ABOARD AN F-16 JET ABOVE NEW YORK -- From his cockpit perch more than 15,000 feet up, F-16 pilot Maj. Steve Ziomek can see it all -- the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Yankee Stadium.
But it's the gap in the cluster of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan -- the former site of the World Trade Center towers -- that steels his resolve on his combat air patrols.
"I'm up here to make sure nothing like that ever happens again," Ziomek says, talking through a microphone built into the mask of his helmet.
Ziomek, 34, a veteran U.S. Air Force aviator whose call sign is "Skull," patrols the skies over New York as part of Operation Noble Eagle, an air defense mission that began Sept. 11 after terrorist hijackers crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
The combat air patrols are the first of their kind to fly over the United States since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
"We fly them over major metropolitan areas and key infrastructure," said Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., which oversees the missions. "The only two locations we acknowledge are the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas."
Those cities have airborne patrols around the clock. Patrols are flown over other cities, but none get the constant protection of the two East Coast cities.
"By being up there, it's a deterrent to further airborne terrorist activity," said Lt. Col. Roger Pharo, a spokesman for the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing, which patrols both.
Guard officials won't say which units are involved or how many fighters at a time patrol the region, for security reasons.
From his base at the 177th, just outside Atlantic City, N.J., Ziomek flies four- to seven-hour sorties. He and other Air Guard pilots cruise above metropolitan New York at speeds of up to 1,500 mph, with air-to-air missiles and wing-mounted cannons at the ready.
"After spending my time training to fight MiGs, I always thought about what it would be like if the Russians came over the North Pole or something like that. Not this. But I'm doing something that's really important. I'm defending the nation," he says.
For Ziomek and the 34 other pilots of the 177th, Sept. 11 changed everything. Ziomek had left active Air Force duty 18 months before, converting to Guard status so he could be at home with his children while his wife -- a United Airlines pilot -- worked.
Now, he works 75- to 80-hour weeks at the Fighter Wing, based at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. His wife and in-laws must carry the child-care load.
Typically, Ziomek arrives two hours prior to flight time, checks the weather and consults with intelligence operatives.
After dressing, he receives a mission briefing, then heads out to the flight line and prepares for takeoff.
The jet accelerates like a rocket, lifting up within three seconds and then pointing toward the sky. Within 10 minutes, Manhattan comes into view.
Looking down, he sees the sun glinting off what look like silver bullets. They are commercial jetliners approaching and taking off from JFK and LaGuardia airports.
Ziomek says that if ordered to, he would be able to shoot them down, a scenario Pentagon officials have said was considered during the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.
"Nobody wants to do it, but I've got to do what I've got to do. I think I could shut everything out and focus on what I had to do," Ziomek said. "I don't want a terrorist getting away with what he wants to do because I screwed up.
"I've seen those films of the World Trade Center and the towers coming down, and I don't want to see that happening again," he said.
Soon, another fighter jet comes into view. It's one of Ziomek's Air National Guard counterparts from another unit, also doing CAP duty.
Later, he pulls his F-16 up underneath an Air National Guard KC-135 to demonstrate one of the mid-air refuelings that are part of his routine.
Slowly, the fighter jet climbs up underneath the bigger plane until their fuselages are about 20 feet apart. Ziomek can see an airman looking down at him from a glassed-in booth located at the rear of the flying tanker.
On a longer mission, he would have to do that twice to keep the F-16's tanks, which carry about 12,000 pounds of fuel, full enough to continue flying.
The patrols can get boring, for lack of activity. Often, Ziomek finds himself thinking about his children.
"I want them to be safe," he says. "People say that it felt safe before Sept. 11. I want them to feel that way again."
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