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

Football season at Denver’s Mile High Stadium began as it always does: loudly. As fireworks burst overhead, four F-16Cs cut through the sky in tight formation. To the flight lead, Major Bill Orton of the 120th Fighter Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, the mission was routine. He and his wingmen landed at the base, then drove to the stadium for the half-time show. The flight, however, would go down as one of Orton’s most memorable—that Giants-Broncos game took place on September 10, 2001, the end of an era for Orton, his squadron, and other squadrons like his across the United States.

The 120th, which 10 years later still flies the same Block 30 F-16Cs, is not an Air Force squadron but an Air National Guard squadron, one of dozens based throughout the country, and one of just 23 that still fly the Fighting Falcon, or “Viper.”

Each day, members of the 120th carry out the Aerospace Control Alert, or ACA, mission, a national security task performed almost exclusively by Guard units. In addition, Guard units also train for and fly combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are deployed every 18 to 24 months.

I recall driving to work on September 11, 2001. As I approached the base, there was a news break that a “small” aircraft had crashed into one of the [World Trade Center’s] twin towers. I thought nothing of it—probably just bad weather and an inexperienced pilot. After getting to work, we turned on our TV to watch some of the highlights of the Monday night football game. The news showed a second not-so-small aircraft had just crashed into the other tower. Within a few minutes there was a building announcement to call Command Post. I stood next to our wing commander, Brigadier General Wayne Schultz, as he received a call from NORAD directing him to get armed F-16s over Cheyenne Mountain immediately. General Schultz looked at James Fogle, our current Operations Group Commander, and me, and said to get in the first available jets and begin a Combat Air Patrol over Cheyenne Mountain. The FAA had just implemented SCATANA [Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids], where all aircraft in the U.S. were grounded.

There wasn’t time to load air-to-air missiles for our aircraft, so we launched with 20-mm bullets only. I will never forget checking in with Denver departure control, normally a busy frequency, and the controller saying, “You are the only traffic in the state of Colorado; you are cleared all altitudes. Thank God you’re here.”

Soon a KC-135 tanker showed up, as well as an AWACS [airborne warning and control system] aircraft. Shortly after coming on station, the AWACS controller directed me to intercept a slow-moving aircraft heading to Denver. I proceeded from Cheyenne Mountain back to Denver at nearly supersonic speed and intercepted a small aircraft in the vicinity of the Jefferson County airport. I made radio contact with the pilot on tower frequency and directed him to land. The tower controller stated that he knew the pilot and that he wasn’t a terrorist. The pilot of the small aircraft had no idea what had happened; he had been airborne since before the events began that day.

For four hours, James and I stayed over Cheyenne Mountain and Denver until we were relieved by two other jets (we launched again within 30 minutes of landing). By this time we had between four and six aircraft airborne, and we maintained this presence 24/7 for the next four days. I will never forget, after launching the second time that day, looking down at my house. I was performing a Combat Air Patrol, fully armed this time, over my hometown. That was the first time I realized things in the United States would be forever changed.

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

One day in 2009, after completing training, we were heading home and we got a call from Denver Center [the same center that controls civilian aircraft] to contact Western Air Defense Sector. I contacted WADS, and they told me to work through air traffic control and intercept a Southwest flight. [The air crew] had not been in radio contact with any controlling agency for a while—at least 20 minutes. No controlling agency could get in touch with them. By the time I got back to ATC [air traffic control], we were just a few miles out, and within seconds we intercepted them—we were head-on with the 737. So I pulled up alongside the airliner, and could see faces start to crowd windows. I worked forward and got line abreast with the cockpit. Was probably about 1,000 feet lateral separation and made visual contact with the pilots in the cockpit. It was funny, because they were just sitting there. I could see the captain and the copilot just talking and the copilot jumped up and pointed to me excitedly. Then I gave a “phone” signal with my hand to my head, saying “call ATC on the radio.” And life was good. One of the things they are most concerned about is losing contact with an airliner. Did they lose cabin pressure? Are they hijacked? When an aircraft is NORDO [no radio], there is no faster way to find out if something is wrong than for us to get up to that aircraft.

—Major Brett Berringer, Standardization/Evaluation Officer

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