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WDAY: The News Leader

Published August 25, 2011, 02:53 PM

Happy Hooligans Pilots Recall Defending America's Skies on 9/11

FARGO – Three Happy Hooligans pilots who flew missions on Sept. 11, 2001, recalled the experience in a news conference today at the Fargo Air Museum.

By: Dave Roepke, Forum Communications

FARGO – Three Happy Hooligans pilots who flew missions on Sept. 11, 2001, recalled the experience in a news conference today at the Fargo Air Museum.

119th Wing fighter pilots Col. Brad Derrig, Lt. Col. Dean Eckmann and Lt. Col. Craig Borgstrom all flew F-16 jets on 9/11 scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to Washington, D.C., patrolling the emptying skies above the capital as portions of the Pentagon burned below.

For much of the day, taking off after a second airplane hit in New York City, the North Dakota pilots were defending the capital, intercepting airplanes and identifying them as friend or foe after all air traffic had been grounded.

Seeing the Pentagon on fire from what he initially assumed was an Oklahoma City-type bomb, Eckmann said he couldn’t help but be affected by the sight.

“You know people have died and are suffering below you,” he said.

Especially in the first 45 minutes to an hour of their patrol over Washington, before other fighters joined the three Happy Hooligans jets, it was hectic chasing down planes, said Derrig, who provided a wing-side escort to Attorney General John Ashcroft as he made his way back to D.C.

“It was almost an eerie feeling as you were waiting for another mission to come,” Derrig said.

Borgstrom continues to work for the 119th on the East Coast and didn’t join in the press conference, but Col. Rick Gibney, now the 119th’s commander, flew on Sept. 11 as well, scrambling from Fargo to Montana to fly an emergency management official to New York.

Gibney said during the flight back east, ground control officials grew tired of him asking permission to alter his altitude.

There was no need, they told him.

“I was the only airplane between Seattle and New York,” he said.

Roepke is a reporter at the Forum in Fargo

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