Robert Charles: Scrambled F-16s over our nation's capital should give all Americans comfort

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What you don’t know – might make you feel better. The Trump administration is on guard – not just at our borders, not just renegotiating trade and security accords abroad, imposing sanctions on Iran, Russian, and North Korea, but also in the skies above. Washington got a surprise Saturday night – and it is symbolic.

At approximately 9:30 p.m. on Saturday the moist air around Washington, from City Center out to suburban Maryland, shook with repeated booms. U.S. Air Force F-16s, scrambling in defense of our nation’s capital, lit afterburners, tipped sideways, and intercepted a single-engine, non-responsive, civilian aircraft.

Observers saw the two F-16s, dispatched by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), screaming across the black sky, white lights pulsing, at what seemed breakneck speed. An F-16 can top 1,500 miles per hour. Whatever their speed that evening, they were swift, focused and noticeable.


They circled half a dozen times, first east to west, then west to east, forcing the civilian plane down, pursuant to special rules enforced over Washington. As the Colorado-based NORAD spokesman laconically reported: “As part of NORAD’s homeland defense efforts, NORAD aircraft responded, but prior to intercept, the civilian pilot established positive communications and immediately landed at the nearest airport.”

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The next time you hear that unfamiliar rumble of a fighter overhead, or maybe the familiar sound of wings pushing air sideways at the speed of sound, be not worried but grateful.

Yes, and one can only imagine his blood pressure was elevated. But the nation's capital was – as it should be and regularly is – dutifully protected. Having once been a passenger in a two-seat F-16, the familiar sound, speed, and profile are oddly comforting. Under 10,000 feet, they may awake sleepers and arouse curiosity, but they should also bring comfort.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft takes off for a nighttime mission at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (REUTERS/Josh Smith)

As members of Congress feud, seemingly without end, over which committee gets dibs on which people, documents and subpoenas; as Trump critics and detractors fault all that moves in this polarized City of Marble; and as most Americans shake their heads at a U.S. House intent on impeachment, not security, it is worth noting that we sleep well at night – because of those who work for, have faith in, and follow the national command authorities of this Commander in Chief.

Those F-16 pilots did not hesitate, did not ask why or whether they should fly, did not question their mission, the president’s authority or the Constitution  Like everyone else in military uniform, they stood up, did what they had to do when it had to be done, to protect us.


So in a time of national confusion, division and disunion, regular political disruption and tiresome recrimination, it is nice to know that our American military is composed of such men and women as will instantly rise, on a few second’s notices, to tear down a runaway, engage the unknown and defend us – here in the Washington area, around the country, and indeed around the world.

The next time you hear that unfamiliar rumble of a fighter overhead, or maybe the familiar sound of wings pushing air sideways at the speed of sound, be not worried but grateful. We are a nation of free men and women, protected by free men and women who regularly risk all for us, with the sort of resolve that should make us all proud. It did me, as I heard their afterburners fade into the night.