'It's an awesome responsibility, and it's a privilege'

'It's an awesome responsibility, and it's a privilege' »Play Video
PORTLAND, Ore. -- On Aug. 17, President Obama waved to crowds in Pioneer Square before grabbing lunch. Minutes later, a thunderous noise ripped across the Seattle sky, rattling windows and nerves, and sending shockwaves through the region.

Some people actually thought we were under attack, but soon we learned it was a sonic boom, caused by two F-15's going supersonic at a low level. The alert turned out to be nothing: a float plane pilot who didn't know about the temporary flight restriction that day.

But for many, it was an eye-opener. We learned that if Seattle is ever attacked, our main air protection wouldn't come from Joint Base Lewis-McChord., or Fairchild AFB in Spokane, or even the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island.

None of those places have fighter jets.

Instead, our coverage would come from the Oregon Air National Guard, just outside of Portland.

Ready to go at a moment's notice

"Our primary mission here, the 142nd Fighter Wing, Oregon National Guard, is defenders of the Pacific Northwest," said Colonel Michael Bieniewicz. "We like to think of ourselves as your hometown air force."

There are 19 fighter jets at the Oregon Air Guard, all of them F-15's. There are a thousand guardsmen and women ready to go at any time.

"Our area of responsibility would be right on the Canadian-U.S. border and then south all the way to the northern reaches of California," Bieniewicz said.

Every day, fighter pilots here prepare for a life and death test they hope never comes.

"Well, it's an awesome responsibility, really," said Lt. Colonel Duke Pirak. "And it's a privilege."

Jets saved from budget ax

KOMO News was given a behind the scenes look as the men and women who fly F-15's went out on an exercise. They put on their G-suits and the rest of the gear that could save their lives while they're saving ours.

Next is a briefing about weather and other conditions, and then it's off to their aircraft.

The preparation to fly a $35 million airplane is meticulous. Everything is looked at, including fuel and weapons. Systems are checked and re-checked. The gear is gone over one final time.

And then the engines go on, and it's time to fly.

The Oregon Air Guard has stood alert since 1953, but five years ago, it was earmarked to shut down because of budget cuts. It almost happened.

One problem though: Washington and Oregon would have been left naked in the event of an attack. The closest fighter-jet coverage would have been in Fresno, California.

"When the president's... commission reviewed all the data, they decided we can't do that, we can't dismantle the defense of this corner of the U.S. because (the Oregon Air Guard) is the only game in town," Bieniewicz said.

From Portland to Seattle in 13 minutes

Off to the side of the of the Oregon Air Guard is the fighter jet version of a fire station, called the "alert barn."

If an emergency alert call is made, say from Seattle, the lights would go on, and the doors would go up. Inside are two F-15's that have already been fueled and checked. They are ready to fly immediately, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The pilots would scramble.

"It's almost like the actions of a pit crew in an Indy race kind of thing," Pirak said. "It's very quick, it's very scripted, it's always the same."

Bieniewicz adds, "you see the pilots running out, the crew chiefs are running out. It's very well choreographed. We practice it all the time because it has to be flawless execution when time is of the essence to get airborne."

From the time they get the call, to the time they take off, less than 5 minutes will have elapsed. Inside of 7 minutes, they would be soaring past Mt. St Helens. They would be over Seattle in 13 minutes, which is exactly how long it took the day the president was in town.

'We would stop all training... to defend Seattle'

The F-15 is one of the finest fighting machines in the world. In more than 100 skirmishes, no F-15 has ever lost a dogfight. It was designed to maintain air superiority and if need be, it could do that here, within a matter of minutes.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Oregon Air Guard put aircraft in the sky round the clock, for several days straight. Pirak, from Seattle, was one of those pilots.

"You are paying for us to do this, and it is our privilege to perform this service for you in protecting America," he said.

So when you hit the pillow at night, rest easy Seattle. While you sleep, they don't. In the event of an attack, Washington is covered... by Oregon.

"We would stop all training, all other missions, to defend Seattle if that's where we needed to defend, as our primary goal," Bieniewicz said.