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LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (AP) -- He was trained for combat, so when bombs started falling in Iraq, Maj. Dave McCune didn't expect to be looking down from his F-16 on the nation's capital.
But McCune and the rest of the 34th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base were among the soldiers left behind to watch the homefront. Since February, they have been flying circles around Washington, herding wayward pilots out of the restricted airspace and protecting the nation's capital.
"I'm not saying this job is not important, but that's a pretty cool thing what we did in Iraq," said McCune, known as "Ajax" to his fellow pilots.
"Look at that," he says grabbing a copy of "Air Force Times," pointing to the now-familiar photograph of the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein on the cover. "That's history right there."
He's not the only one who wanted to see action.
Lt. Tim Gudukas is a Navy pilot assigned temporarily to the Hill squadron as part of an exchange program. He has seen southern Iraq twice before, patrolling the no-fly zone during two earlier assignments. So when the war broke out, his wife was glad he wouldn't be shipped out. He didn't mind either until he started hearing stories from fellow pilots in the region and seeing the reaction of Iraqi people on television.
"That's what we train for, and I've spent 10 years doing it," he said.
The 34th is one of three squadrons that make up Hill Air Force Base's 388th Fighter Wing, normally based in Ogden, Utah. "The Rude Rams" as they are known, are trained for low-altitude and nighttime combat and their $21 million F-16CGs are specially equipped for the missions.
But since they arrived at Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia to replace the 71st Fighter Squadron which was deployed overseas, the Rude Rams' calling has been a little more refined.
They've cycled through hundreds of sorties, running laps around the Washington area as part of Operation Noble Eagle. It's a far cry from dodging anti-aircraft fire to drop a bomb on Iraqi tanks or presidential palaces or even the training missions they would be doing in Utah.
Many of the pilots flew similar patrols over the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and over other West Coast cities.
"They're not tactically stimulating. We're not able to train for our primary go-to-war missions," said Capt. Chris Olsen, "Merlin" to his fellow pilots, has spent more than 100 hours flying the Noble Eagle missions. "It all equates to long hours flying in circles doing nothing."
The Hill pilots have logged so many hours that they have had to borrow F-16s from another squadron while their aircraft undergo routine maintenance.
But the pilots recognize the potential gravity of the missions they are flying. Operation Noble Eagle commenced after the Sept. 11 attacks. The F-16s are armed, fully capable of shooting down a commercial airliner if the need arises.
"One friend (who is a pilot) put it this way: If I'm on that jet and they're going to do something like that, I'm probably not alive in the first place," said Gudukas, whose nicknamed "Newman" by his Air Force counterparts. "Sitting behind an airliner from the United States of America with my radar locked on them ... It's not a good feeling. It's not taken lightly."
Capt. Sean Holahan, nicknamed "Hooligan," whose father is a commercial pilot, said "I'd rather be getting shot at every day in an aircraft" than having to potentially shoot down a passenger plane.
Since Operation Noble Eagle began, there have been more than 30,000 air patrol sorties over major cities, and Air Force jets have been scrambled or diverted to intercept more than 1,000 potentially threatening aircraft, said Maj. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado, which gives the pilots their orders.
The military will not release the numbers specific to Washington, Thomas said.
FAA spokesman Bill Shumann said in a three week period from March 20 to April 9 there were 43 violations of the restricted air space around Washington. Air Force jets aren't called in to handle each case.
Holahan said intercepts he has been called to do generally involved a small plane, probably a student pilot who wandered off course, that he shepherds out of the restricted air space.
During the Olympics, the night of the women's hockey final, Gudukas had to divert a Canadian airliner that hadn't followed proper procedures for landing at Salt Lake City.
The pilots aren't sure how long they'll be flying the Washington missions -- they're stationed there until NORAD tells them to go home or sends them elsewhere.
As Gudukas points out, being in the military means going where he is told to go.
Then McCune jumps in: "That's a good answer, Newman, but I'd rather be in the war."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)