National Guard's 142nd: Oregon's hometown Air Force
Two fully armed F-15 C fighter jets sit 24/7 at Northeast Portland's National Guard Base waiting for their call to action.
"The horn goes off, and in minutes, I jump into an airplane and I'm airborne," said Oregon Air National Guard Col. Aaron Mathena, who looks like he was chosen for the role of commanding officer by a Hollywood casting director but who speaks with the authority and poise his uniforms suggests.
The 142nd has a mission to remain deployable worldwide. Or, according to Mathena, operations group commander of the 142nd Wing, "to go fly, fight and win whenever and wherever needed."
"The last time we intercepted an aircraft that was not where it was expected to be," Mathena said, "was a long-range Russian aviation Bear bomber, I'd have to look up the date for you, but this was done in two sequential July 4th events, interestingly enough. So, we launched, intercepted that aircraft and ushered it back out into international waters."
"I think they wished the interceptor pilots a 'Happy Fourth of July,'" added 1st Sgt. Steven Conklin, public affairs officer with the 142nd.
Two instances of Russian bomber pilots having a bit of fun with their U.S. counterparts doesn't lessen the chance that one day it may be real — that's what the 142nd trains for.
The 142nd is one of two Air National Guard wings based in Oregon.
The Portland Air Base is also one of only 14 bases nationally providing alert-response aircraft like those that intercepted the Russian bombers. An enduring high level of military readiness is known as a "steady state" in military parlance.
According to Air Force doctrine, steady-state operations are intended to "shape the environment for regional and global stability, deter aggression and prevent conflict."
The same Air Force publication goes on to explain that airmen "should understand the nature, significance, and consequences associated with operations during the steady state," and, later, that "steady-state design, planning, execution and assessment are similar to those used in crisis situations."
Of all the unit's operating from Portland Airbase, the 123rd fighter squadron's Redhawks are probably best known to residents of the greater Portland Metro area as the fighter jets that fly overhead.
All those pilots, all those training missions, coupled with holiday and funeral flights, means a lot of flyovers for the surrounding metro area.
"If you just dwell on what it takes to make an F-15 pilot for instance," Mathena said, "well, that job never stops."
"All told," Mathena said, "it can be anywhere between two and a half to four years as an F-15 pilot before getting qualified to do every mission type in the 142nd's portfolio, conducted at home and abroad."
The Redhawks' main mission is baked into the design operating capability of the F-15 — to counter opposing aircraft, both offensively and defensively, in a worldwide capacity.
"We will go up and protect air defense zones around the United States," Mathena said.
That's more benign than it might sound. Generally, according to Mathena, it involves people in the wrong place at the wrong time; a lone Cessna pilot who wanders into the wrong airspace.
"We'll go in and usher out that person from a protected airspace," Mathena said.
When a commercial or private aircraft needs to verify that its landing gear is down, they don't have anyone to come up and look. The 142nd can take care of that, too.
Redhawks aren't the only unit at Portland's Air National Guard base.
Oregon Air National Guard Col. Aaron Mathena is responsible for four other distinct groups, separate from the 123rd fighter wing.
• 116th Air Control Squadron: 150 or so folks out on the Oregon Coast. They can pack up maintenance gear, people and equipment and deploy to provide local air traffic control anywhere it's needed.
• 123rd Weather Flight: These guardsmen embed with aviation battalions in the army to provide aviation weather support in a combat environment.
• 125th Special Tactics Squadron: "The special operators that America typically thinks of when they hear the word special and the military tied together," Mathena said. "Those folks are worldwide deployable to do strike, access and recovery."
• The 142nd Operations Support Flight: Supports the operational pilots; aircrew flight equipment, intelligence, aircrew records, airfield management and weather. They also help manage the training, logistics and readiness building for the 123rd fighter squadron.
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