combat flying hours. He said he talked with unit pilots and maintenance crews about such a worst- case scenario.
"I can assure you, every one of them would execute that decision without question," Cosby said. "Would they have nightmares about it? Of course they would.
"In some cases, their own spouse might either be flying the airplane, because we have fighter pilots here whose spouses are pilots in the commercial sector," he said. "Or, it could be one of their friends. For example, we have a squadron commander who knew everybody, the entire flight crew that was on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon."
Cosby said he believes the American people understand that lethal force might be necessary in some cases. "Ultimately, if we had to shoot down 375 people to save 5,000 -- that's the president's decision. But, of course, in our own mind, it would be a nightmare for the rest of our lives. We pray to God that every time we come back, there's missiles on the airplane."
Both Ford, of Idaho City, Idaho, and Cooper, of Hopkinton, Mass., say they've thought about what the combat air patrols could entail. Both say they're prepared to do what's necessary to protect America -- even shoot down a U.S. plane.
"I feel confident that if and when that order came -- and hopefully it doesn't -- that it would be the right thing to do," Ford said. "I certainly wouldn't want to do it." But if the order was given "it would be something we had to do, because the consequences of not shooting down another airplane would be worse."
Ford said tightened security, as well as crew and passenger vigilance, have made it harder for terrorists and other unauthorized people to get into the cockpit. "The traveling public just isn't letting that happen," he said.
Sept. 11 showed people what could occur in a terrorist hijacking, Cooper said. The public now knows "it isn't something that's going to turn out OK," he said.
In thinking about confronting a hijacked American plane, Cooper said he had concluded that "people die in service to their country," and that would apply to an aircraft's civilian passengers and crew.
"If we're given that order," he said, "then we've seen that something terrible is going to occur. It would be tragic but the nation would hopefully recognize that the folks that were killed died in service to their country."
Each time Ford, Cooper and other 177th pilots take off on patrol, they know they are helping to safeguard America's homeland.
"Aside from the ultimate part of precluding a catastrophe," Cooper said, "if we make Grandma sleep more soundly at night, that's service to the country."