The first of many startling sights deep inside our nation's air defense is the clear Steel Blast doors. There are two of them, weighing 25 tons apiece, packed with rods and pistons protecting the main entrance to the North American Aerospace Command Center (NORAD). Standing sentry one-third of a mile into Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain they've only been closed once in anger since the Cold War days – the morning of September 11, 2001.
Images of that day were seared into our collective consciousness. Air traffic controllers around the country listened in horror as hijackers stormed cockpits of four doomed jetliners. The two federal agencies charged with defending our skies – the FAA and NORAD – were essentially flying blind during 109 minutes of terror, unable to directly communicate. Looking back, it proved a major reason three of the four planes went down without a military response, and only four jet fighters ever made it into the sky that sunny September morning.
Five years later, the skies above Colorado Springs were cloudy as producer Wendy Krantz, a camera crew and I traveled inside the mountain by golf cart, much like miners hunting coal. The lighting dim, the air nearly still, the mass of chambers and 15 freestanding buildings that define our national defense before us.
I was immediately struck by the size of the chambers – 45 wide, 60 feet high – and how the facility resembled an underground city. One of our public affairs specialist explained how all the buildings making up the inner complex are linked by passageways that purposely do not connect; how in case of an attack or fire they can be broken off, sealed off; and how the corridors inside were constructed in a maze-like manner to confuse and befuddle potential intruders.
Our ultimate destination was a nondescript room not much bigger than your average college classroom. On any given day, intelligence from the world over pours in, and every single aircraft is identified and tracked by radar. A far cry, it turns out, from 9/11, when our radar systems strung out along our borders were fixated on threats coming from the outside-in. Not anymore. Today that Cold War mindset has shifted to inside-out.
"Put up the slide showing today's radar," said Maj. David Masnyk, crew commander of NORAD's Air Warning Center.
The screen jumped to life. Hundreds of circles, signifying radar, seemed to cover the entire continental U.S. Maj. Masnyk and I walked over to another screen where a mass of luminescent dots, tiny green mushrooms, were alive on the board.
"That's every plane currently in the air in the United States," he said. A series of signs and symbols below each plane detailed the type, departing and arrival city, flight number, and expected time of arrival.
"What color do you not want to see?" I said.
"Red," he said, meaning an unidentified aircraft, large or small.
Earlier in the day Wendy Krantz and I had been given a rare behind-the-scenes look at the New World Order of our domestic air defense – U.S. Northern Command or NORTHCOM at nearby Peterson Air Force Base. On the morning of 9/11, only one federal agency was in communication with the FAA.
Today, in a state-of-the-art nerve center set up in the wake of 9/11, dozens of military officers and civilians from the U.S. and Canada now sit side by side, sharing information, tracking all things domestic, able to directly communicate in "real time" to 150 command centers involved in public safety.
The complex itself is impressive. From its picture-perfect grounds outside to the no-nonsense security, sparkling decor and plasma screens inside, NORTHCOM inspires pride and confidence. So does the man in charge: Admiral Timothy Keating.
Now I've interviewed a lot of big-time coaches and athletes in my life but never an admiral. Keating ranks right at the top of the Impress List, as real and personable as they come. While the crew was tweaking the lights for our interview, the Commander and I talked baseball and football – he's a sports nut – and candidly about the events of 9/11, the failures of foresight and communication, leading to the creation of NORTHCOM in 2002.
The interview went great – check it out on the Web site. The Admiral and I engaged in a revealing conversation that ended with a handshake and a hearty farewell. But as we were packing up our gear, the Commander returned, a smile on his sunburned face.
"Okay, so here's the deal," he said. "The next time I see you, if you have one of these in your pocket I'll buy you a Budweiser. If not, the beer's on you."
With that he placed a small plastic packet in my hand. Inside was a colorful commemorative medallion about the size of a silver dollar. On one side of the coin was a falcon, a quiver of arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other. Etched around the outside were the words United States Northern Command. I flipped the coin over to find a flag with four stars and these words: Presented By Commander Northern Command.
"You're on," I said.
By Armen Keteyian