LANGLEY AFB, VA. –
By now it is something people expect to hear when the attacks come up in conversation.
"Where were you on Sept. 11?"
For some of the men and women directly involved with the attack's aftermath, the answer is, "I was at Langley Air Force Base, and I was in the fight."
Airmen from all over Langley were involved, in one form or another, with the response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Members of the 119th Fighter Wing alert detachment knew what they had to do before the alert klaxon ever went off.
Senior Master Sgt. Robert Schacht, 119th FW chief enlisted manager, was a crew chief sitting alert that day.
"We had cable TV, and CNN was on," he remembered. "We saw that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As soon as we saw the second plane hit, we knew we were going to be scrambled. Then the order came down, and I scrambled with the other crew chiefs and assisted with the launching."
Tech. Sgt. Christopher Plath, 119th FW crew chief, had only just arrived at Langley and was still living in the Langley Inns. He didn't wait around for a recall.
"I saw what was going on and I went to work," he said. "I knew we would be involved in some way, shape or form in something like that. By the time I got to work, they had already taken off. I assisted in loading the rest of the jets we had and recovering the jets when they got back."
As F-16s from the 119th were taking off, the 1st Fighter Wing was working to get their own birds in the air.
"I was in the 71st Fighter Squadron, preparing aircraft for our first go for local flying," said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Forest, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "I supervised the preparation and launch of our aircraft to go protect our nation. I thought we were at war, and whoever was behind it would have hell to pay!"
Tech. Sgt. Brad Schoffstall hit the ground running when he arrived at work that day.
"I was coming in the West Gate as the second plane crashed," he said. "After the second plane crashed, everything got very surreal. It's hard to believe someone was attacking the U.S."
While finding men and women eager to help was easy, finding the weapons to fight a possible air-to-air engagement in the middle of the continental United States was something else.
"We had most of our F-15s at Nellis, and we got our airplanes on DCA (Defense Counter Air) alert shortly after the attack," said Col. Tom Bergeson, 1st Operations Group commander and then-71st FS commander. "It was an amazing thing to find weapons to load for DCA in the middle of the U.S."
Some F-15s raced to rendezvous with and escort Air Force One, wary of a possible strike on the Commander-In-Chief.
"It was eerie flying over the U.S.," Colonel Bergeson said. "No one else was airborne."
Five years later and looking back on a darker day, the men and women who took part in the response to 9-11 from Langley say their training kicked in just as they knew it would.
"When it comes time to do the job, all the training we do pays off," said Sergeant Schacht. "You are performing as you have been trained. It held true that day and every day since."
In the years since, Langley's alert birds have trained for a new, more frightening mission; a response to another Sept. 11 attack.
"I felt we were ready for a different kind of threat then," Sergeant Schacht said. "We responded quickly and efficiently, and we train for that threat all the time. We are fast enough to give decision makers plenty of options."
For some, the Sept. 11 attacks hardened their resolve and made them realize the importance of what they do.
"It makes people step back and look at their part," said Sergeant Plath. "I know what I was doing was extremely important. It makes me proud to be in the alert business."
Twenty years from now, when their children or grandchildren ask, these Airmen will be able to say, "I was at Langley Air Force Base, and I was in the fight."