BOSTON (CBS) – In the changed world after 9/11 there’s an elite group of fighter pilots in charge of protecting the skies of the northeast United States, and they operate from right here in Massachusetts. Joe Mathieu from WBZ News Radio 1030 and WBZ-TV videographer William Meservey were able to observe a training exercise and see how these top guns train to handle some of the world’s most dangerous threats.
They are modern day Minutemen, the pilots and crew of the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield. Their mission is to secure the skies over the entire Northeast, covering a quarter of the nation’s population. “We go to Boston, New York City, DC if we need to. So yeah, we’re prepared to go anywhere you need us to go,” says Major Sean Halbrook of the 104th.
On this training mission Joe Mathieu and William Meservey went up in a four seat Cessna with Capt. Tim Nelson. The Cessna’s job is to act as the target, a plane that has entered restricted airspace. Two F15s scramble from Barnes to intercept, and practice what they would do if this were the real thing. This type of training is paying off. F15s from the 104th have scrambled 16 times this year, and while they won’t give us details about all of those mission, they do say that none turned out to be for credible threats against the United States.
As the Cessna reaches altitude, the F15s approach, escalating their response in stages starting with a radio warning and then waggling their wings as a sign for the Cessna’s pilot to follow them. It’s important that the pilots approach an unknown plane carefully. “Don’t talk as if you’re going to kill the guy. Real calm, real cool, you know, I’m here to help,” says Capt. Nelson.
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Joe Mathieu reports
Each time the pilots get the call they’re flying into the unknown. “We go over every scenario that could exist out there and we’re ready at a second’s notice,” says Major Halbrook. If the intruder doesn’t heed the initial warnings there are ways the F15 pilots can coax an airplane down without using lethal force. “We can drop flares to get your attention. And we can also fly across your flight path and also get your attention to make sure you do not fly in that restricted airspace,” says Major Halbrook.
And of course they’re prepared to do more. F15s have 20 mm machine guns and can carry over a half dozen missiles. For today’s training mission, the fighters keep circling the small plane, pushing it lower until its’ forces to land. A successful exercise they hope they won’t have to repeat for real. The fighter wing conducts these exercises about 10 times a year.