The F-15 fighter jets roll up to the end of the runway at Barnes Air National Guard Base. With clearance from the control tower they quickly accelerate, and in a matter of seconds are smoothly cruising just 20 feet above the pavement.
Then, with permission for an unrestricted "quick climb," pilot Thom "Rooster" Kelly points the nose of the jet straight up and ascends to 15,000 feet in a matter of seconds before leveling off, first upside-down, then slowly turning the glass cockpit toward the sky.
Lt. Col. Kelly and his "wing man" (they typically fly in pairs) are demonstrating the capabilities of the aircraft in an interception exercise as part of Operation Noble Eagle, an effort by the U.S. Government to protect our skies from airborne threats.
The program was beefed up after 9/11, with hundreds of pilots at 18 bases across the country dedicated to defending America. Many of the fliers have combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo, and say they're honored to put their skills to use here at home.
Maj. Jeffery Blake, Flight Commander with the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, says, "It does give me a great amount of pride knowing that my country has asked me to sit on point and to go out there... and find targets that could potentially be threats and make sure they're not going to hurt anybody."
On Sept. 2, Operation Noble Eagle was called to action when an unidentified plane entered restricted airspace near Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. F-15s were scrambled and within minutes were escorting the civilian Piper aircraft to a secured landing strip in West Virginia.
The jets are armed with air-to-air missiles and a Gatling gun with hundreds of rounds of ammo. Kelly says if given the order, he'll pull the trigger, just like he did in war zones overseas.
"We're only minutes from New York and Boston within the scramble, well within our combat radius for Noble Eagle missions," he says. And the weapons? "The weapons are more than enough to do the task that would be at hand for homeland defense."
Noble Eagle pilots have intercepted countless planes over the past ten years, but so far haven't had to pull the trigger in U.S. airspace. Col. Robert Brooks, commander of the 104th, says that's a good thing.
"Well, there hasn't been anything like 9/11 and that means that things are working and that's what we want. We're kind of like your last line of defense, so if we're not doing things, that means the other components, the intergovernmental agencies, are working together to prevent another 9/11-type scenario."
Operation Noble Eagle is on alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in the skies above you.