Air National Guard patrolled Oregon’s skies
Last updated 9/8/2021 at Noon
For days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the only planes in the skies over Sisters were the F-15s of the Oregon Air National Guard.
Sisters resident Jim Cunningham was responsible for those planes.
Brigadier General Cunningham didn’t yet live in Sisters full time, but he was visiting his parents at their home in Crossroads when the attacks went down.
“I got a phone call,” he recalled. “You are the only general officer in Oregon right now.’”
Jim’s wife, Dana, drove him to Salem, and he got to work assessing the state of the nation’s air defenses, which are entirely the province of the Air National Guard.
“You don’t know if what’s happening on the East Coast is all of it or not,” he said. “You don’t know.”
So his pilots had to be ready for anything — another terrorist strike or an opportunistic attack when the U.S. was vulnerable and distracted.
Cunningham was utterly confident in the readiness of the defenses for the Pacific Northwest.
“The two best fighter wings in the U.S. are in this state,” he said. “Portland had 15 of their planes combat-ready in 15 hours.”
The rest were operational within 24 hours.
“They were the first in the nation to be up and ready,” he said.
Part of Cunningham’s role was to address the media, and to offer reassurance that the skies in the region were protected.
He recalls being struck by the immediate outpouring of patriotism, including in Portland, where noise complaints about military jets were more common than displays of patriotism.
“I was just amazed at the community response the day after,” he said. “Flags went up everywhere.”
Command in the Oregon Air National Guard was a part-time gig, and Cunningham remained a commercial pilot with United Airlines. He recognized that it could easily have been him in the cockpit of one of the doomed airliners. That gave him yet another perspective on readiness. He returned to the civilian cockpit a month after the 9/11 attacks.
“You could cut the atmosphere with a knife,” he said.
United had taken immediate steps to improve security, including offering Taser training and installing air marshals on flights. Cockpit doors were hardened.
Twenty years down the line, though, Cunningham is dissatisfied with the level of security. He notes that hardened doors are not enough to secure the cockpit. There are still moments of vulnerability, such as when a pilot has to leave the cockpit to use the restroom.
“Most of it has to do with opening and closing that door,” Cunningham said. “Airport security — that’s like locks: it keeps out the honest people.”
He sees complacency setting in.
“I don’t believe the nation thinks another 9/11 can happen,” he said.
Cunningham is also appalled at the outcome of 20 years of warfare in Afghanistan, where the 9/11 attacks originated. A Vietnam veteran, he is dismayed to see the lessons of that conflict forgotten so quickly, and to see military and political leaders deceiving the American people.
“We haven’t had an exit plan for warfare since World War II,” he said. “National security has become a political issue that divides instead of uniting the nation.”
After his career in the Guard and the airlines, Cunningham has continued to serve his community through organizations from Habitat for Humanity to the Sisters Folk Festival to Kiwanis. He believes in country and community and service — but he worries about the future and the nation’s level of readiness, especially in cybersecurity.
“We’re behind China, we’re behind Russia,” he said, “And the evidence is everywhere.”