HAMPTON, Va. - Keeping America's skies safe is a job that falls to pilots such as Wisconsin's Tom Bergeson.
The Air Force lieutenant colonel is boyish and bookish, but his handle - "Guns" - hints that he's all business at the controls of an F-15C fighter jet.
When he and his heavily armed $34 million airship tear into the clouds over Chesapeake Bay, it's the start of another hours-long mission to police U.S. airspace. He's done it many times since Sept. 11.
"Any potential hijacker should know," Bergeson says, "it's not going to work again."
"Privately, nobody wants to shoot down an airliner, but then nobody wants to see another incident like what happened on Sept. 11. I can tell you, we all take it extremely seriously, but there's no time for a moral crisis in the heat of battle."
Born in Austin, Minn., Bergeson, 38, moved with his family to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., while he was in fourth grade. He wasn't out of adolescence when he became fascinated with military aircraft.
He remembers watching Air National Guard planes from Volk Field at Camp Douglas conduct operations at the Hardwood Bombing Range not far from his new home.
"I didn't see the grander aspects of it, I just got intrigued by it," he said at Langley Air Force Base in southeastern Virginia, where is he stationed.
A couple of visits to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. - Bergeson had a relative there - and his childhood fancy was on its way to becoming a career.
He had the right stuff. He was the youngest in a family of four boys; both mom and dad were teachers and coaches. Now both semi-retired, his father, Harold, works for a magazine and his mother, Beverly, sells women's clothing. They live in Rudolph, Wis.
Their son was a straight-A student and one of three valedictorians at Lincoln High School, Class of '81. He had athletic gifts, too. As a senior, he played safety and back-up quarterback for his high school football team, which made it to the state championship.
"We were undefeated until the championship," he says, laughing.
First in his class
With a nod from U.S. Rep. David R. Obey of Wausau, Bergeson got an appointment to the Air Force Academy and graduated in '85. Next: pilot-training class. In his group of about 50, he ranked first in his class. His standing meant he had his pick of aircraft, and he chose the F-15, part of the Air Force's fleet since '79.
Known as the Eagle, the plane can handle speeds up to 1,875 mph. Its ceiling is 65,000 feet. Bergeson's F-15C is a single-seater, equipped with laser-guided and heat-seeking missiles and a 20mm Gatling gun, plus 940 rounds of ammunition.
How fast does it feel? G's, or gravitational forces, are the measure of force on the body undergoing acceleration expressed as a multiple of one's body weight. "Our airplane can pull up to nine Gs, or nine times your body weight," Bergeson says. "Even the world's best roller coaster maybe pulls three, four Gs."
With characteristic modesty, he deflects glory from himself, remembering his early years with the Air Force as an era when military spending was being beefed up. "We were cranking out pilots. [Ronald] Reagan was president. [There were] big military budgets. And we had a lot of [new] pilots."
It was in his first foreign posting, in Okinawa, Japan, that Bergeson got his handle. During a pivotal simulation exercise - when every missile and shot mattered - he was instructed to favor missiles, rather than the Gatling. Pilots were expected to have 90 percent-plus accuracy and expending bullets risked missing the exacting standard.
Afterward a sheepish Bergeson told his wing commander that he'd shot all 940 bullets. "Son, they better be good," the commander replied. They were. Bergeson, in the simulation, had taken out two F-16s.
Today he counts about 2,500 flying hours in the F-15. He's been handpicked to study and teach at the elite fighter-weapons program at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. He's picked up three master's degrees during his military and aviation training.
He's survived the inevitable near-misses during training. And he's taken real enemy fire, this in a "no-fly" zone over Iraq.
Leading a squadron
Now he leads the 71st Fighter Squadron, one of three squadrons in the Air Force's 1st Fighter Wing. The position has him commanding 300 people, about 24 of them fellow pilots.
Bergeson was at Nellis on Sept. 11, doing advanced training in preparation for an expected deployment in December over Iraq.
He was relieved that day that his wife, like him, an Air Force Academy grad (and fellow marathoner) was not at work that day at the Pentagon, where, as a reservist, she sometimes serves.
Soon after Sept. 11 Bergeson shifted gears, becoming part of what is called Operation Noble Eagle, the homeland security mission to guard the skies from more acts of terrorism since four commercial planes were commandeered Sept. 11.
So far, there have been instances of U.S. fighter planes being scrambled when trouble was suspected aboard commercial planes - but no major headaches. Or nightmares.
Bergeson operates knowing he could be called upon to shoot down a civilian airliner. He says personally, it's a disheartening prospect; professionally, he has a job to do.
"There are a number of safeguards and precautions," he notes. "We have strict rules of engagement. We're not looking to shoot somebody down. It's the last thing we want to do, quite honestly.
"But we will, if we have to."
He was trained for high-tech dogfights against foreign air powers, so cruising the skies to prevent a repeat of Sept. 11 isn't a straight-from-the-manual affair. But Bergeson says pilots - like all Americans - want to do something in response to Sept. 11 and are glad to do their part.
For now, he's girding for another rotation over Iraq, not knowing if he'll be drawn instead into combat. Busy with Noble Eagle, he's not being briefed on bombing raids over Afghanistan, but is confident that they're successful.
"I know how good we are, so I know, without knowing, that we're probably doing extremely well."
Buoyed by patriotism
He says that he and his squadron, meanwhile, are buoyed by the newly roused patriotism that swept the land he now flies day and night to protect.
"We feed off the patriotic fervor, which hopefully will be sustaining," he says. "That really means a lot to the guys."
For now Bergeson says he espouses climbing no higher than his present position.
"My goal is to be the best squadron commander I can be, to take care of the people just have a great fighter squadron, ready to go off to war and do our part."