F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93
By William B. Scott/Aviation Week & Space Technology
09-Sep-2002 9:24 AM U.S. EDT
Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of an ongoing special report on how the
military responded to terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Earlier
articles appeared in the June 3 and June 10 issues. For this segment,
one D.C. Air National Guard F-16 pilot chose not to have her name used,
so is identified only by her call-sign.
ANDREWS AFB, MD. -- With Pentagon in flames and hijacked aircraft
threatening Washington, White House scrambled fighters with little or no
Within minutes of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon on
Sept. 11, Air National Guard F-16s took off from here in response to a
plea from the White House to "Get in the air now!" Those fighters were
flown by three pilots who had decided, on their own, to ram a hijacked
airliner and force it to crash, if necessary. Such action almost
certainly would have been fatal for them, but could have prevented
another terrorism catastrophe in Washington.
One of those F-16s launched with no armament--no missiles and no usable
ammunition in its 20-mm. gun. The other two "Vipers" only had a full
load of 20-mm. "ball" or training rounds, not the high-explosive
incendiary (HEI) bullets required for combat, and no air-to-air missiles.
The Andrews-based 121st Fighter Sqdn. was not standing alert on Sept.
11, because the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) unit was
not assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command air defense
force. Norad had already scrambled three F-16s from their alert base at
Langley AFB, Va., but they were about 12 min. from Washington when the
Pentagon was struck at 9:37 a.m. (AW&ST June 3, p. 48).
The 121st squadron's day had started normally. Three F-16s were flying
an air-to-ground training mission on a range in North Carolina, 180
naut. mi. away. At Andrews, several officers were in a scheduling
meeting when they received word that the World Trade Center had been hit
by an aircraft. Minutes later, after United Airlines Flight 175 slammed
into the second WTC tower, a squadron pilot called a friend in the
Secret Service "to see what was going on. He was told some bad things
were happening. At that time, we weren't thinking about defending
anything. Our primary concern was what would happen to the air traffic
system," said Lt. Col. Marc H. (Sass) Sasseville, the current 121st FS
commander. On Sept. 11, he was the director of operations and air
operations officer--the acting operations group commander under the
Soon thereafter, the Secret Service called back, asking whether the
squadron could get fighters airborne. The unit's maintenance section was
notified to get several F-16s armed and ready to fly. Anticipating such
an order, Col. Don C. Mozley, the 113th Logistics Group commander, had
already ordered his weapons officer to "break out the AIM-9s and start
building them up." The missiles had to be transported from a bunker on
the other side of the base, which would take a while.
"After the Pentagon was hit, we were told there were more [airliners]
coming. Not 'might be'; they were coming," Mozley recalled.
Sasseville grabbed three F-16 pilots and gave them a curt briefing: "I
have no idea what's going on, but we're flying. Here's our frequency.
We'll split up the area as we have to. Just defend as required. We'll
talk about the rest in the air." All four grabbed their helmets, g-suits
and parachute harnesses, and headed for the operations desk to get
Another call from the Secret Service commanded, "Get in the air now!"
Almost simultaneously, a call from someone else in the White House
declared the Washington area "a free-fire zone. That meant we were given
authority to use force, if the situation required it, in defense of the
nation's capital, its property and people," Sasseville said.
He and his wingman, Lucky, sprinted to the flight line and climbed into
waiting F-16s armed only with "hot" guns and 511 rounds of
"TP"--nonexplosive training rounds. "They had two airplanes ready to go,
and were putting missiles on Nos. 3 and 4. Maintenance wanted us to take
the ones with missiles, but we didn't have time to wait on those,"
Sasseville said. Maj. Dan (Raisin) Caine and Capt. Brandon (Igor)
Rasmussen climbed into the jets being armed with AIM-9s, knowing they
would take off about 10 min. behind Sasseville and Lucky.
"We had two air-to-air birds on the ramp . . . that already had ammo in
them. We launched those first two with only hot guns," said CMSgt. Roy
Dale (Crank) Belknap, the 113th Wing production superintendent. "By
then, we had missiles rolling up, so we loaded those other two airplanes
while the pilots were sitting in the cockpit."
Inside, at the operations desk, Lt. Cols. Phil (Dog) Thompson and Steve
(Festus) Chase were fielding a flood of calls from the Secret Service
and the FAA's two area air traffic control facilities--Washington Center
and Washington Approach Control. Thompson is chief of safety for the
113th Wing, and Chase is now commander of the new Air Sovereignty
Detachment here. By then, Brig. Gen. David F. Wherley, Jr., the 113th
Wing commander, was on-site, trying to determine whether the unit had
authorization to launch fighters.
"By this time, [commercial] airplanes were landing, but there were still
several unidentified ones flying. One was in the northwest [area],
basically coming down the [Potomac] River," Thompson said. Later, they
would learn that the FAA and Norad's Northeast Air Defense Sector
(NEADS) were tracking the hijacked United Flight 93, and feared it was
coming toward Washington. Thanks to intervention by passengers, the
aircraft ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania.
Maj. Billy Hutchison and his wingmen had just landed after being
recalled from a training mission in North Carolina. When Hutchison
checked in via radio, Thompson told him to take off immediately.
"Billy had about 2,400 lb. of gas; the other two [F-16s] were too
light," Thompson said. "I told Billy to take off, but don't use
afterburner to save gas. He took off with nothing--no weapons. I told
him to 'do exactly what ATC asks you to do.' Primarily, he was to go ID
[identify] that unknown [aircraft] that everybody was so excited about.
He blasted off and flew a standard departure route, which took him over
According to now-official accounts, an armed Norad-alert F-16 from
Langley AFB, flown by Maj. Dean Eckmann of the 119th Fighter Wing Alert
Detachment 1, was the first defender to overfly the Pentagon. At the
time, Hutchison and his fellow "Capital Guardians"--as the 121st FS is
known--were unaware that three other fighters were over the city.
MINUTES LATER, Sasseville and Lucky were in the air, roughly 6 min.
after they had reached their F-16s. "I was still turning things on after
I got airborne. By that time, the [Norad alert] F-16s from Langley were
overhead--but I didn't know they were there," Sasseville recalled. "We
all realized we were looking for an airliner--a big airplane. That was
[United] Flight 93; the track looked like it was headed toward D.C. at
The DCANG was not in the Norad or NEADS communication and command loops,
so its pilots weren't on the same frequencies as Norad air defense
fighters. The Andrews-based F-16s were launched by the Secret Service
and someone in the White House command center, not Norad. At the time,
there was no standing agreement between the Secret Service and the 113th
Wing for the latter to provide fighters in response to an attack on
Hutchison made two loops up the Potomac, reversing course near
Georgetown and the Pentagon, flying at 500-1,000 ft. AGL. Sasseville and
Lucky were at 5,000-6,000 ft., "because I didn't want to get too low for
a good radar angle, and not too high, so we could get somewhere fast,"
Sasseville said. He later conceded he was "making things up on the fly."
Obviously, there was no precedent to draw upon. All the pilots were
relying on their training and ability to think under pressure.
Hutchison was probably airborne shortly after the alert F-16s from
Langley arrived over Washington, although 121st FS pilots admit their
timeline-recall "is fuzzy." But it's clear that Hutchison, Sasseville
and Lucky knew their options were limited for bringing down a hijacked
airliner headed for an undetermined target in the capital city. Although
reluctant to talk about it, all three acknowledge they were prepared to
ram a terrorist-flown aircraft, if necessary. Indeed, Hutchison--who
might have been the first to encounter Flight 93 if it had, indeed, been
flying low and fast down the Potomac--had no other choice.
Sasseville and Lucky each had 511 rounds of ammo, but that only provided
roughly a 5-sec. burst of the 20-mm. gun. And where should they shoot to
ensure a hijacked aircraft would be stopped? Sasseville planned to fire
from behind and "try to saw off one wing. I needed to disable it as soon
as possible--immediately interrupt its aerodynamics and bring it down."
He admits there was no assurance that a 5-sec. burst of lead slugs could
slice an air transport's wing off, though. His alternative was "to hit
it--cut the wing off with my wing. If I played it right, I'd be able to
bail out. One hand on the stick and one hand on the ejection handle,
trying to ram my airplane into the aft side of the [airliner's] wing,"
he said. "And do it skillfully enough to save the pink body . . . but
understanding that it might not go as planned. It was a tough nut; we
had no other ordnance."
Still unaware that the 119th FW alert F-16s were overhead, patrolling at
a higher altitude, Sasseville initially split the airspace into four
sectors. He swept the northwest area of Washington--where the hijacked
United Flight 93 was expected to be--and had Lucky guard the northeast
Approximately 10 min. after Sasseville and Lucky took off, Caine and
Rasmussen launched, the first Andrews-based F-16s to carry both hot guns
and live AIM-9 missiles. They worked the city's southern sectors. Soon,
F-16s from Richmond, Va., and Atlantic City, N.J., as well as F-15s from
Langley AFB, were arriving. The air picture was confused, at best, and
radio frequencies were alive with chatter.
"The FAA controllers were doing their best to get us information [about
unidentified aircraft], but we were used to working with AWACS and their
weapons directors and controllers," Rasmussen said. Eventually,
Washington Reagan National Airport was designated "Bullseye," and
fighters were given range and bearing to targets from there.
Possibly the highest ranking pilot in the area, Sasseville "essentially
declared myself the CAP [combat air patrol] commander and set up
deconfliction altitudes so we didn't run into each other. There really
wasn't time for niceties." For the rest of the day, a dozen or so
fighters rotated in and out of the region, running intercepts on myriad
helicopters and light aircraft.
"THEY WERE SNAPPING to targets everywhere," Thompson said. "A lot of
light aircraft fly under the [controlled] airspace here, and they had no
idea what was going on. What really scared us was Washington Approach
broadcasting, 'Anyone flying within 25 mi. of the Washington Tacan is
authorized to be shot down.' We kind of winced at that, because there
are plenty of hard reasons to not shoot somebody down. We were really in
an ID posture--and trying to really be careful."
A miracle of the post-attack hours on Sept. 11 was that no aircraft was
shot down accidentally, a credit to the training and discipline of U.S.
fighter crews. That fact is even more impressive when one considers many
of those pilots had little or no experience with air defense techniques
"We really didn't know the intricacies of Norad's mission--how it
works," Thompson explained. "We've never been an air defense unit. We
practice scrambles, we know how to do intercepts and other things, but
there's a lot of protocol in the air defense business. We obviously
didn't have that expertise, but it worked out fine. For the first three
days, everybody seemed to be reasonably happy with our orchestrating the
D.C. CAP. By day-four, we'd pretty much turned into a national asset" as
Norad assumed control of CAPs nationwide.
On that first day, many of the pilots flying CAP over Washington, New
York and other U.S. cities were faced with the very real possibility of
having to shoot down or ram their fighter into an air transport filled
with innocent passengers.
"I was asking myself, 'Is this when I have to make the million-dollar
decision on my own?' But with smoke billowing out of the Pentagon . . .
," Rasmussen said.
"That's what we get paid to do, though. When young guys sign up, they
may not see that the 'guts and glory' of fighter-flying may cost you
your life. That day brought everything into focus."
In the afternoon, Sasseville and Lucky were flying their second mission
of the day--armed with AIM-9 missiles now--when they were told to
contact an AWACS aircraft in the area and "expect special tasking." They
were directed to fly a 280-deg. heading for 140 naut. mi.--almost due
west of Washington. Unable to communicate by secure or encrypted means,
the AWACS controller lowered his voice and told Sasseville via radio
they were going to "escort Air Force One," President Bush's aircraft.
Two Langley F-15s offered to go along, and Sasseville concurred. Soon,
an AWACS controller reported a fast-moving, unidentified aircraft
southwest of Air Force One, approximately 60 naut. mi. away, but on a
"cutoff vector" to the President's Boeing 747. It was above 40,000 ft.
and the 747 was "in the 20,000-ft. range," but Sasseville sent the F-15s
to intercept the unknown aircraft. It was a Learjet that hadn't yet
landed after aircraft nationwide had been ordered out of the air.
Sasseville and the two F-15s later joined on Air Force One, while Lucky
positioned her F-16 about 10 naut. mi. in front of the 747. With the
SADL data link system, she was able to monitor her location relative to
Sasseville's SADL-equipped F-16 positioned on Air Force One's left wing.
Another flight of F-16s from Ellington AFB, Tex., were about 5 mi. in
trail. They had escorted the President from Offutt AFB, Neb., according
to 121st FS officers.
Why the Washington-based F-16s were sent to shadow the President's
aircraft back to Andrews AFB has not been disclosed. Apparently, someone
in the Norad or Secret Service command loop had received information
about a potential threat to the 747, prompting a request for additional
Surrounded by fighters, Air Force One descended rapidly toward its home
base. Lucky made a clearing pass over the airfield, pulled up, circled
back and joined on Sasseville's wing. All of the fighters remained with
the 747 until the latter landed, then climbed and established a CAP over
Despite being short of aircrews the next few days, the 121st flew
continuously for about 63 hr., maintaining protective CAPs over
Washington. They were aided by fighters from other ANG, Reserve and
active-duty units, as well.
"We were generating airplanes faster than they could put 'em up,"
remarked Belknap. "And we still are."
To try 4 FREE issues of Aviation Week & Space Technology, click here.