911 Anniversary: D.C. Air National Guard Pilots Recall Scrambling F-16s to Nation's Capital


According to Sasseville, "we slowly figured things out, figured out that NORAD had sent airplanes into the air as well. We started talking to each other. It was very confusing not knowing who was who, trying to intercept airplanes and try to get them turned away from the national capital region."

He described the day as a being a "kind of a roller coaster" between carrying out the intercepts and looking back to see smoke still smoldering from the Pentagon.

"It was a horrible, horrible feeling to experience looking at the Pentagon on fire," he said. "That's one of the memories that I'll keep with me."

Valentine says that shortly after the first planes went aloft, squadron members quickly realized hey had to plan to have planes over Washington for the long term.

Valentine flew his first combat mission the next day and he, too, recalls seeing the smoke still billowing from the Pentagon, but he did not realize until much later how eerily quiet the skies over Washington had become.

"I've flown around the D.C. area the last 10 years and it's a busy place and I didn't realize how eerie flying during the Sept. 11 period was until after it was over and normal operations resumed," he said. "Because there was nothing in the air besides us."

Valentine said 9/11 definitely changed his outlook about what's possible in the world after having witnessed the events of that day first hand. "To see the Pentagon burning underneath you and hearing planes in the sky with radio calls saying you will be shot down. Those are not normal things you hear in America. So I think it expands your realm of the possible."

Sasseville said, "at the end of the day we were under attack and this is going to change our country for a long time and we really need to pull together as a country "

Within weeks ,Caine soon found himself deployed to Kuwait where he flew combat missions over Afghanistan.

The lessons from that day have led to the alert scramble process now in place where dedicated armed fighter aircraft are always minutes away from launching intercept within minutes. Since 9/11, the D.C. Air National Guard has launched 3,000 alert scrambles.

In Houston that morning, Lt. Col. Rolando Aguilar was asleep in the cockpit of his F-16 as the Texas Air National Guardsmen completed a 72-hour alert shift intended to cut response times for getting fighter jets into the air.

He was awoken by the sound of scramble horns alerting him to fly an alert mission. It wasn't until then that he found out that two aircraft had struck the World Trade Center.

Aguilar and his wingman received vague orders to fly to a location over the Gulf of Mexico. Just before he took off, he received a cryptic message from his wing commander that he was going to intercept a former member of his unit, but Aguilar still had no idea what mission he was to conduct.

When he reached the intercept location, he was startled to see a Boeing 747 aircraft with the markings identifying it as Air Force One. "Wow," he said. He recalls thinking, "Hey, this is no kidding the real deal. "

A confused Aguilar radioed his controllers that he had met up with Air Force One. "They don't tell you anything until we said it's Air Force One, and they say, 'Well, yes. That's your target. Escort it.'"

It was then that Aguilar recalled that President George W. Bush had been a member of his Texas Air National Guard unit.

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