FARGO - It was such a clear day, perfect weather for a private pilot who was flying his little Piper plane north of Washington, D.C.

Only trouble was, he had not watched a television or heard the radio all day, and it was Sept. 11, 2001. So he got quite a shock when he turned to see an F-16 flown by Lt. Col Dean Eckmann hovering right on his wing.

"I had to slow way up. I was almost at stall speed," said Eckmann, one of the three Happy Hooligans pilots who patrolled over the capital on 9/11. "I come up beside him, and he does the hugest double take."

After fumbling to put on his headset, the Piper pilot heard the warning that by then had been beaming out on radios for hours: Land or you'll be shot down. As soon as he heard that, he reached for the switch to deploy his landing gear.

It was a moment of levity on an otherwise tragic and anxious day, one in which pilots from the North Dakota Air National Guard's Fargo-based 119th Wing for hours defended Washington as another pilot from the unit flew across the U.S. through empty skies.

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"When you look down and see the Pentagon burning, you know something tragic has happened. You know people have died and are suffering below you," Eckmann said. "It's something you never forget."

Three of the four pilots who flew missions that day spoke to reporters Thursday in a news conference at the Fargo Air Museum - Eckmann, Col. Brad Derrig and the current commander of the 119th Wing, Col. Rick Gibney.

'An eerie feeling'

Eckmann, Derrig and Lt. Col. Craig Borgstrom, who was unavailable for Thursday's news conference, all were stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia on 9/11 as part of a rotating detachment of Happy Hooligans pilots there.

The airmen had similar reactions when they heard the first plane had struck a World Trade Center tower. How could that happen?

"It was almost like a North Dakota fall day where you can see for hundreds of miles," Derrig said. "We all assumed it was someone lost, not paying attention."

Within minutes, horns and lights calling the pilots to battle stations went off, an alert that puts fighter jets ready to fly as soon as a scramble order comes in. It's not uncommon and can happen when air defense is tracking anything of interest, Eckmann said.

What was unusual was when the order to scramble arrived, all three of the F-16s were sent out. One jet is usually left behind as the backup. They didn't know a second plane had hit the towers.

They were first told to go to New York City, flying out 60 miles over the Atlantic Ocean first to avoid air traffic on the coast. Before they got there, new orders came from the Northeast Air Defense Sector - head west to Reagan National Airport, just south of the Pentagon, Eckmann said. The area was shrouded in smoke but using landmarks as a guide, Derrig said they "could tell it was the Pentagon on fire."

The three North Dakota pilots patrolled the skies above D.C. alone for nearly an hour before additional planes arrived from other units, circling the capital for more than six hours into late afternoon and two of them then heading out later in the day for another 2 1/2-hour mission.

"Throughout the whole day, it was almost surreal. The radio calls you would hear - certain airspace is shut down, intruders will be shot down," Derrig said. "It was almost an eerie feeling as you were waiting for another mission."

Alone in the skies

Back at the 119th in Fargo, Gibney was planning to fly a training mission, but it all changed at 8:02 a.m., when the second plane hit. He tried calling Langley, but the lines were busy. In the midst of "an extreme sense of urgency," he was told to fly a two-seater F-16 to Missoula, Mont., to pick up and take back east Joe Allbaugh, then the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Pentagon was struck at some point as he headed toward Montana. When he arrived, so much was still unknown. Gibney said it was thought that up to 21 airplanes may be hijacked.

"In my mind, there was a very dire situation happening in the nation," he said.

Allbaugh, it was decided, was going to fly back east in a larger plane to allow him to meet with his staff during the flight. Instead, Gibney took Ed Jacoby, the state director of emergency management for New York - who was in Missoula for a conference also attended by Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, then adjutant general of North Dakota's National Guard.

Haugen ended up serving as crew chief for Gibney in the flight to bring Jacoby to Albany, N.Y., "a bit of twist of job positions there momentarily," Gibney said.

Refueling in-air roughly above Fargo, Gibney and Jacoby flew back east. All air traffic in the U.S. had been grounded, and Gibney said the usual chatter on the radio was gone. Toronto's airport, he recalls, was full of downed planes. As usual, he was asking air controllers for permission to decline and ascend at first during the flight.

"Finally, the FAA controller, frustrated with me, told me to do essentially whatever I wanted," Gibney said. "I was the only airplane between Seattle and New York City."

After dropping off Jacoby, Gibney joined the other Happy Hooligans pilots at Langley. They would rotate through flying air patrol mission, along with other fighter units, until April.

'This isn't Hollywood'

Before the patrols turned into routine after 9/11, the pilots spent the day intercepting planes, identifying them as friend or foe using a system linked to a button on the flight stick.

Eckmann flew in the lead for the North Dakota jets, setting up the patrols at about 25,000 feet in a "racetrack" formation designed to keep an eye to the east, where they were trained to expect enemies to fly from.

"I always wanted a radar to be looking out to see if we have a track coming in," he said.

At one point early in the mission, Eckmann dropped low to check on two aircraft that couldn't be identified, which turned out to be military and law enforcement helicopters above the Potomac River. When he was down there, he was asked to give a first battle damage assessment on the Pentagon. He reported it looked as if a detonation penetrated two rings of the military headquarters and set a third ring ablaze.

"I was assuming kind of more of an Oklahoma City truck bomb type of thing," Eckmann said.

Derrig also flew low over the building when he gave an escort to a plane flying into Reagan with Attorney General John Ashcroft. He gave a "wing rock" while he flew over the Pentagon - a gesture akin to a tip of the cap, except with a wing.

Even though radio signals were warning aircraft could be shot from the sky, Eckmann said they didn't think about it. He said they carried authenticators to ensure any orders to shoot came with the proper codes for their command chain.

"If someone just says on the radio, 'Go shoot that airplane down,' we're not going to do it. We have a process," he said. "This is the real world. This isn't a Hollywood movie or that type of stuff. You just realize if it does come, you're going to follow orders."

Nightfall brought for the pilots the kind of conversations that were occurring everywhere - talk of how the world had changed and what would happen next. It didn't bring much sleep. "You're still pretty wound tight," Derrig said.