The Changing of the Guard

Ten years after 9/11, what life is like in an Air National Guard unit.

Staff Sergeant Michelle Torrey, right, with Master Sergeant Brett Kitzman load an AIM-120 missile onto an F-16. (Ed Darack)
Air & Space Magazine

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A lot of these issues you don’t think about as a pilot, but you need to have a clear runway. You can’t have prairie dogs racing across the runway and birds chasing after them when you’re launching F-16s and other military aircraft.

—Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell Neff, 140th Wing Chief of Safety

A few years back, southeastern Colorado was hit with a huge blizzard. Thousands of cows were stranded in the deep snow with no chance of ranchers reaching them. Colorado teamed with Wyoming, and C-130s were brought down from Chey­enne to air-drop hay for the cattle. The issue was locating the stranded herds. Our wing commander directed us to fly a four-ship [formation] that morning over southeastern Colorado and use our targeting pods and GPS to pinpoint the location of the stranded herds. We were able to locate almost every herd in an area the size of Vermont and get this data to the C-130 crews. They were a little skeptical at first until they arrived at the first set of coordinates and a large herd awaited the desperately needed hay. We affectionately called this event “Operation Moo.”

—Lieutenant Colonel Tim Conklin, Commander, 120th Fighter Squadron

We took off on 9/11 with training rounds only. My game plan was to try and knock off the tail of the aircraft with my airplane if we were called to intercept another airliner; nobody knew if there were going to be more attacks, or where they’d be. Maybe I could survive an ejection after ramming my aircraft into the tail section of the plane. We didn’t know what was going on, or how widespread it was. Back then, we weren’t a homeland defense unit. We trained to go places like the Middle East. I was thinking, “Is someone going to give me clearance to take this airplane out?” And then “How am I going to do that?” And then “Who is on that airplane? Americans.” This was right as it happened—the [twin towers] had just fallen.

—Colonel Jim Fogle, 140th Operations Group Manager

Some of our crew chiefs have been working on the same jet since they arrived at Buckley Air Force Base in 1992. They know that jet better than the folks at Lockheed Martin.

—Major TenEyck LaTourrette, Assistant Weapons Officer

The requirement for the Air Guard used to be one weekend a month, but that has changed. As an experienced pilot, I’m required to fly a minimum of six sorties a month. We are scheduled for eight sorties a month on average, to account for maintenance or weather cancellations. We have a two-day drill weekend every month, and then add in alert shifts and other training requirements and you have turned a one-weekend-a-month job into a 10- to 12-days-a-month commitment. In the Guard, it is the families that have felt the changes the most since 9/11.

The biggest misconception is what we do in our job. A normal sortie lasts a little over an hour, but prior to that we put in an average of two to 10 hours mission-planning that sortie. While we’re flying, the aircraft records what we’re seeing through the head-up display and the radar tapes. After we fly home, we debrief the mission. Everyone flying in the mission gathers and we all look at each other’s tapes from the flight. The debrief takes anywhere from two to 10 hours. Most folks think that we go out and joyride for an hour. In reality there are about 20 hours of additional work that goes into that one-hour sortie.

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