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Af there 5 minutes

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“Betty Crocker ain’t got nothing on me,” Dowdy boasts.

Dowdy belongs to the 125th Fighter Wing, a Florida Air National Guard unit nicknamed the FANG based at Jacksonville, Fla., but flies out of Homestead Air Reserve Base just south of Miami, supporting the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s air sovereignty mission.

Day or night, 24-7, a pair of pilots and two crew chiefs stand alert in a secure compound on Homestead, the base Hurricane Andrew nearly razed in August 1992. Within minutes, the crew chiefs can launch the pilots and send them on their way to intercept “unknown riders,” whether they’re Cuban MiGs, drug traffickers, smugglers, hijackers, novice pilots who’ve filed faulty flight plans or crippled aircraft limping in on a wing and a prayer.

“If needed, we could be killing things in five minutes or less,” said Capt. Tom “Pickle” Herring, a full-time alert pilot.

But almost without exception, the only thing FANG fliers shoot are photos — pictures to help identify aircraft or for evidence in drug smuggling cases. The typical scramble often reveals an inexperienced private pilot at the controls, flying off course after vacationing in the Bahamas.

“Sometimes when we show up, a pilot might radio air traffic controllers and give his position and say, ‘Hey, by the way, there’s a couple of F-15s on my wing, and they’re too d----- close,’ ” Herring said. “Yeah, there’s a reason we’re up here, you bozo!”

Fingering bogeys
The Southeast Air Defense Sector, located at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, mobilizes the fighters whenever a mysterious blip shows up on radar that can’t be identified. The sector’s radar arrays sweep 60 to 120 miles across the Atlantic, Caribbean, Florida Straits and Gulf of Mexico. If a plane penetrates the U.S. air defense identification zone and tracking technicians can’t get a read on who it is, and why it’s there, the sector sounds the alarm at Homestead.

“I’ve been scrambled at every conceivable, inopportune time — eating supper, sleeping at 3 a.m., but the worst is the shower. I just jump out soaking wet, wipe the soap off my neck and go,” said Herring, a 33-year-old Air Force Academy graduate. “We go full speed when that klaxon sounds, and people know not to get in front of us, because we take scrambles very seriously.”

But aren’t they a little groggy waking up in the middle of the night? Any cobwebs?

“If I survive racing down two flights of stairs, I’m usually good to go,” Herring said. “And we don’t even mind missing our beauty sleep. Fighter pilots will fly whenever they get the chance, unless, of course, it’s in the middle of the Florida-Florida State game.”

The reason Guard members exhibit such a gung-ho attitude about their mission might have something to do with defending their own backyard. Capt. Randy Reep, a 30-year-old alert pilot, flies over his parents’ house and his old high school every time he takes off from Homestead. Says Reep, “It’s extremely cool to scramble and tell your wingman, ‘Hey, there’s where I grew up!’ ”

“It’s a mission that hits close to home,” Herring said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to stop a cruise missile or a Bear bomber from crossing the border — from shooting it down to ramming it. We’re the only line of defense. We’re it. We’re fired up about what we do, and we’re the best at what we do.”

While the maintainers and support staff call South Florida home, most of the pilots fly in from Jacksonville to pull their duty, normally spending four days on alert. Crew chiefs work a 24-hours on, 48-hours off schedule.

“This area has so much to offer —beaches, the Keys, culture and fishing, but it took me several years coming down here before I saw any of it,” said Herring, a native of Palatka, Fla. “We see zero down here. Sometimes we get to see the commissary before getting in the F-15 and flying back.”

Ready to pounce
The pilots and crew chiefs form a tight bond, because of the close quarters. They live together in a two-story blockhouse with a kitchen, dining room, briefing room, separate bedrooms and a community dayroom boasting a big screen television and four recliners. Another building offers a gym and library. Some of the men found similarities between their jobs and a firefighter’s.

“We’re like coiled springs waiting for the alarm to go off,” said Master Sgt. Jerry Leach, a crew chief from Cutler Ridge, Fla. “I only wish we had a fire pole to slide down.”

“A squadron dog would be nice too,” Herring added.

Unfortunately, the pooch might find itself lonely and neglected, because according to Herring, Detachment 1 gets scrambled more than any unit in the Guard, averaging 150 battle stations a year and about 75 launches annually.

“It’s either feast or famine; you’re either flying a lot or none at all,” Herring said.

The Air National Guard exclusively performs the air sovereignty mission in the continental United States, and those units fall under the control of the 1st Air Force based at Tyndall. The Guard maintains seven alert sites with 14 fighters and pilots on call around the clock. Besides Homestead, alert birds also sit armed and ready at Tyndall; Langley AFB, Va.; Otis Air National Guard Base, Mass.; Portland International Airport, Ore.; March ARB, Calif.; and Ellington Field, Texas.

Active units pull similar duties outside the mainland. In fact last September, a two-ship flight of F-15 Eagles based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, stared down a pair of Russian TU-95 Bear bombers as they vectored toward the Alaskan coast. The bombers hightailed it home when the American Eagles closed within 90 miles.

“We don’t let other aircraft — zero — penetrate our air space without being monitored or escorted,” Herring said. “That’s why we have weapons on our jets. We need to be postured such that no one would dare threaten us ... and nobody better.”

And that’s no threat.

[Guardians at the gate]

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