The Last Line of Defense

The half-dozen men relaxing over white score sheets could be any group of Cape Cod vacationers playing Yahtzee. Except, that is, for the uniform-green flight suits. In fact, the scraps of paper in their hands are military-issue checklists of life-or-death scenarios including oil-system malfunctions, tire blowouts on takeoff, and engine failures. These men are fighter pilots, and they — along with this unlikely patch of pitch pine and sand dunes on the Cape — are America's last line of defense.

Inside a soundproofed room near the airfield, top commanders are getting a classified intelligence briefing. Over at the busy mess hall, the cook is dishing out Salisbury steak, one of the four daily meals now being served around the clock here. In the harsh winter wind outside, a man in fatigues rides a bicycle past a gate of guards holding M-16s and radios. He's a mechanic heading to the flight line and the waiting row of sleek gray F-15s. In a hangar, four men with buzzcuts point with a flashlight into the bottom of one of the $35 million jets. While they work, Ozzy Osbourne plays on a radio.

Most of the rest of the planes are on patrol, not over Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia, but in the skies of Boston and New York. They cruise above these cities at 400 miles an hour, a fraction of their maximum 1,800-mile-an-hour speed. Even at this slower pace, the high-performance jets sometimes need to be refueled in midair during the typical four-hour watch. They are armed with Sparrow air-to-air missiles on their lower fuselage covers, Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles on twin pylons under their wings, and 20mm guns. Their Doppler radar keeps tabs on any other aircraft in the sky from as far as 160 miles away and as low as treetop level. And their pilots have been ordered to scrutinize any planes that wander off course — and shoot them down if given the order.

Nobody wants to shoot. In this war, says one of the pilots at the suddenly reinvigorated Otis Air National Guard Base, “the success is when nothing happens.”

That's pretty much what seemed to have been going on at Otis in the last two decades: nothing. This perception wasn't entirely true, of course: The 102nd Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, which is based here, trained constantly and traveled to Panama to intercept drug flights, the Bahamas for relief work, and Turkey to help patrol the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. But if anybody in the immediate vicinity ever noticed Otis, it was as an exit off the highway on the drive to the Martha's Vineyard ferry or in a news story about the underground pollution caused by years of dumping unexploded ammunition by the military.

At its peak during World War II, the base was leased by the Army and became home to 90,000 people — more than double the entire population of Cape Cod at that time. “The whole town [of Falmouth] was loaded with military,” says Kitty Baker, who arrived with her father, an officer, in 1940. After the war, Otis would become the largest aerospace defense command base in the world, controlling hundreds of aircraft on hair-trigger alert at bases all over New England to protect the northeastern United States from the menace of the Soviet Union.

Then the Cold War ended and the threat of a conflict with the Soviets evaporated. “People would ask me, 'What are you guys still doing there?'” says Colonel Donald Quenneville, the 102nd Fighter Wing's commander. The Air Force had already answered that question, pulling out in 1973 and letting the Massachusetts Air National Guard take over. The population of the base and the surrounding Massachusetts Military Reservation declined from tens of thousands to 2,300: a relative handful of Army and Air Force National Guardsmen, some Coast Guard search-and-rescue pilots, and the staff of the Air Force radar installation called PAVE PAWS (for “precision acquisition vehicle entry phased array warning system”) that watches for ballistic missiles and monitors orbiting satellites. Some environmentalists wanted the base shut down altogether after it was disclosed that haphazard dumping of ordnance had polluted 70 billion gallons of drinking water; among its other distinctions, Otis was designated a Superfund site. State officials planned to put a jail on an adjacent part of the military reservation. One by one, the barracks-style buildings that line the perfectly straight base roads were emptied or demolished. Practically anyone who wanted to enter the base was admitted with a cursory wave from the guards. The mess hall was down to serving only two meals a month.

That's also how many fighter jets were on alert: two. Two planes. Two pilots. As the regular military shipped its shrinking complement of active-duty personnel to far-flung destinations like Iraq and Kosovo, it handed over much of the responsibility for what we now call “homeland defense” to the National Guard. And two Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15s at Otis became the primary protection against an air attack anywhere between the Canadian border and Washington, DC, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit — an area of 500,000 square miles with a densely settled population of more than 90 million. That's a ratio of one plane for every 45 million people. No matter how depleted Otis had become, it was the only active air defense base on the East Coast north of Langley Air Force Base near Norfolk, Virginia. And it had just two planes on alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Including at 8:43 a.m. on September 11, when civilian air traffic controllers reported that something strange was going on.

Jutting into the Atlantic as it does, Cape Cod is a perfect place to put an air base responsible for defending the northeastern coast of the United States against attack. “This is the place to be,” says Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Schiavi, Otis operations commander.

During the Cold War, Soviet TU-95 Bears similar to American B-52 bombers flew to Cuba over the North Pole and down the North American coast. Jets from Otis intercepted them and ran them off, once just 240 miles from Long Island. In the early 1990s, Otis F-15s escorted a Lufthansa airliner hijacked in Europe to New York, where it landed safely.

Back then, hijackers negotiated. No one imagined they would one day use themselves and their passengers as weapons on a flying bomb. “I don't think anyone saw that coming,” Quenneville says in his office, where framed photographs of airplanes cover the walls.

On September 11, of course, it came.

At 8:43 a.m. that day, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the Air Force that something was amiss with American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston. Both F-15s at Otis were immediately scrambled. At 8:45, Flight 11 smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. By 8:46 the Otis F-15s were airborne, lifting off nearly vertically from their Cape Cod runway and reaching 300 miles per hour in moments. Quickly accelerating to top speed, the planes could make New York in 15 minutes. En route, they were told that another airliner, United Flight 175, also had been hijacked. Now speeding at 12 miles per minute, the F-15s from Otis rushed to intercept the plane. They were less than eight minutes away at 9:02, when Flight 175 hit the second tower.

The Otis F-15s remained in the clear blue skies over New York that day for hours, their pilots watching helplessly as black smoke rose from the rubble when the huge twin towers fell — and chasing away any planes still flying that came too close to the city.

None of the Otis pilots who were sent to intercept the hijacked planes that morning know what they might have done to stop the civilian airliners if they had managed to catch up with them. They never had authorization to shoot, they say.

Now they do.

Back at Otis, most were getting their news from CNN. One pilot, who goes by the call name of Adrian (the military will not let pilots be identified by their real names), was in his backyard in Sandwich when he saw the F-15s scramble overhead, bound for New York. He went inside and clicked on the TV just in time to see the second World Trade Center tower get hit. Unlike most Americans, Adrian could actually do something about it, so he headed to the base with the idea he might be needed.

“It was hectic, anxious, a little confusing. Everybody wanted to help,” he says. But there were already pilots getting ready and more planes being armed with missiles. Adrian was told to go home, get some sleep, and come back for the night shift.

Sleep, Adrian decided, was unlikely. “I don't think anybody slept that day,” he says. Instead, he went golfing. “It was a beautiful day. I thought maybe that might take my mind off this thing.” It didn't. “I shot terrible,” Adrian says. “I had no focus.”

Other guardsmen showed up at Otis, too. Since no commercial planes were flying, most drove, one from San Francisco, one from Chicago, one from Florida. Those who were closer waited to be activated. “When the stuff started hitting the fan, I went home and started packing,” says Army National Guard Specialist Ijpe deKoe, 22, of Dorchester, who now works gate duty at the Falmouth entrance to the base. “We practice for this type of thing all the time,” says Lieutenant Colonel Rick Dupuis, support group commander.

Then again, nothing like this type of thing had ever happened. Senior officers huddled as if they were at war, though no one knew who the enemy was — or even whether Otis was a target. “I caught myself looking up in the sky,” says Jeff Isch, a weapons element supervisor who was outside getting planes ready to fly. Jets undergoing maintenance were rushed back into service, fitted out for combat instead of training. The base was sealed off. Army National Guard troops in camouflage holding M-16s now question everyone who enters. “You pay attention to the spider tingle on the back of your neck telling you something is wrong,” says deKoe. Even the buses heading to the Otis Memorial Elementary School, a public school on military property, are pulled over and searched each morning. There is another ID check at the entrance to the airfield, and another just before the flight line. “Our main mission is to fly airplanes,” says Dupuis. “In order to do that, we have to be able at all times to defend our assets.” Nearly 200 guardsmen were called up, then 300 more. “Every day coming out to the base, I see new faces that have been activated,” says Senior Airman Kevin Soucie. While the exact number of F-15s now on alert on Cape Cod is classified, work began to build temporary winter shelters so that more than two could be kept at the ready at all times. The mess hall quickly geared up to serve four meals a day, around the clock.

“Guys, we've been attacked,” Schiavi told the men and women who had assembled by the morning of September 12. Then he laid out an astonishing possibility: that the Otis pilots, many of them commercial airline pilots in civilian life themselves, might be asked to shoot down commercial airliners that were deemed a threat.

Most of the fighter pilots generally accepted the situation, according to those who attended the extraordinary briefing. “It's amazing how everything changes,” says one. “I'd feel terrible about it, but if I had to do it, I'd do it.” But another pilot, skeptical, asked: “Just where over downtown Manhattan do you want me to shoot this thing down?”

Officers defend the orders they have had to pass down to their pilots. “You'd like to go ahead and stifle the threat before it ever gets to us,” says Quenneville. There are also safeguards, says Schiavi. “We operate under very specific rules of engagement,” he says. “It's not like we have a bunch of pilots out there who have trigger fingers.”

Otis is buzzing now — literally. Uniformed servicemen and women hurry from one place to another with a renewed sense of purpose. Televisions are everywhere, droning with the latest news. The winter quiet of Cape Cod is constantly pierced by the sound of powerful F-15s taking off from the 10,000-foot runway — so big it's an emergency landing site for space shuttles — to police the Northeast. The all-weather, highly maneuverable tactical fighter aircraft can go more than twice the speed of sound and fly as high as 65,000 feet; they have a range of 1,500 miles. While on patrol, they're often fueled by tankers from a base in Maine. Essential flight information is projected onto the windscreen so the pilot doesn't have to look down at the instruments. These planes are the last line of protection against any airborne attack on the United States.

“The F-15 is the number-one air superiority plane in the world,” says Schiavi. In 106 engagements, the plane has never lost a battle. “I can go canopy-to-canopy with a MiG-29, and I can be absolutely certain that before it is over that guy is going to die,” says a pilot with the call name of Dooley. That doesn't mean it's easy, say the pilots. “It's incredibly difficult to employ,” says a pilot known as Torch. “I'll go up for less than an hour mission in the middle of winter, and when I come back, I'm soaking wet.”

The airplanes also get worked over in the air. “Everything wears,” says Senior Airman Soucie. “They have corrosion. Parts break. The things they put it through in the air, it's amazing that it comes back in this condition. But it's incredibly durable.”

The durability of Otis is being put to the test now, too. No one can predict how long it will be called upon to stay on this level of alert — when, if ever, the world will seem so safe again that two planes will be enough to defend the whole Northeast. Five hundred guardsmen and reservists have now joined the regular complement on duty at the reawakened military base. Among them: Bill Simmons, a staff sergeant from West Bridgewater who is a United mechanic in civilian life and who packed his bags and waited by the phone when he heard about the terrorist attacks. “I knew they would give me a call,” says Simmons.

He doesn't expect to go back home for a year or two.