9/11: 180th Fighter Wing duties changedWritten by Brian Malkowski | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Reporter Brian Malkowski will spend shifts at various Toledo workplaces to offer insight into the people who work some of the area’s most interesting jobs.
Like most Americans, I can remember where I was and what I was doing on Sept. 11, 2001. A college student two weeks from my 21st birthday, I spent most of the day watching the news on TV as classes had been canceled at The University of Toledo.
I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house and watched even more news until a friend of mine and I said, “Enough is enough; lets go do something.” I figured the monsters that attacked us would love it if I just sat around and did nothing all day.
On our way, I noticed the lines at gas stations because people had no clue what had happened or what to expect.
Since 9/11, I have been to Ground Zero a few times and even though I didn’t personally know anyone who was lost that day, it sure does feel like it. I could write this whole article on how I’ll answer my son when he comes home from school someday and asks me what a terrorist is, but instead I’m going to stay positive and remind readers that no matter what the challenge, we will always prevail because we are Americans.
I recently spent a day at the 180th Fighter Wing, located at the Toledo Express Airport in Swanton, to meet the people who in a moment’s notice are prepared to protect our country.
I was scheduled to be at the base at 8 a.m. to shadow fighter pilot Lt. Col. Christopher Belli.
The 180th Fighter Wing has been a staple in our community since 1955 and has been involved in several real-world contingencies. Its mission is to provide combat-ready airmen for federal, state and community missions. Since 9/11, unit members have volunteered for numerous missions, including Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When I arrived at the base it was no surprise I was greeted at the gate by guardsmen armed with machine guns and briefed for my arrival. I was told to park and wait for my escort, Maj. Gary Bentley of the U.S. Air Force, to show me where I was to drive next. After parking, I sat in the main office and waited for “Bucket” — Belli’s call sign — to get out of his mass briefing.
After Belli was through with his briefing, he gave me a quick tour of the facilities and then headed to the pilots’ locker room where he put on 40 pounds of gear. Items included in his equipment were a G-suit and his $100,000 heads-up display helmet. One of the key features of this helmet allows the pilot to look and fire versus pointing the aircraft and firing. After Belli put this helmet on, I asked him to please not look at me.
Fully geared up, we made the walk outside to the parking lot filled with F-16s. In what looked like a scene from “Top Gun,” there was a sea of activity with numerous crewmembers performing various tasks. This walk is basically where the pilots put on their game face. From this point, I didn’t say another word to Belli.
The F-16CM Fighting Falcon that Belli flew is made by Lockheed Martin and has a top speed of 1,500 mph (Mach 2). This $16 million machine is powered by a Pratt and Whitney F100-PW-229 which provides 29,000 pounds of thrust.
As we arrived at the aircraft that Belli was to take on a 90-minute training mission, we were greeted by a crewmember who assisted with a preflight inspection. This 15-minute inspection is no joke; every tool is accounted for in a custom toolbox. If one tool is missing that plane is grounded until it is found.
Belli walked around the aircraft, inspecting everything from top to bottom before finally entering the aircraft. Once aboard, he fired up the plane and checked the operation of the controls. All systems go, he made his short trip out to the runway and was up in the air in seconds.
Where and what Belli did for the next 90 minutes is classified and no more pictures were to be taken after the aircraft was in the air.
Belli works four 10-hour days each week and one weekend a month. He has logged in more than 3,000 hours in an F-16, so I asked him, “What could you possibly do for fun when you’re not at work?”
Belli said he enjoys time on the water, fishing with the family in his ’59 Lyman. He also has a four-seater Cessna that he often takes on short trips. Flying this smaller aircraft in his spare time gives Belli an opportunity to turn off the “fighter pilot” and just enjoy flying.
Belli remembered the exact room he was in when the base learned of the 9/11 attacks. Not only did the 180th Fighter Wing provide support in the air that day, it also changed forever. The base now sit “Alert” 24/7, 365 days a year, having staff and F-16s available at a moment’s notice.