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Protecting Our Skies: The 142nd Fighter Wing's profession is being ready

The Portland Air National Guard Base, located across from the Portland International Airport, is home to the 142nd Fighter Wing. "Our presence here is an essential part of the nation's sovereignty,” Colonel Duke Pirak tells KATU's Jackie Labrecque during an interview for a series of reports set to air on February 19, 20 & 21. (KATU Photo by Tristan Fortsch, 2/1/2018)

You've likely heard the deafening roar of the F-15's that fly overhead, departing from the Portland Air National Guard Base across from Portland International Airport.

During a 24-hour shift on the flight line there is plenty of downtime for the fighter pilots with the 142nd Fighter Wing.

"Two pilots and always two crew chiefs literally living at the end of the runway, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 a year," says Col. Duke Pirak, who commands the entire base and flies, too. "Maybe a lot of hours of boredom out there interrupted by these moments of sheer terror."

Over the loudspeaker a female voice blares: "This is the command post, practice scramble over land, practice scramble over land."

The pilots drop everything they're doing, and it's go time. With an alarm now blaring overhead, they suit up and it’s a sprint to the F-15.

"The F-15C Eagle, we like to say, is the world's greatest air superiority fighter,” Pirak says. “We've never been defeated, 104 kills, 0 losses."

In a real situation, the gold standard is to be airborne in five minutes. Being ready is their profession.

"Our presence here is an essential part of the nation's sovereignty,” Pirak explains. “To literally have the capacity to launch something to get airborne and to let others know that we're watching."

Those others? The Russians. There’re pictures of pilots intercepting Russian bombers off the coast of Oregon on July 4, 2015, and again on Independence Day back in 2012.

"We had a Russian-capable nuclear bomber get fairly close to Oregon. Sort of probing our defenses and what not,” Pirak says. "It's a we see you, you see us. And we obviously, through a variety of means, encourage them to leave. And to let them know, we're here, we're ready. We are, you know, the presence of the federal government in terms of the military but also available and ready to go for our state commander in chief, the governor."

It takes a team of about 45 people to keep the F-15s front-line ready, as the jets are all about 30 years old.

"Every one of them has its own personality, and we get to know those," says Tech. Sgt. Matt Johns, who helps maintain all the jet's electronics -- from the weapons systems to what the pilot sees in the cockpit.

"They rely on us to make sure everything's safe and everything's been done correctly," Johns says. “It never gets old every time they take off. It's the same today as it was the first time I watched one."

They never stop training, so they are always ready to go.

"When you're talking about protecting Seattle, protecting critical infrastructure, protecting Portland, that's the 142nd Fighter Wing Redhawks,” Pirak says. "We are just so proud of this mission and to be here and do this on behalf of you. We consider this to be such a privilege."

Pirak brought KATU’s Jackie Labrecque along for a training mission in central Oregon. Tune in for the exclusive report Tuesday KATU News at 6 p.m.

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