The two F-16 Falcons screamed down the runway at Andrews Air Force Base.
Pete Dalton—Lieutenant Colonel Dalton—lived for this. There was absolutely no other experience on the planet like flying an armed-to-the-teeth air force fighter.
It was the week before Thanksgiving, and when the klaxon went off, Dalton and his wingman had been sitting in the ready trailer at Andrews, bitching that they’d been assigned to work the holiday, although Dalton didn’t really care that much. Then the klaxon blared and they were out of the trailer, into their planes, and tearing down the runway five minutes later.
As they were ascending into the skies over Washington, they were briefed on the situation. Some idiot in a small slow-moving plane had just taken off from an airfield in Stafford, Virginia. The guy was at three thousand feet and doing eighty-six knots, almost a hundred miles an hour. He had flown briefly to the south, then turned northeast and crossed into the outer zone and was not responding to air traffic controllers at Dulles.
There are two air defense zones around the nation’s capital, an inner and an outer zone. The outer zone has a ragged, roughly circular boundary that extends thirty to fifty miles outward from the Washington Monument. This zone is called the ADIZ—the Air Defense Identification Zone. To enter the ADIZ a pilot has to identify himself, must have an operating transponder that broadcasts a signal identifying his aircraft, and must remain in continuous two-way communication with FAA controllers. The second zone, the inner zone, is the no-fly zone. The no-fly zone is a perfect circle extending out sixteen miles from the Washington Monument. The only aircraft allowed to enter this area aside from commercial traffic going in and out of Reagan National Airport have to be specially cleared.
The fool in question hadn’t identified himself, his transponder was either malfunctioning or disabled, and he wasn’t responding to queries from FAA controllers. He was doing everything wrong. When the unidentified aircraft was two miles inside the ADIZ, thirty-three miles and approximately twenty minutes from all the government buildings in D.C., a whole bunch of things began to happen.
An air force colonel in Rome, New York—the officer commanding NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector—scrambled the F-16s out of Andrews; Blackhawk helicopters under the control of Homeland Security lifted off from Reagan National; the Secret Service and the U.S. Capitol Police were alerted and told to be prepared to evacuate the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court; and men in secret locations throughout Washington who are qualified to fire surface-to-air missiles were notified and told to stand by.
At the same time, four people were paged: the secretary of defense, his deputy, a navy admiral located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado who had overall command of NORAD, and an air force major general located at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida who was responsible for NORAD’s operations in the continental United States. These four people were paged because they had been delegated the authority by the president of the United States to shoot down a plane entering the no-fly zone.
Dalton was fairly certain, however, that it wouldn’t come to that; it never had in the past. He expected that within the next two minutes the dummy from Stafford would be on his radio saying, “Oh, shit, sorry,” about sixteen times and then get headed in the right direction, and Dalton would be ordered back to Andrews before he could have any fun.
But these incidents, pilots breaching the ADIZ, occurred two or three times a week, and once Dalton had been on duty when it happened three times in one day. These muttonheads who couldn’t read a map or a compass, who had their radios turned off or set to the wrong frequency, would blunder into the ADIZ and then have the livin’ shit scared out of ’em when two F-16s went roaring past them at six hundred miles an hour.
“Huntress. Hawk Flight. Bogey still not responding. Snap vector three-twenty for thirty. Intercept and ID. Noses cold.”
Huntress was the call sign for the colonel commanding the Northeastern Air Defense Sector. He had tactical command of the F-16s. Hawk Flight was the two F-16s: Hawk One was Pete Dalton; Hawk Two was his wingman, Major Jeff Fields. Snap vector 320 for 30 meant the bogey was on a bearing of 320 degrees and 30 miles from the Hawk Flight’s position. Noses cold meant they were to approach with their weapons systems unarmed—which was a damn good thing for the bogey.
Dalton responded. “Hawk One. Huntress. Copy that. Proceeding to intercept.”
The unidentified aircraft was now twenty-four miles and fourteen minutes from Washington, D.C.
Dalton could see the bogey on his radar, and a minute later he could make out a dot in the sky that had to be it. He and Fields headed directly at the dot, and when they were half a mile away, and the bogey was clearly visible—and they were visible to it—Dalton split to the right and Fields to the left, and they blasted past the plane, coming within a hundred yards of its wingtips. Dalton looked over his shoulder and saw the bogey wobble in the jet wash caused by the F-16s, and he figured that whoever was flying that baby was sitting there right now in a puddle of his own piss.
Dalton and Fields made tight loops in the sky and came in behind the plane, slowing down to match its speed.
The bogey was now twenty miles and twelve minutes from Washington.
“Hawk One. Huntress. Bogey is a Cessna One-fifty, tail number N3459J. Repeat N3459J.”
“Huntress. Hawk One. Copy that. Attempt contact.”
“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that.” Dalton switched frequencies on his radio. “Cessna 3459, Cessna 3459. This is the Air National Guard. Respond. Respond. You are approaching the no-fly zone. Respond.”
Nothing came back from the Cessna. Shit.
“Cessna 3459. Cessna 3459. Respond or you will be fired upon. You are entering the no-fly zone.”
Nothing. It was possible, of course, that the Cessna’s radio wasn’t working or that the pilot was unconscious and the plane was flying itself. That had happened before, though not this close to the capital.
“Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna 3459 is not responding. Going alongside for visual.”
“Huntress. Hawk One. Copy that and proceed.”
While his wingman stayed behind the Cessna, Dalton pulled up next to it, the tip of his starboard wing less than fifty feet from the other plane. He waved his right hand at the pilot, signaling for him to get the hell out of the air and down on the ground, but the Cessna pilot, the damn guy, was staring straight ahead, not even looking over at Dalton’s jet. He looked like he was in a trance.
Jesus, Dalton thought. The pilot looks like an Arab.
The Cessna was seventeen miles and ten minutes from D.C.
“Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna not responding. Pilot ignoring visual contact.”
“Huntress. Hawk Flight. Fire flares.”
“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that. Firing flares.”
Dalton and his wingman shot ahead of the Cessna and made tight turns in the sky to come back at it. This was the sort of maneuver they practiced a dozen times a month. Each pilot fired two flares. The flares missed the Cessna, but not by much, the closest one coming within thirty feet of the Cessna’s cockpit. There was no way the Cessna pilot didn’t see those flares—or the F-16s coming directly at him once again.
But the guy just kept going, never deviating from his original course.
The Cessna was now ten miles—six minutes—from Washington.
Dalton shot past the Cessna again, turned, and pulled up alongside it a second time. He waggled his wings and waved an arm at the pilot. No response. The bastard just sat there like he was made of stone. Dalton reached out to—aw, shit! The Cessna had assumed a downward angle. It was going to cut right across one of the approaches to Reagan National. Beyond the airport, across the Potomac, Dalton could see the White House.
This son of a bitch was headed directly at the White House—and the Cessna was now less than three minutes away from it.
Dalton wasn’t concerned about his F-16 or the Cessna colliding with commercial airplanes going in and out of Reagan National. He knew that by now every plane within a hundred miles either was on the ground or had been diverted away from D.C. Dalton also knew that at this point the White House was being evacuated: guards screaming, people running and tripping and falling, images of 9/11 burned into their brains. Dalton didn’t know if the president was in town, but if he was, two big Secret Service guys had him by the arms and were running him to the bunker, the president’s feet not even hitting the ground.
The Cessna was now four miles—less than two and a half minutes—from the White House.
Dalton spoke into his radio. “Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna not responding. I repeat. Cessna ignoring all attempts at contact.” Dalton knew that he sounded calm—he’d been trained to sound calm—but his heart was hammering in his chest like it was going to blow through his breastbone. He also knew he didn’t have to tell anybody where the guy in the Cessna was headed.
There was no immediate response from Huntress. Oh, shit! Dalton thought. Please, God, don’t let somebody’s goddamn radio go out now. Then his radio squawked.
“Huntress. Hawk One. Bogey declared hostile. Arm hot. You are cleared to fire. Repeat. Arm hot. Cleared to fire.”
Now Dalton understood the pause. The word had gone up and back down the chain of command. One of those four men who had the authority to give that order had just given it.
Dalton knew this was his mission. This was the reason they’d spent all those years and all that money training him. This was the reason he was flying an F-16 Falcon. But he had never really expected to have to execute the command he’d just been given.
Dalton hesitated, he hesitated too long—he hesitated long enough to end his career.
“Huntress. Hawk One. Did you copy that order?”
“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that. Arm hot. Cleared to fire.”
And then Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dalton did what he’d been trained to do. He reached down and toggled the master arm switch in the cockpit to ON, slowed down to increase the distance between him and the smaller plane, and just as the Cessna was crossing over the Potomac River—less than two miles from the White House—he fired.
NORAD and the Air National Guard refused to tell the media what sort of weapon had been used to destroy the Cessna. Ordnance and armament used to protect the capital from aerial assault are classified. But whatever Dalton fired, it struck the Cessna and a ball of flame fifty yards in diameter bloomed in the sky over the Potomac. Pieces seemed to rain down onto the river for a solid minute after the Cessna had been obliterated.