Response to Attacks
WILLIAM B. SCOTT/ROME, N.Y.,
HERNDON, VA., and COLORADO SPRINGS
On-the-fly innovation, backed by excellent training, 'probably saved many lives' when terrorists struck the U.S.
Sept. 11, 2001:
"American 11 heavy, Boston Center. Your transponder appears to be
inoperative. Please recycle. . . . American 11 heavy, how do you read
Boston Center? Over.
Air National Guard F-15s from Otis ANGB, Mass.,
scrambled in response to the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11.
They flew supersonically to New York, then intercepted about 100
aircraft during the next 5.5 hr.
"Watch supervisor, I have a possible hijack of American 11 heavy. Recommend notifying Norad."
8:40 a.m. EDT, Tech. Sgt. Jeremy W. Powell of North American Aerospace
Defense Command's (Norad) Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome,
N.Y., took the first call from Boston Center. He notified NEADS
commander Col. Robert K. Marr, Jr., of a possible hijacked airliner,
American Airlines Flight 11.
of the exercise?" the colonel wondered. No; this is a real-world event,
he was told. Several days into a semiannual exercise known as Vigilant
Guardian, NEADS was fully staffed, its key officers and enlisted
supervisors already manning the operations center "battle cab."
retrospect, the exercise would prove to be a serendipitous enabler of a
rapid military response to terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Senior
officers involved in Vigilant Guardian were manning Norad command
centers throughout the U.S. and Canada, available to make immediate
ordered two F-15 fighters sitting alert at Otis Air National Guard
(ANG) Base, Mass., to "battle stations." "The fighters were cocked and
loaded, and even had extra gas on board," he recalled.
SCOTT GWILT/ROME SENTINEL
Relying on "skin-paint" radar returns, Air National
Guard troops at Norad's Northeast Air Defense Sector tried to locate
hijacked aircraft after terrorists silenced the transponders.|
called Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, commander of the Continental U.S. Norad
Region (Conar), at Tyndall AFB, Fla., told him about the suspected
hijacked aircraft and suggested interceptors be scrambled. Arnold, who
also heads the 1st Air Force for Air Combat Command, was in his Air
Operations Center preparing for another day of the exercise.
told him to scramble; we'll get clearances later," Arnold said. His
instincts to act first and get permission later were typical of U.S.
and Canadian commanders that day. On Sept. 11, the normal
scramble-approval procedure was for an FAA official to contact the
National Military Command Center (NMCC) and request Pentagon air
support. Someone in the NMCC would call Norad's command center and ask
about availability of aircraft, then seek approval from the Defense
Secretary--Donald H. Rumsfeld--to launch fighters.
Col. Timothy (Duff) Duffy, a 102 Fighter Wing (FW) F-15 pilot at Otis
ANGB, had already heard about the suspected hijacking, thanks to a
phone call from the FAA's Boston Approach Control. He had the call
transferred to the unit's command post, grabbed Maj. Daniel
(Nasty)Nash, his wingman, and started suiting up. Another officer told
Duffy, "This looks like the real thing."
to the jets, we got 'battle stations,' and I briefed Nasty on the
information I had about the American Airlines flight," Duffy said.
"About 4-5 min. later, we got the scramble order and took off."
an airline pilot, Duffy had a bad feeling about the suspected
hijacking; something didn't feel right. Consequently, he jammed the
F-15's throttles into afterburner and the two-ship formation devoured
the 153 mi. to New York City at supersonic speeds. "It just seemed
wrong. I just wanted to get there. I was in full-blower all the way,"
to Duffy, Nash and every commander being notified at the time, American
Flight 11 had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center
(WTC) about the time both F-15s were taking off. America's terrorist
nightmare had begun.
simultaneous with Marr's call to Arnold at Conar, the same hijack
notification was being passed by phone to a Norad command center deep
inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, and the joint FAA/
Defense Dept. Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC) colocated with the FAA's
ATC System Command Center in Herndon, Va. (AW&ST Dec. 17, 2001, p. 96).
instantly ordered the scramble, then called me to get Cinc [Norad
commander-in-chief] approval for it," said Capt. Michael H. Jellinek, a
Canadian Forces (Navy) officer serving as Norad command director that
morning. He's also director of plans, requirements and readiness at
Norad's Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. Fortunately, Maj. Gen.
Eric A. Findley, another Canadian and Norad's director of operations,
was already in the mountain for the Vigilant Guardian exercise. He
quickly approved the fighters' launch.
at the NEADS Operations Center, identification technicians were sorting
thousands of green dots on their radar scopes, looking for American
Flight 11. Since terrorists had turned off the Boeing 767's
transponder, FAA controllers could only tell NEADS technicians where
the flight had last been seen. The NEADS radar screens showed "primary"
or "skin-paint" returns, the raw radar pulses reflected from an
FAA officials only a few months earlier had tried to dispense with
"primary" radars altogether, opting to rely solely on transponder
returns as a way to save money. Norad had emphatically rejected the
proposal. Still, on Sept. 11, Norad's radars were spread around the
periphery of the U.S., looking outward for potential invaders. Inside
U.S. borders, very few radars were feeding NEADS scopes.
essence, technicians were half-blind, trying to separate hijacked
airliners from thousands of skin-paint returns. At the time, more than
4,000 aircraft were airborne over the nation, most in the northeast
sector, which monitors half a million square miles of airspace.
were trying to determine which [radar return] was him. But we couldn't
get what we needed just from our scopes," said MSgt. Maureen Dooley, a
noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of NEADS' identification
technicians. She and other troops were constantly on the phone with the
FAA, airlines and others, looking for clues. "If we could get good
last-known-positions and tail numbers, that would help the fighters
pick out the right aircraft."
biggest task was maintaining track continuity," echoed Tech. Sgt.
Jeffrey Lamarche, NCOIC of the air surveillance section. Later, his
team thought they had spotted a fifth hijacked aircraft. "This fifth
guy made an abrupt turn toward a major city--but it was OK. He was told
to land there. It sure had our hearts going and adrenaline pumping. We
didn't know what he was doing."
capsulized the tense moments: "The NEADS battle managers get the last
known location, estimate [Flight AA11's] speed and find a green dot
that's not identified. Almost as soon as it's discovered, it
disappears. It's 8:46 a.m. A shocked airman rushes from the computer
maintenance room saying, 'CNN is reporting that the World Trade Center
has been hit by an airliner.' There are no other missing aircraft. As
we watch the TV, another airliner shows up on the screen, aimed for the
second tower [9:02 a.m.]. The shocking reality becomes apparent. This
is no longer 'an accident.' New York City is under attack."
supersonically, the F-15s were still 8 min. from Manhattan when United
Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the WTC's south tower. "Huntress," the
NEADS weapons control center, had told Duffy his hijacked target was
over John F. Kennedy International Airport. He hadn't heard about the
United aircraft yet.
second time I asked for bogey dope [location of AA11], Huntress told me
the second aircraft had just hit the WTC. I was shocked . . . and I
looked up to see the towers burning," Duffy said. He asked for
clarification of their mission, but was met with considerable
Norad's command center, "a bunch of things started happening at once,"
Jellinek said. "We initiated an Air Threat Conference [call]. We were
getting information about other possible hijackings." Telephone links
were established with the NMCC, Canada's equivalent command center,
Strategic Command, theater Cincs and federal emergency-response
agencies. At one time or another, President Bush, Vice President Dick
Cheney, Rumsfeld and key military officers were heard on the open line.
was rampant, but officers and enlisted troops immediately reverted to
their professional roles, trying to sort rumor from fact. Findley and
his senior staff in the Norad Battle Management Center told each air
defense sector to "generate, generate, generate" sorties--get as many
fighters in the air as possible.
AT THE TIME, NORAD
had 20 fighters on armed alert throughout the North American continent.
Only 14 were in the continental U.S. at seven bases; the rest were in
Alaska and Canada. Within 18 hr., 300 fighters would be on alert at 26
from fighter units also started pouring into Norad and sector
operations centers, asking, "What can we do to help?" At Syracuse,
N.Y., an ANG commander told Marr, "Give me 10 min. and I can give you
hot guns. Give me 30 min. and I'll have heat-seeker [missiles]. Give me
an hour and I can give you slammers [Amraams]."
replied, "I want it all." NEADS controllers put F-16s at Langley AFB,
Va., on battle-stations alert at 9:09 a.m., prepared to back up the
F-15s over New York. But the FAA command center then reported 11
aircraft either not in communication with FAA facilities, or flying
unexpected routes. At 9:24, the Langley-based alert F-16s were
scrambled and airborne in 6 min., headed for Washington.
9:26 a.m., the FAA command center stopped all departures nationwide. At
9:41, American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, elevating tension
levels even further. NEADS' Sr. Airman Stacia Rountree, an
identification technician, said, "We had three aircraft down and the
possibility of others hijacked. We had to think outside the box,"
making up procedures on the fly. Before the day ended, 21 aircraft
across the U.S. had been handled as "tracks of interest."
didn't know how many more there were. . . . Are there five? Six? The
only way we could tell was to implement Scatana--sanitize the airspace.
Get everybody down," said Lt. Col. William E. Glover, Jr., chief of
Norad's air defense operations.
Ralph E. Eberhart, Norad commander-in-chief, was in the Cheyenne
Mountain battle center by then. He and his staff suggested, via an open
command link, implementing a limited version of Scatana--a federal plan
designed to take emergency control of all domestic air traffic and
navigation aids. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta immediately
concurred and gave the order to get all aircraft on the ground as soon
as possible. That action probably saved many lives, but without
unnecessary, paralyzing restrictions of a full Scatana order.
decision--and the military recommendation that triggered it--may have
been prompted by a few airline pilots reporting terrorists on the
radio, talking about other hijacked aircraft. American Flight 77 had
hit the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 was being tracked, heading for
Chicago or Cleveland, then Washington, prompting the F-16s' scramble.
had all of our armed fighters in the air, but needed more," Marr said.
Every unit in the northeastern U.S. was loading F-16s, F-15s and A-10s
with any armament available, then being directed to combat air patrols
(CAPs) over major cities. Soon, Navy F/A-18s, F-14s and E-2Cs--some
from two carriers steaming off the East Coast--were flying CAP and
surveillance missions over major cities. Ultimately, Navy P-3s and
USAF/ ANG C-130s would be pressed into service, using their normal
radars to search for intruders.
Norad, Glover phoned Arnold, telling him Vice President Cheney had
given the authorization to shoot down any threatening aircraft in order
to save lives on the ground. "We created a free-fire zone over the
nation's capital," Arnold said. "Anyone airborne who did not
immediately turn away from the center of town, or who did not land,
could be shot down."
someone--possibly President Bush--ordered the military to a Force
Protection Condition Delta wartime posture, Norad commanders ordered
massive steel doors be closed, "shutting down Cheyenne Mountain for
real," the first time in its 43-year history, an officer said. The FBI
had warned that a flight originating in San Diego might be hijacked and
headed for a target in Colorado. Another rumor referred to a Ryder
rental truck full of explosives and driven by "Arab-looking men"
targeting the mountain.
"It didn't make sense, but those phone calls were happening," Glover said. Every rumor was treated as a potential threat.
OVER NEW YORK,
Duffy and Nash requested that a Maine-based ANG KC-135 tanker--assigned
to support 102 FW training missions that morning--be positioned at
20,000 ft. above Kennedy airport. "Then, we worked on intercepting and
visually identifying nearly everything that was in the air for the next
five hours," Duffy said.
treated this as a combat hop from the moment I saw the towers burning,
and that made it easier to deal with . . . actions we might have to
take," he added.
estimated the F-15s intercepted and escorted about 100 aircraft,
including emergency, military and news helicopters, plus dozens of
private pilots who were unaware of the attacks. Some had seen the smoke
over New York and decided to investigate. Nash said the F-15s flew
"low-and-slow" to intercept helicopters flying at 500 ft.
the KC-135 exhausted its fuel load and had to depart, a KC-10 arrived
to support the F-15s. Another two Eagles from Otis ANGB joined the
first two, flying CAP over New York. Duffy and Nash were directly over
the north WTC tower when it collapsed. When they finally returned to
Otis, they had been on CAP about 5.5 hr.
Washington, F-16s flown by crews of the 119th FW from Fargo,
N.D.--which had been pulling Norad alert duty at Langley AFB--were
prepared to shoot down United 93, if it came toward the capital city.
Instead, passengers rushed the terrorists, causing the Boeing 757 to
crash in southwestern Pennsylvania.
MAJ. PHILIP J. MCCARTHY,
a weapons controller at NEADS, located an AWACS crew in the
southeastern U.S. on a training mission and arranged to reposition it
in the Northeast. "We wanted D.C. as the primary area for AWACS, but
also wanted him to look into New York," he said. In the confusion of
the all-aircraft-grounding, someone told the AWACS to go back to Tinker
AFB, Okla., its home base, but McCarthy was able to convince the crew
Herndon ATSC, Col. John Czabaranek and a growing staff of USAF
Reserves--many reported, unasked, to help with the crisis--had become a
critical communications node, shuttling information among the FAA,
Norad, air defense sectors, the White House, Secret Service and other
agencies. During the day, ATSC helped organize fighter escorts for
Bush's Air Force One. The President was in Sarasota, Fla., when the
attacks occurred, but was quickly taken to Barksdale AFB, La., then to
Offutt AFB, Neb.
point, the Secret Service wanted to get Bush into Cheyenne Mountain,
protected by tons of granite, yet well-connected to his staff. However,
advisers convinced him that he should "remain visible to the public,"
an officer said.
received tasking from the Secret Service . . . to follow the President
and protect him," Conar commander Arnold said in Lockheed Martin's Code One
magazine. "We were not told where Air Force One was going. We were told
just to follow the President. We scrambled available airplanes from
Tyndall and then from Ellington [AFB] near Houston, Tex. . . . We
maintained AWACS overhead the whole route."
in the day, after NEADS confirmed a suspected hijacked airliner from
Madrid, Spain, had turned around and was on the ground, Air Force One
was cleared to return Bush to Washington. NEADS and the Herndon cell
also organized fighter escorts for Attorney General John Ashcroft and
other national leaders when deemed necessary.
WHILE ALL MILITARY
units responded quickly and professionally on Sept. 11, "citizen
soldiers" were typically first on the scene. Air National Guard and
Reserve units were called initially, simply because many of them were
easier to contact without going through a long, tortuous chain of
command. Since then, outmoded procedures have been altered to ensure
faster reactions from all units.
responsiveness of the Air National Guard [and other] units called into
action--and how quickly they all came to the defense of the United
States--was phenomenal," said Col. Clark F. Speicher, NEADS vice
commander. "Within a couple of hours, many of these units went from
normal training to generating armed combat air patrols over many U.S.
cities. There may have been a lot of different [armament]
configurations out there, but so what." Fighters typically carried
Aim-9, Aim-7 or Amraam missiles, and 20-mm. ammunition.
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