By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., Lt Col, USAF (Retired), 142nd Fighter Wing
/ Published September 09, 2011
September 9, 2011 -- As our nation pauses to reflect upon the tragic events of 9/11, we honor those thousands lost in the terrible destruction of that day. Ask just about any American who is old enough to remember, and they can probably tell you where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the brutal attacks against our nation ten years ago.
For Oregon Air National Guard members, the events of 9/11 tested their commitment to putting personal lives on hold to serve the state and nation in a serious time of need. As we reflect upon the tragedy and the resilience it prompted, several members of the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing recall their actions on that day and in the months that followed.
When that fateful Tuesday morning began, the 142nd FW Command Post Controller, SMSgt. (then TSgt.) David Fry arrived to work at Portland Air National Guard Base at 5:45 a.m. and saw the news about the first plane crash into the World Trade Center. He thought the incident was unusual and called the 142nd FW Commander, Maj. Gen. (then Col.) Garry Dean at home to discuss the incident. As both men conversed and watched the TV news, they saw the second aircraft hit the WTC.
Dean gave Fry the green light to commence a full recall and to assemble the wing's key battle staff (key decision makers). As the only controller on duty at the time, Fry accomplished his recall actions and immediately began responding to phones ringing off the hook.
With the recall of fighter wing personnel underway, ORANG Redhawk F-15s were on alert, maintaining their 24 hour-a day, 7 day-a week, 365 days-a-year vigil here in the Pacific Northwest. Lt. Col. (then Maj.) Steve "B.C." Beauchamp was one of the alert pilots on duty that morning. At about 6:30 a.m., the high-pitched warble of the klaxon sounded, rousing the alert pilots who were sequestered in the alert facility to spring into action. They donned their flight gear and rushed to climb aboard their jets to await their orders.
"As I left my room and ran towards the hangars, I noticed the breaking news story about an aircraft that had crashed into the Twin Towers," recalls Beauchamp. "I had no idea that the event that has just occurred would change this country and our unit forever."
As the pilots strapped into their aircraft, the crew chiefs began relaying the news to them of the unfolding events on the east coast. "My first thought was to ignore the distraction and focus on the job I had at that moment," Beauchamp said.
Even as the wing's recall transpired, many 142nd FW members were already aware of the tragedy. Chief Master Sgt. Jimmie Samuels of the 142nd Communications Flight was at home preparing to take her sister to the airport when her mother called and told her to turn on the television.
"I remember asking her if she knew what this meant," Samuels said. "I think I knew from the moment I saw the chaos on the television that life for us, all Americans, would forever be different." Shortly after the phone call from her mother, Samuels answered the phone and responded to the unit recall order.
Having just moved from Klamath Falls and starting day two of her new job as a first lieutenant and full-time Public Affairs Officer, Maj. Misti Mazzia also saw the news on television at home. She headed to work, grabbed pen and paper and rushed off to the Command Post to report in to the wing commander.
The previous day, September 10, 2001, was day one of Mazzia's Public Affairs job in Portland; it had been quite unnerving with a suspicious package incident at the base front gate. "It was a hectic day," Mazzia recalls. "I was hoping it was as bad as it would get."
Little did Mazzia know that her first day at work was preparing her for day two as the Public Affairs officer at the 142nd FW. "Our Combat Air Patrols were the only jets flying and the headline news," she reflects. Needless to say, Mazzia worked long hours from the moment she started her new role as PAO and into the coming months.
Major Mike Allegre, a drill-status Guard member, was the seasoned PAO assigned to the 142nd FW. On the morning of September 11, 2001 he was getting ready to go to work at his civilian job. "My brother called me that morning to tell me to turn on the TV and said, 'We've been attacked,'" he recalls. Allegre instinctively put on his uniform and drove to the Portland Air Base and began a 15-hour shift.
Allegre worked with Mazzia gathering information and meeting with senior leaders about how the unit would respond in the wake of these never-seen before attacks. Allegre remembers, "We wondered if terrorists fly into buildings in Portland or Seattle?"
"The fighter wing's mission for over 60 years had been air defense of the Pacific Northwest. But now, with a known threat that had attacked the U.S., the intensity and importance of that mission had been ramped up ten-fold," Allegre remarked.
It wasn't long before the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) at McChord AFB, Washington, called on the ORANG to provide that air defense capability. The 142nd FW had four F-15 fighters on standby, ready to fly, and more hastily being prepared for launch if necessary. ORANG pilots began to sit alert in the cockpit of their jets in anticipation of WADS tasking in a very dynamic and unpredictable threat environment.
After a couple of hours of sitting in their jets, poised and ready for takeoff, the scramble was called off. But at about 12:15 p.m., the shrill of the alert klaxon sounded again. An Air China B-747 commercial airliner from Beijing to San Francisco had been diverted away from the United States and was enroute to Vancouver, British Columbia.
As the airliner neared Canada, there was a communication problem that made for an uncertain situation. Beauchamp and Col. (then Capt) Matt "Weed" Shuster raced to their F-15s, started, taxied and scrambled off in minutes.
"As I became airborne, I remember turning right over downtown Vancouver at what seemed to be treetop level in full afterburner; we had to go North and had to get there quick. I remember the silence on the radio. Seattle Center is a pretty busy sector, which means a lot of radio chatter. But on that day it was dead quiet...eerily quiet," recalls Beauchamp.
WADS directed the Oregon jets to intercept an aircraft coming in from the west and to be on the lookout for signs of duress. The Redhawks soon found the airliner as it approached Vancouver, B.C. Beauchamp said the jets joined on the 747 that was on the downwind leg for approach. Nothing looked unusual other than flash bulbs going off in the passenger windows of the airliner as the curious onlookers captured pictures of the fighter escort taking place outside of the confines of their comfortable airliner.
"I could only imagine what the passengers thought seeing two armed fighters on their wing all the way to landing," recalled Beauchamp.
The jets performed a low approach. Beauchamp saw hundreds of parked airplanes spread out all over the Vancouver, B.C. Airport. "Every taxiway, runway was filled up with every major air carrier out there as 'Weed' and I turned south, climbed and headed home."
As the Redhawks were airborne, another interesting airport scene developed back at Portland International Airport, across from Portland Air National Guard Base. It was after 12:30 p.m. when the unit's two public affairs staff officers headed to a press conference at PDX.
According to Allegre, the airport was totally shut down--dark and uninhabited inside except for security and a few PDX employees. There was a news conference in one of the airport's offices. Allegre and Mazzia entered the back door to see more than a dozen regional reporters facing a podium with two officials who were speaking into microphones. Within moments, they were called forward. Allegre said that for more than 15 minutes he responded to questions and reassured the audience, "That the Air Guard had increased air patrols and was now flying over unspecified areas and cities to watch for potential intruders."
Within eight hours after the recall, most of the fighter wing's F-15's were prepared and ready to deploy to any WADS tasking. Within 24 hours every one of the wing's jets was mission-ready for operation. WADS noted that the 142nd FW had the most aircraft available at a single base in the sector, a reflection of the urgent professionalism of Oregon's Citizen Airmen. As the only dedicated air defense unit in the Pacific Northwest, this responsiveness was critical to providing a timely defense capability for a number of important cities and activities in the region.
On 9/11 the additional ready aircraft were soon employed. Orders soon came in to start flying Combat Air Patrols (CAP's) over key possible targets and our aircraft were airborne," Fry said. Soon after, the Redhawks started flying CAP's out of Portland. The wing was directed to set up an Alert Site at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. Fry was instrumental in facilitating that request.
After working solo in the command post for several hours, Fry's assistant controller arrived and started helping him with all the message, phone and coordination efforts. After a 19-hour day Fry said, "I walked out of the Operations building and was amazed about how quiet it was, the moment was very surreal for me."
Samuels echoed Fry's observation about the noticeable silence at the end of a long, busy and very focused day ensuring the wing's communications systems were ready for all contingencies. "Our planes were the only ones leaving the ground," she said.
"It was beyond eerie, surreal, to be on the flightline, next to PDX, seeing all the commercial planes scattered on the tarmac on the other side of our runways and it was quiet, so very quiet. I still hear that quiet today when I think back to that night," Samuels said.
Mazzia remarked on how 9/11 affected her both then and now; "It taught me to appreciate more in life and to not take things for granted."
As we remember the tragic events from that horrific day, we pay tribute to the memories of those lives lost that day and the nation's response. On this 10 year anniversary, may we honor our nation's resilience; may none of us take what we have for granted.
As they have for nearly 70 years, the 142nd FW's sky sentinels will diligently maintain their watchful Aerospace Control Alert vigil; ready to respond any day or night in defense of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.