Deep inside a mountain in Colorado and far beneath the granite of North Bay, members of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) are at full "battle staff" levels for a major annual exercise that tests every facet of the organization.
Operation Northern Vigilance, planned months in advance, involves deploying fighter jets to locations in Alaska and northern Canada. Part of this exercise is pure simulation, but part is real world: NORAD is keeping a close eye on the Russians, who have dispatched long-range bombers to their own high north on a similar exercise.
Everything is going as planned when Capt. Mike Jellinek arrives for his 6 a.m. shift. The Canadian will be overseeing the crew staffing a crucial post inside the mountain- NORAD's command centre.
Whether it's a simulation or a real-world event, the role of the centre is to fuse every critical piece of information NORAD has into a concise and crystalline snapshot.
An hour into his shift, something unscripted happens. NORAD's Northeast Air Defence Sector (NEADS), based in Rome, N.Y., contacts the mountain.
The Federal Aviation Administration has evidence of a hijacking and is asking for NORAD support. This is not part of the exercise.
In a flash, Operation Northern Vigilance is called off. Any simulated information, what's known as an "inject," is purged from the screens.
Someone shouted to look at the monitor displaying CNN.
"At that point, we saw the World Trade Center, one of the towers, smoke coming out of it. And a minute later, we watched the live feed as the second aircraft swung around into the second tower," says Jellinek.
He had one question for the people on the line from NEADS: "Was that the hijacked aircraft you were dealing with?" he asked.
Yes, it was, came the reply.
And then, Jellinek says, "it got really, really busy."
Maj.-Gen. Rick Findley, director of NORAD operations, had just completed the night shift. Usually, Findley would be across town at NORAD headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base. But because of the exercise and the time difference with Russia, he'd been working nights in the mountain. He was just preparing to leave when the disaster began unfolding.
It was a scenario unlike any NORAD had trained for.
"Lots of other reports were starting to come in," Findley recalls. "And now you're not too sure. If they're that clever to co-ordinate that kind of attack, what else is taking place across North America? So we were in a very high-tempo mode, trying to stay one step ahead.
"In the face of all this tragedy, people seemed to know what to do. Everyone seemed to understand that there was a crisis that was not well-defined yet."
Orders were quickly given to get more combat aircraft in the sky. Tankers for in-flight refuelling were at the ready.
Combat aircraft were dispatched to escort Air Force One in case the president was at risk. AWAC jets, designed to track air traffic and offer targeting information to combat aircraft, were deployed.
Because no one yet knew who was behind the attack- or what else might be en route- the giant blast doors designed to protect the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center from a nuclear blast were sealed.
The massive steel slabs, weighing 25 tonnes each, had not been closed in a non-exercise event since the Cold War.
At the Peterson base, staff began covering windows with tape and paper to minimize flying glass should an explosion occur.
The base, NORAD's administrative headquarters, went to a security status known as Threatcon Delta. It's the highest state of alert and had not been in effect since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
"It was very eerie here," says Helen Booth, who co-ordinates services for the base's Canadian contingent.
"There was a real sense of crisis."
As that crisis unfolded, NORAD set up a secure line so it could brief key officials and act on their decisions. Jellinek was listening as President George W. Bush made the order to drain the skies of commercial aircraft.
Jellinek, who is close to retirement and doesn't have to "suck up to anyone," says it was one of two courageous decisions made at the very top level.
"The second one was: If it looks like a plane is going to be used as a missile, shoot it down. Again, what a gutsy call. Unprecedented, that we may have to shoot down a civilian airliner to prevent a greater disaster. And that decision was made very quickly."
Another timely decision was made halfway around the world. The Russians, on seeing the attacks in New York and Washington, immediately cancelled their own exercises, turning back their bombers and calling off planned missile testing. The Russians knew NORAD would have its hands full.
"They said: 'Okay, we're pulling back,'" Jellinek says. "They sent the message to the State Department clearly and unambiguously: 'Don't worry about our movements, we're going to stay down for a while.' Very, very useful. Very helpful."
More than three months later, NORAD's heightened tempo and battle-staff levels continue. The challenge will be to decide when, if ever, to scale back.
"Knock on wood, I hope that nothing happens," says Findley, rapping his knuckles on a table.
"But all it will take is one more terrorist event somewhere in the world to reinforce all of that unease again. And how do you back away from what you're doing now if it continues to be a very sporadic conflict?"
Adds Jellinek: "Folks are now having much more serious looks at what are the possible threats to us. What is the right balance of fiscal responsibility, operational responsibility, versus actual threat versus capability?
"It's a complex equation ... but it's one that has been thrust in everyone's face right now."
Tom Kimmell FOR THE TORONTO STAR COMMAND CENTRE: Canadian Capt. Mike Jellinek was at the helm in Cheyenne Mountain when two hijacked jets hit the World Trade Center Copyright © 2001 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.
Category: Economy Uniform subject(s): Aeronautics and aerospace industries; Aircraft accidents and safety; Foreign policy and foreign relations; National Defense and armed forces Edition: Ontario Length: Long, 835 words Copyright © 2001 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved. Doc. : news∑20011209∑TS∑0G1204433
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