Two countries one cause: protecting North America's borders.
When Canadian air defense officials identified a pair of Russian TU-95 strategic bombers flying toward their air space, they beeped Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Higuera.
It was 1 a.m. when the colonel slipped his uniform on quickly. He drove seven miles from his home to the air operations center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 13 minutes, a personal best.
Once at the operations center, the Detachment 1, 1st Air Force commander coordinated air support for American and Canadian fighters, tankers and airborne warning and control aircraft to meet the possible threat.
The bomber's NATO nickname is Bear. Comparable to a B-52 Stratofortress with turboprops, the Russian bomber is a Cold War icon that still frequently tests Canadian and American air defense in the northernmost regions near the Arctic Ocean.
The probing flights are a throwback to that turbulent time.
After a decade of infrequent patrols, Russian aircraft have recently increased long-range Arctic patrols, Canadian air force Col. Christopher Coates said.
"We're surprised by the recent level of Russian activity. But I don't think what has occurred is a direct threat to Canada or North America," said Colonel Coates, director of operations for the Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command Region headquarters in Winnipeg. "However, we take any approach by any unidentified aircraft to our borders seriously. We'll investigate that," he said.
Each time the Russians aim their aircraft toward North America, Colonel Higuera is in awe of the responsibility he has as an Air Force officer.
"The amount of control I have as a lieutenant colonel is awesome," Colonel Higuera said.
Just a week before, the command tracked two Soviet aircraft that were four hours from a small Canadian town. Colonel Higuera coordinated Air Force tankers from Spokane, Wash., to provide fuel to Canadian CF-188 Hornets that responded. The jets joined an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control systems aircraft from Alaska and positively identified the Bears, successfully accomplishing a show of force.
At first, the responsibility of launching multi-million dollar aircraft in support of a NORAD mission made Colonel Higuera, a former E-8C Joint STARS air battle manager, uneasy.
"My stomach turned and I was wondering if I was doing the right thing," he said. Now, he thinks "it's also the coolest part of my job."
The Canadian NORAD Region headquarters' mission is to identify and track all aircraft entering Canadian and North American airspace. It's one of three regions. The other two have headquarters at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, H.S. and Canadian Airmen have been flying Operation Noble Eagle, NORAD's ongoing mission for air defense of North America as a whole.
"After 9/11, it was obvious defense against any threat was important," Colonel Higuera said. "We feel the threat against Canada and the United States is real and that NORAD has an important role in making sure we maintain air sovereignty against any threats to our homelands."
For air defense, the border between American and Canada becomes blurred at times.
"From the Canadian NORAD perspective, the geographical border between Canada and the United States means a little less," Colonel Coates said. "We work as one big team, and whether we need to flow aircraft across that boundary to meet operational requirements, that brings us closer together."
It's a case of neighbors helping neighbors. Colonel Coates said it's good to have Americans on hand in Winnipeg to help the communication process between the two countries' air forces.
"There are cultures that come into play--where you're from, the way you think, what you believe--and there are small differences between Americans and Canadians," Colonel Coates said. "It's when I have to deal with Americans over the phone, or in a video teleconference, that it's helpful when I can talk to an American here to figure out what it is that is really behind the thoughts and objectives of the others."
At no time is the need for clear communications more apparent as when beepers go off and Americans and Canadians work their posts in the air operations center. Providing a huge invisible fence around North America, radar stations dot the coasts of North America. The radars alert the operations center of any incoming aircraft.
Outside the often-busy operations center, Capt. Eric Bail is an executive officer. In the AOC, he's a battle commander's executive assistant, or BCEA. It's a part of the job he relishes.
"When I'm in the BCEA mode, I track all the information coming ill for the commander," the captain said. "The general is usually operating three or four different phones and has headsets on. My job is to jot down the important information that is coming in and relay it to him. There are a lot of different things going, and there's no way the general can do his job alone."
As an information manager, Staff Sgt. William Lloyd has been in Winnipeg two years. The American Airman said his most exciting time was when he temporarily filled in as the Canadian general's executive assistant for two-and-a-half months. He gained insight into a part of the mission he doesn't normally see.
"I was going everywhere with the general," Sergeant Lloyd said. "I didn't realize we were doing so much. There were things that I had no idea were going on. Being in the middle of it was awesome. It was an amazing experience. I loved that."
The sergeant is now back to being the detachment's information manager, database builder, personnel specialist, awards and decorations guru, the tracker of all evaluations, finance authority, Tricare representative and fitness monitor. He also helps pick up all the mail "down south" once a week--about an hour's drive south--to the little town of Pembina, N.D. Having multiple jobs is the norm for the detachment's 13 members.
Training for the Olympics
Most days, the operations center is mostly silent. It's only a beehive of activity when the Russians fly across the Arctic Ocean. However, the center is slowly building up, becoming more operational, as the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Colombia, approach.
Canada's answer is to have an air operations center operational around the clock. This means the Airmen must get "better at what they do," Colonel Coates said. This requires more training, and improving communications equipment, a job now done by the American Airmen.
Whether it's a real unknown threat, or a full-blown air operations training scenario, the American and Canadians will continue their symbiotic relationship in the Great White North.
* City has about 700,000 inhabitants.
* Closest American base is Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., about a two-hour drive away (if weather permits).
* The assignment counts as an overseas tour.
* Airmen receive a cost of living allowance.
* It's an accompanied tour.
* Winnie the Pooh got its name from the city.
PHOTOS BY MASTER SGT. CECILIO RICARDO
DESIGN BY LUKE BORLAND