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First Lt. Aaron Johnson, of the 555th Fighter Squadron, signs off the checklist after completing a preflight inspection for an alert aircraft supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit on Wednesday in Riga, Latvia. The 555th Fighter Squadron was on alert to keep the skies safe.

First Lt. Aaron Johnson, of the 555th Fighter Squadron, signs off the checklist after completing a preflight inspection for an alert aircraft supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit on Wednesday in Riga, Latvia. The 555th Fighter Squadron was on alert to keep the skies safe. (Michael Holzworth / Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As some of the Western world’s top leaders gathered in Riga, Latvia, for this year’s NATO summit, hundreds of troops on the ground and in the air helped police the skies.

More than 1,000 airmen from the United States and allied nations along with as many as 25 airplanes at any given time are part of a complicated and meticulously planned operation.

NATO and U.S. air forces planned for the summit for six months much like an NFL team preparing for the Super Bowl. Pilots practiced on tabletops and in the air using mock scenarios, including one that involved terrorists hijacking an airliner and targeting the high-profile meeting.

So far, the summit has been uneventful. But when all of the leaders leave the meeting, which ended late Wednesday, the summit will go down as one of the alliance’s biggest air policing missions in recent history.

“It was a very intense three days,” said Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO’s top air force commander. “We did this a year ago when the president visited here and it was a one-day event. Well, this one has been six months in the planning and getting ready to make sure we could work with NATO and making sure we had the right connectivity.”

U.S. fighter jets and tanker aircraft from bases in Europe participated in the mission, dubbed Operation Peaceful Summit, in addition to Latvian air defense forces and NATO troops.

F-15s from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England, F-16s from the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy, and KC-135 tankers from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in England took part along with Germany-based U.S. Army helicopters from the 3rd battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment out of Katterbach.

On the ground, maintainers kept the planes flying while airmen from the Ramstein, Germany-based 32nd Air Operations Center Ramstein provided air traffic control from an air operations center in the Latvian capital. In addition, NATO planes provided aerial surveillance.

Roughly 450 U.S. airmen stationed in Europe along with National Guard and Reserve troops were involved. Maj. Shamsher Mann, an F-16 pilot assigned to the 52nd Operations Support Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, flew two missions and was on standby to fly on Wednesday from Germany.

Pilots flew over the summit in missions that lasted around nine hours with several aerial refuelings — sometimes at night and under harsh weather conditions. Pilots had to wear special suits in case they had to ditch in frigid waters below 50 degrees. It took fighter jets two hours to reach the area from Germany.

“It’s something we’re trained to do,” Mann said by telephone. “But, especially for the younger guys, it’s definitely something different and a great experience for them.”

He said the biggest enemy in the skies was complacency.

“It’s nighttime,” he said. “It’s an unnatural time for your body to be flying. You’re literally doing very laid-back flying for up to nine hours. So complacency is probably the biggest threat there.”

No planes entered the restricted airspace over the summit, either on purpose or accidentally. However, if a terrorist did, air forces had the option of shooting down the aircraft as a last resort and not before a series of attempts to identify the aircraft, confirm its intentions and make contact with the plane.

“Of course, that’s the very last thing I want to do and the very last thing anyone wants to do quite frankly,” said Hobbins.

Hobbins said President Bush — during a brief meeting — thanked him and his airmen for their work.


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