Air Defense

Multiple Failures of the Air Defense Network to Protect New York City and the Capital:

On September 11th, there were fighters in the air less than five minutes away from the Twin Towers when the first was hit, 25 minutes after Flight 11 was believed to be hijacked. There were a number of air stations with combat-ready fighters within ten minutes’ flying time from the New York City and Washington targets. There were well-established automatic procedures for intercepting aircraft that were either off course or had lost communication. Yet there were no interceptions of any of the four hijacked aircraft, with the possible exception of Flight 93, whose interception and shoot-down is officially denied. What conclusions can be drawn from this failure, given the awesome capabilities of the air defense network?

The Changing Story:

For the first few days after the attack, the official story was that no interceptors were scrambled until after the Pentagon strike. On September 16th Vice President Cheney told Meet the Press that George Bush personally made the decision to scramble interceptors, and suggested that he did so only after the Pentagon was hit. General Myers, during his confirmation hearing on September 13th, said that no military aircraft were scrambled until after the Pentagon was hit. There was also no mention in the major media of scramblings of jets prior to the Pentagon hit, until September 14th, when Dan Rather announced on the CBS Evening News that F-15s were scrambled from Otis at 8:44 and F-16s were scrambled from Langley at 9:30. Officials such as Cheney apparently were not kept apprised of these new “facts,” since his Meet the Press interview was two days later. Four days after the CBS disclosure, the new story was incorporated into NORAD’s official timeline.

The official timeline was changed again with the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. The differences between the NORAD and Commission timelines are graphically summarized on the timelines pages.

The Interception “Attempts”:

While Flights 11 and 175 were in the air, two F-15s were circling in a 150-mile chunk of air space off the coast of Long Island as ordered. Pilot Major Daniel Nash reported seeing a plume of smoke over Manhattan even though he was 70 miles away, and couldn’t recall being told about the North Tower strike. After the second Tower was hit at 9:03, the pilots were ordered to head to Manhattan for combat air patrol, and they did that for the next four hours.

At 8:52 AM two F-15s from the 102nd Fighter Wing of Otis Air National Guard Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts were scrambled and airborne. These were the first jets scrambled, 38 minutes after Flight 11 was hijacked. But the pilots were not informed that Flight 11 had crashed into the WTC nor that Flight 175 had turned and was heading straight toward New York City. According to NORAD, at the time of the South Tower impact the two F-15s from Otis were still 71 miles away. Although the F-15s had enough time to reach the World Trade Center, simple calculations using NORAD’s own numbers reveal that the fighters were flying at only 24% of their top speeds.

At 9 AM the Pentagon moved its alert status up one notch from normal to Alpha. It stayed at Alpha until after the Pentagon strike.

A few minutes after 9:03, according to the official story, the Secret Service called Andrews Air Force Base, located 11 miles southeast of the Pentagon, with instructions to get some F-16s armed and ready to fly. Missiles were still being loaded onto the F-16’s when the Pentagon was hit over half an hour later.

At 9:09, NORAD ordered Langley Air Force Base, in Hampton, Virginia, to put F-16s on battle stations alert. The order to scramble was not given until around 9:25. At 9:30, the two and possibly three F-16s were finally airborne and en route to the Pentagon. They were armed with Sidewinder missiles and authorized to shoot down civilian aircraft. At 9:49 the F-16s reached the Pentagon, around 15 minutes after the Pentagon strike. Simple calculations reveal that the F-16s could have reached the Pentagon before the assault, but also flew at an average of 24% of their top speeds.

At 10:01 AM the command center in Rome, N.Y., prompted by communications from the FAA, ordered the 180th Fighter Wing out of Swanton, Ohio, to scramble F-16 fighters. Unlike many other bases, Swanton had no fighters on stand-by alert status. Yet it managed to put jets in the air 16 minutes later.