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A new diligence in the American blue yonder

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Capt. Dave Winjum pulls back the joystick in his F-16 and shoots skyward. The Virginia coastline falls steeply away as the fighter jet noses up through scattered clouds over Langley Air Force Base and speeds north, covering the 120 miles to Washington within minutes.

"There's Reagan [National Airport]," says Capt. Winjum, an Air National Guardsman, glancing down through the cockpit's bubble canopy as he banks into an earth-tilting turn over the capital.

Suddenly, so fast they appear mere flits of motion, two F-15s streak past in the blue expanse overhead. The jets, fully loaded with missiles, belong to an Air Force unit whose call sign is "King Kong."

They veer briefly into formation with Winjum and his wingman, 1st Lt. Brad Lorentz, as the pilots exchange radio chatter. "Thanks, Kong," Winjum says, as the F-15s head off for midair refueling.

Warplanes like these careening over Washington 24 hours a day are mostly invisible miles below on the ground. But at midday or in the broken still of night, a constant, hollow roar of engines reveals the fighters are there, ready to intercept suspicious aircraft, and – as a last resort – shoot them down.

Patrolling America's skies as never before, Winjum and other Air National Guard and Air Force pilots have flown more than 20,000 missions since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, compared with only 150 in 2000. More than 13,000 people, 100 fighters, and a total of 150 tankers and AWACS surveillance planes have joined the effort. So far jets have scrambled from the ground against potential targets 320-plus times.

Indeed, the pilots of Operation Noble Eagle, the new homeland defense mission, are on the front lines of a dramatic about-face in US air defense – a shift from only looking outward to also looking within. The change began at exactly 8:46 a.m. EST on Sept. 11. In that single minute, two events occurred: Hijackers plowed American Airlines flight 11 into the World Trade Center and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) ordered the first US combat jets that morning to scramble.

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