Airmen charged with watching the nation’s western air space had one thing going for them when terrorists struck 10 years ago: They were all on hand and ready to work because of a previously scheduled exercise.
Those numbers were an advantage for a group of Washington Air National Guardsmen not trained to respond to threats inside U.S. borders. They learned about their new enemies on the fly, helping ground civilian planes while tracking the few flights that had to be in the air.
Until that day, the Western Air Defense Sector where they worked at McChord Air Field set its sights on threats from Cold War Russia.
“We never looked inside of the nation. We never had a reason to look,” WADS deputy commander Col. Dave Harmon said.
Their office looks different now. It’s filled with screens tracking hundreds of aircraft flying in western airspace.
Harmon, 49, of Puyallup said WADS helped activate 300 fighter jets and 100 fuel tankers just after 9/11.
WADS has since become a player in planning security for major events such as natural disasters, the Olympics and national political conventions. It famously scrambled two supersonic fighter jets from Portland in August 2010 when a small plane broke a no-fly zone during President Barack Obama’s visit to Seattle.
Harmon and others went to work every day after the attacks anticipating another strike inside the U.S. That call didn’t come, but the sense that it might lingers among airmen who were there on 9/11.
“You hear something and you say, ‘Is this it? Is this it? What’s it going to be this time?’ It’s the little tickle,” said Lt. Col. Michael Holt, 43, of Steilacoom.
Master Sgt. Scott Taylor of Lacey feels it, too. He says his job is more complex and fulfilling than a decade ago.
“For me, the biggest part was, ‘How dare you do this?’” Taylor, 39, remembered thinking when the World Trade Center fell. “But also it was something to see the country come together.”