Protecting Our Skies: Taking flight with the fighter pilots who protect Oregon, Washington

KATU's Jackie Labrecque looks out the window of an F-15 at wingman Lt. Col. Bill Kopp in another F-15 while flying with the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing. (KATU Photo)

Oregon’s Air National Guard is ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The fighter pilots with the 142nd Fighter Wing are on standby 24/7 next to the runway at the Portland Air National Guard Base, which is on the other side of Portland International Airport.

They’re always training to respond in defense of the United States, such as intercepting Russian bombers off the coast of Oregon, which happens.

I flew along to help us all understand what it takes to get off the ground, and why what happens in the air is so essential to our safety.

You can’t fly in a fighter jet without the proper gear: A flight suit, helmet and mask, just to name a few.

Once everything is fitted, it’s time to train in the simulators, and there’s a lot to learn in case of an emergency, such as the command to eject, and how to do it.

You also can’t have a high-performance flight without an in-depth briefing.

I’m flying with Col. Duke Pirak, aka “Juice.”

"Every minute, every second is sort of scripted out in terms of how we're going to spend that time while we are airborne,” says Pirak, who’s not just a pilot, he commands the entire 142nd Fighter Wing.

Lt. Col. Bill Kopp, aka “Blue” is the wingman.

After our final check-in with the ground crews, it’s time to head out to the F-15, what Juice calls the world’s greatest air superiority fighter jet.

Juice does a walk-around, inspecting the aircraft, and then it’s time to climb aboard.

After some final checks on the runway, it’s full throttle, and we are off, pulling straight up in to the sky to 15,000 feet.

"That simply never gets old does it,” Pirak says smiling. “My favorite thing to do is turn to the side and look around and watch the ground literally fall away from us as we were going up like a rocket. It’s an inverse rush.

Blue links up as the jet levels out, and it’s moving.

"Just below the speed of sound, it's about nine miles a minute. That's fairly quick,” says Pirak.

Now it’s time to train. We get into a mock dogfight with Blue.

Juice radios to Blue, "5,000 fight's on.”

And Blue is on our tail.

Juice explains we’re, “going above him and below and depending on what was going on to try and simply just stay behind him."

I’m holding on to the canopy’s handle because at times we are pulling 8Gs. That feels like more than 1,100 pounds of pressure on my body. In the backseat, I’m just trying not to pass out. Now imagine Juice and Blue who are under all that physical pressure while also flying, navigating, talking on the radio, and fighting.

Then we merge, head to head, and we get a radar lock on Blue.

“So it's literally the best fighter pilot wins at that moment. And whomever moves most aggressively and makes the best maneuver selection will be the one that will be in position to take a shot first,” Pirak explains.

We’re training in Central Oregon. At points, we’re just above the barren ridgeline. That’s how pilots use the terrain to play defense against the enemy.

"We practice this over and over and over so it simply becomes habit, and talk about it in exhaustive detail," Pirak explains.

Higher up, we link up with a fuel tanker. They have someone training on the boom.

On the radio, Juice calls out, "Let's go ahead and press the tanker, get some gas."

It’s a critical part of the mission, so pilots can stay airborne and in the fight as long as needed.

“Sophisticated foes know and understand how hard we're working and how much we do to be a credible, and lethal force and the second that we start to ease off on those things is the second that we start to lose that edge," Pirak explains.

After more than an hour and a half, we touch down.

"While there are a limited and privileged few that get to fly these airplanes -- to include yourself -- you know, we know that it takes the efforts and the synchronized coordinated efforts of hundreds to do that," Pirak says referring to all the people on base.

The ride was a thrill.

“You did an awesome job,” Pirak says to me. “She's an animal!”

Pirak, or Juice, is impressed, but nothing compares to the impression left me. How hard all of the people at the base work and train to be the best of the best.

"We are your air force. We are Oregonians, and many southwest Washingtonians. We live in your neighborhoods," Pirak says.

And he and the rest of the airmen do it because they love this country.

"That sense of mission, that sense of being part of something, that is so much more important than me as an individual. The privilege to do that on behalf of you, literally for you, is something that just keeps me going every day," says Pirak.

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