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Minnesota National Guard
Days after Sept. 11 were tense for Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing

Published September 10, 2011, 12:00 AM
By: Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio News

Soon after airplanes-turned-missiles slammed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001, a Minnesota Air National Guard unit launched into action

Some pilots from the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth took off to protect President George W Bush Others soared high over the Twin Cities, on the alert for more attacks For the pilots, the moments after the attacks were tense

Bush was far away from New York and Washington He was in Sarasota, Fla, visiting with schoolchildren After he learned of the attacks, Bush headed back to Air Force One

As pilot Mark Tillman took off from Sarasota, an air traffic controller warned there was an unidentified plane coming toward the big 747

“Its transponder was off and it wasn’t talking to anyone, which is kind of what the airliners that had been hijacked had been doing all morning,” Tillman said

Tillman asked for an escort of fighter planes The 148th Fighter Wing scrambled two F-16 fighter jets from Duluth to meet Air Force One, more than 1,500 miles away

The plane flying toward Air Force One that morning was not a threat Its transponder — a device that allows ground-based radar to identify an aircraft — was broken Other military jets made it to Air Force One before the pilots from the 148th

But as the nation stood on edge immediately following the attacks, all eyes were on the sky

“It became obvious at that point that we had to be ready for anything,” recalled 148th Headquarters and Operations Senior Master Sgt Mark Graves “Everybody was suspect; you didn’t know who the enemy was”

In the hours after the attacks, he helped barricade the front gates of the base, and secure the perimeter

“We went from this quiet little unit in Duluth, Minnesota, to a fangs-bared wolf,” Graves said

The unit’s F-16 fighter jets, which can fly at 1,500 miles an hour, quickly were loaded with fuel and weapons

For decades, the 148th Fighter Wing had been part of the nation’s Air Sovereignty Alert system During the Cold War, Duluth pilots were on standby to guard against attacks from the north Its mission shifted in the 1990s, largely to providing counter-drug surveillance, Unit Commander Colonel Frank Stokes said

“Those airplanes that we flew were armed, but we usually launched on those missions with no intention of shooting someone down,” he said

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, shooting someone down was a distinct possibility The unit’s initial mission, Stokes said, was to fly combat air patrols over the Twin Cities

“We gathered the pilots together, and said, ‘You need to wrap your head around what you’re being asked to do,’ ” he recalled “ ‘You’re going up in an armed airplane that’s going to orbit over a major metropolitan area with intentions perhaps of being asked to shoot another airplane down’ “

Stokes said many of the 148th’s pilots had civilian jobs as airline pilots

“So they had to wrestle with that,” he said “If they were called upon, they would potentially be employing weapons against a similar airliner that they flew Monday through Friday”

But after the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all planes So when Lt. Col. Jon Safstrom patrolled above Minneapolis on Sept 12, he was alone in the sky

“Very weird, eerie feeling to be an airline pilot, be in that environment where you’re constantly talking to air traffic control [and ordinarily] there’s numerous other aircraft, as you can imagine in Minneapolis or Chicago or New York and all the air traffic that goes in and out of there,” Safstrom said “The next day, talking to a controller that says, ‘You’re it! It’s just you two … so, wherever you need to go, whatever altitude you need to go, it’s you; let us know what you need’ So, quite a change, in one day”

For four days, Safstrom recalled, pairs of jets from the 148th circled over the Twin Cities

In the decade since the attacks, the unit also has flown patrols over Washington DC, President Bush’s Texas ranch, Camp David, and even a space shuttle launch

Members of the 148th all talk about the immense pride they feel in defending the nation But they’re also all acutely aware of the price their comrades and the nation have paid since the attacks They speak reverently of the members of the military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

“I spend a lot of time thanking my fellow veterans, my fellow traditional guard members, for the cost that their families have given,” Graves said “Everybody paid a great cost This nation had been hurt”

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 1005 FM or online at MPRNewsorg

Article source
http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/208972/



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