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There isn't any one answer to the still unanswered question as to why none of the hijacked planes were intercepted by jet fighters on 9/11. Each answer begs a new question.
I didn't even consider it a very important question until June 10, 2002, 9 months after the September 11th attack, when my associate John Judge was asked to substitute for a member of a panel at a National Press Club (NPC) press conference announcing the launching of the web site [www.unansweredquestions.org].
The missing panelist, investigative journalist Jared Israel [See: Emperors Clothes - www.tenc.net] was to talk about the "FAA / 9-11 Air Defenses," one of a dozen topics on the agenda.
It was a very informative and interesting press conference, as was the rally at the Capitol the following day by the families of the victims of 9/11 calling for an independent commission to investigate and report on intelligence failures and airline safety. Both the press conference and the rally were generally ignored by the mainstream media as well as the noncommercial C-Span and National Public Radio (NPR), but served as a catalyst for this study.
Although not as well versed in the subject of air defenses on 9/11 as Jared Israel, John Judge is a Washington D.C. native who lives near the Pentagon, where his parents worked as civilian employees. Judge had been to the Pentagon on numerous occasions, both with his parents and later to liaison with military security personal during anti-war demonstrations, and is familiar with it's air defense capabilities, including on-site radar and ground to air missiles. Judge lives about a mile away and felt the shudder of the [AA77] crash into the Pentagon on 9/11, and his comments at the press conference [Judge - June 10] focus primarily from his personal experiences.
Sparked by the unanswered questions posed at the press conference, I've made an attempt to answer some of the principle questions, especially why none of the hijacked planes of 9/11 were intercepted by jet fighters.
Among the "Top 50 Unanswered Questions about 9/11" posed in a special edition of the American Free Press [(former Spotlight) - of May 27, 2002, p. B-2], questions #7, #8 & #9 focus on the areas of interest.
- "At least a dozen Air Force and National Guard bases were within a few moments of flight time to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Why weren't fighter planes scrambled as soon as it became obvious that the airliners had been hijacked?"
- The air traffic control system keeps track of all commercial flights and is in continuous radio contact with the pilots. All of these communications are recorded. It would have been immediately apparent to the controllers that something had gone wrong when the planes deviated from their course and radio contact ceased. Why were jet fighters not scrambled to intercept the hijacked planes? Why are transcripts of the pilots' communications with air traffic controllers not released to the public?
- American Airlines Flight 77, the jet which U.S. officials say crashed into the Pentagon, was hijacked shortly before 9 a.m. -- approximately 15 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade towers. Why were no jet fighters scrambled to intercept the flight?"
These are all good questions that can, should and will be answered in time. Others however, have asked these questions before me and have tried to answer them, most notably Barry Zwicker, George Szamuely (of the New York Press and London Observer) and Sandy Goodman (former producer-writer for NBC Nightly News).
Goodman was one of the first to question the tardy military response when he wrote,
"The most amazing thing about the blame game now being played over who was at fault for Sept. 11 is that no one is pointing a finger at the U.S. Air Force. Amazing because it's a lot easier to see why the FBI and CIA were unable to connect a series of sometimes wildly divergent dots that it is to understand why the Air Force had no plan to protect the nation's capitol from an attack by terrorists in planes at a time when Washington D.C., was deluged with warnings of terrorist threats...."
"Incredibly, on September 11 there was not a single fighter plane on alert at Andrews (AFB) because the Air Force's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) did not consider an attack on the capital by terrorists in planes probable. . . ." (Los Angeles Times, July 17 2002
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers in a 17 October 2001 interview, confessed, "You hate to admit it, but we hadn't thought about this."
Others have addressed the possibility of "incompetency" and determined that standard procedures do exist for such emergencies, and since no one has been reprimanded for incompetency in regards to 9/11 actions, then the "stand down" on that day was intentional.
A statistic worth noting is that between September 11, 2000 and June 2001, military jets were scrambled 67 times, while in the "trigger happy," 24 hour air patrols between September 11, 2001 and June, 2002, jets were scrambled 462 times.
The Case of Payne Stewart's Plane
Often cited as a comparative example, when on October 26, 1999, the Lear jet plane of professional golfer Payne Stewart broke a seal at high altitude disabling the pilot and passengers, the plane continued on automatic pilot until it ran out of gas and crashed.
Within 21 minutes of Stewart's plane flying off course, a jet fighter from Tyndall, Florida had intercepted it and was flying alongside. That pilot followed the Lear jet until met by two Oklahoma Air National Guard F-16s, which in turn passed the plane on to jets from North Dakota, keeping it under close surveillance until it crashed. [See: Learjet 35, Aberdeen, South Dakota, October 25, 1999, DCA00MA005 - Aviation - Major investigations - Aberdeen, S.D.]
Others have cited the Payne Stewart case as an example to address the possibility of situation being one of total incompetence on the part of the military, including Barry Zwicker [Vision TV Insight - The MediaFile Edition - "The Great Deception" - Part 2 - January 28, 2002].
"In almost two hours of total drama," notes Zwicker, "not a single U.S. Air Force intercepter turns a wheel until it's too late. Was it total incompetence on the part of the aircrews trained and equipped to scramble in minutes? Or were there certain stand down' orders given to the U.S. pilots to allow the disaster to happen?"
Zwicker asks what does the Payne Stewart case prove?
"Well, it proves that standing routines exist for dealing with all such emergencies, for instance loss of radio contact. All personnel in the air and on the ground are trained to follow such routines, which have been fine-tuned over decades, as the Lear jet incident illustrates.
"For large scheduled aircraft, tracked throughout on radar, to depart extravagantly from their flight paths, would trigger numerous calls to the military, especially after two have hit the World Trade Center, and now one is speeding toward Washington D.C. It flies over the White House, turns sharply and heads towards the Pentagon. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- now knows these planes are very bad news. It's been reported on all TV networks for more than half an hour that this is a terrorist attack."
September 11, 2001
Yet, on September 11th, none of the hijacked planes were intercepted even though one of them [UA#93] had been hijacked for at least an hour before it crashed, almost three times as long it took for Stewart's plane to be intercepted.
The first, quick, apparently correct answer is that the jet that caught up with Stewart's plane in only 21 minutes was not scrambled, and was already in the air at the time on a nearby training mission, while on September 11th there were no planes in the air on patrol or practice.
The closest base with armed planes on alert (Otis AFB, Falmouth, Mass. near Cape Cod) received the alarm too late for them to scramble to get there in time.
Planes from the 177th New Jersey Air National Guard [See: 177th NJANG], were on the tarmac at Atlantic City International Airport, ready to take off on a practice bombing mission, then suddenly recalled to be briefed on the attack and to arm the planes with air-to-air missiles. They were armed and then sent up, too late to play a role in the day's events.
The Atlantic City International Airport in Pomona, N.J. is also where the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a facility [See: William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center] and trains Air Marshalls. The 177th New Jersey Air National Guard until has been an integral part of the air defense of the continental United States for decades [See: History of 177th].
These planes, F-16s, were not on alert, were unarmed, and were prepared to take off on a training and practice mission, an air-to-ground live bombing mission near Syracuse, New York.
As members of the New Jersey Air National Guard, this unit is not with the regular U.S. Air Force, and the pilots are primarily, part-time active reservists who also have regular jobs, many as commercial airline pilots. They were recalled re-arm and then scrambled, being the first "non-alert" planes to fly over both New York and Washington, after the attacks.
Their situation in Atlantic City may not have been known to the U.S. Air Force North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), whose commander at the time did know about two Air National Guard F-15 planes on a training mission near Detroit, Michigan, hundreds of miles away. Although unarmed, they were ordered to pursue the hijacked plane [US99] that crashed in Pennsylvania. Two other fighters from Ohio were also called in to respond to the events of September 11th.
A time-line chronology [See: Time-line Chronology] of the day's events gives a good indication as to what happened, and the numbers that standout the most is the time between when the Air Traffic Controllers of the Federal Aviation Administration (ATC-FAA) realized there was a hijacking and then recognized a series of hijackings were underway, and the time they sounded the alarm, picked up the phone and called NORAD.
For example, the FAA Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) realized something was wrong with AA11 when it's "Friend or Foe" (IFF) transmitting beacon was turned off at 8:20 a.m., but they didn't notify NORAD until 18 minutes later at 8:38 a.m.
The military's unstated answer or excuse [See: Excuseme] for our question of why none of the hijacked planes were intercepted, is that the deal by the FAA ATC in notifying them promptly prevented them from intercepting the hijacked planes in time.
But that begs the question: doesn't the military have their own air traffic controllers -- guys looking at radar screens?
Before reviewing the chronology of 9/11 events as it pertains to questions regarding the air defense response, it would be prudent to take the chronology backwards in time to when the change in official strategy shifted responsibility for air defense of North America from over 100 air bases on alert status to less than a half-dozen bases, with a total of only 16 planes, armed and on alert. Some of these were in the South or West Coast and not even on the gameboard on 9/11.
Jet fighters are stationed at dozens of air bases all along the Northeast continental United States, and until a few years ago -- the date given is 1997 -- there were always four jets of the 177th unit of the N.J. Air National Guard armed and ready and positioned to take off on a moment's notice on a special runway, separate from the regular Atlantic City International airport.
The Atlantic City International, while not a principal hub of international traffic like Philadelphia, Newark and New York, is still important for a number of reasons, as a strategically positioned backup airport, equidistant between New York and Washington D.C., for all major fights, including Air Force One and the Concord.
In response to an email query I made, regarding which base assumed the "alert" status once the 177th was taken off alert, the public information officer with the unit noted that they do not make policy, just carry it out, and that it is not a classified matter that the unit was not on alert status on September 11th. I was then referred to another public relations officer at a base in Florida, without a proper answer to my only question.
Then I was given some deep background information that sets the stage for what happened on 9/11. As it was explained to me by a member of the military, the air defense strategy of the United States shifted with the demise of the threat from the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. "Military cutbacks caused a drastic reduction in the number of bases with planes on standby -- `strip alert'...." [See: Excuseme], a change in basic strategy that occurred sometime around 1997-98.
According to Contrail [http://www.njatla.ang.af.mil/contrail/Oct01/page4.html], the monthly newsletter of the 177th FW, "As a result of the 1998 Quadrennial Defense Review, the 177th Fighter Wing was converted from an air sovereignty mission to a general-purpose fighter mission,...focus[ing] primarily on the air-to-ground role (bomb dropping)..."
As reported in the Atlantic City Press [Thursday, June 27, 2002, Sec. C. pp. 1-2], "On the day of the attacks,...the 177th could not scramble jets in time to intercept any of the hijacked airliners -- and possibly shoot them down -- because it did not have its planes on alert. A few years earlier, the military changed the 177th's mission from air defense to general purpose, a designation that took away its alert status."
Apparently, as a result of this "Quadrennial Defense Review," instead of 107 bases with armed jet fighters on alert status at all times, over one hundred of the bases were taken off the alert status, leaving the air defense of North America to some five to seven bases, each one responsible for a particular sector.
Then Gen. Colon Powell is given credit for devising the four quadrant defense where the continental United States was divided into four major sectors, each with it's own headquarters, commander and bases on alert.
On September 11th, the Northeast Sector of the continental United States was under the Command of Col. Robert Marr [NEAD Sector, Rome, New York, a branch of NORAD, HQ Peterson AFB, Colorado].
Colonel Marr was on duty in his "bunker" in Rome, New York on September 11, 2001, when the day's events began to unfold.
07:59 a.m. (EDT) - American Airlines Flight 11 (AA11) departs Boston's Logan I.A., MA
08:14 a.m. - United Airlines Flight 175 (UA175) departs Boston's Logan I.A.
08:20 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 77 (AA77) departs Dulles I.A., D.C.
08:38 a.m. - Boston Air Traffic Control (ATC) notifies NORAD UA175 hijacked.
For NORAD, 8:38 a.m. is when the alarm went off, for the first time.
If there were any inclinations to believe this was going to be an ordinary hijacking, it was dispelled two minutes later when at,
08:40 a.m. - FAA notifies NORAD AA11 hijacked.
08:43 a.m. - FAA notifies NORAD UA175 hijacked.
08:42 a.m. - United Airlines Flight 93 departs Newark I.A., N.J.
08:44 a.m. - Air National Guard at Otis Air Base, Falmouth, Mass. ordered scrambled.
08:46 a.m. - AA11 hits World Trade Center north tower (WTCN-Tower1)
08:47 a.m. - NORAD notified of WTCN hit.
08:50 a.m. - FAA ATC recognize UA175 off course.
08:52 a.m. - 2 F-15 Eagle jet fighter pilots with handles "Duff" &"Nasty" depart Otis.
09:03 a.m. - UA175 hits World Trade Center South (WTCS-Tower2).
09:02 a.m. - F-15s piloted by "Duff" & "Nasty" 71 miles (eight minutes away from NYC).
09:16 a.m. - FAA ATC informs NORAD UA93 hijacked.
09:25 a.m. - FAA notifies NORAD UA77 may be hijacked.
9:27 a.m. - NORAD orders jet fighters at Langley AFB to scramble.
9:35 a.m. - 3 F-16 Flying Falcon jet fighters depart Langley, Va. (140 miles S. of D.C.)
9:37 a.m. - AA77 leaves radar.
9:38 a.m. - AA77 strikes Pentagon.
09:40 a.m. - Transponder of UA93 turned off.
09:49 a.m. - 3 F-16s arrive over Washington D.C.
10:02 a.m. - Radar picks up UA93 near Shanksville Pa.
10:03 a.m. - UA93 crashes in Pennsylvania.
Col. Marr was later quoted [By the BBC, Aug. 29, 2002] as saying that there, "...was a sense of frustration. I didn't have the forces available to do anything about this. We've got everything up that we could get up, and still can't do anything."
As for the unarmed jet planes in the air, Marr said, "If you have to stop an aircraft, sometimes the only way to stop an aircraft is with your own aircraft, if you don't have any weapons."
And now, the policy is changed, planes on alert can be airborne within minutes, and they have the ability, if ordered, to shoot down commercial airliners as Marr said, "We will take lives in the air in order to preserve lives on the ground."
At the time of the AA77 crash into the Pentagon (9:38 a.m.), the three F-16s from Langley were reportedly 12 minutes away, and according to "Honey," the senior officer of the three, were East, not South of D.C., and on their way to New York, not D.C. or Western Pennsylvania. "Honey" claimed he was lagging behind the other two, one of whom was "Lou" the wing-man for the lead pilot, who has, as far as I can tell, yet to be identified or quoted. When they arrived at D.C. (9:49 a.m.) they were ordered to stay on patrol over Washington.
For the jet fighter pilots it was especially frustrating. As "Duff," flying out of Otis said [in an interview with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC)], "For a long time I wondered what would have happened if we had been scrambled on time. We've been over the flight a thousand times in our minds, and I don't know what we could have done to get there any quicker."
For the two pilots from the 177th N.J. Air National Guard, it was equally frustrating. At 9 a.m., the pilot that goes by the radio handle "Gilligan" said he was on the tarmac runway at the Atlantic City International Airport, getting ready to take off with his wingman, on a bombing practice mission to upstate New York, where they were to land (near Syracuse), arm and make a practice live bomb run before returning to their home base.
They were delayed in taking off because of review of check list items as a standard precaution before embarking on a live ammunition run, and were at the end of the runway when they were issued an emergency order to return to the hanger.
Both pilots later confided in each other that they both thought that the extremely rare, emergency recall order was because of a private emergency, such as a wife or child injured in a car crash or something of that nature.
Back at their base headquarters they saw the burning towers on television and responded to the call for volunteers, were briefed on the World Trade Center attacks, and were ordered armed and back into the air immediately.
They could have been airborne within minutes except for the fact that their planes had to be armed, with air-to-air missiles, which are kept, for security reasons, across the base from the hangers, and they took an excruciatingly long time to get to and bring to the planes. Since each missile requires three men to carry and lift into position, and there was a lack of maintenance personnel on duty, the pilots themselves, and reportedly even some office personnel assisted in arming the planes, which took approximately an hour.
Once airborne, the F-16s from the 177th made passes over New York City and Washington D.C., where they were the first "non-alert" squadron on the scene over both cities.
Col. Robert Marr, sector NORAD commander, said that for a brief moment he considered asking the unarmed F-16 pilots in the air at the time to ram their planes into a hijacked airliner. "In the heat of the moment, all suggestions were considered," he said [Richard Sisk, Philadelphia Daily News, Washington Bureau, Sat. Aug. 31, 2002, p. 6], "but no decision was made to employ unarmed fighters" on such a suicide mission.
One pilot however, said that such an order would not necessarily be considered a "suicide" mission, since they could slice a tail wing and then bail out relatively safely.
All the pilots I talked with however, said that they would have rammed a jetliner with their unarmed jet fighter, if ordered to do so.
Less clear is what the situation was at Andrews Air Force Base, the closest base to the capitol and home of Air Force One and a jet fighter wing. Defense of the D.C. airspace would be a natural mission for this fighter wing, though apparently, they were not on alert on 9/11, and only had armed aircraft in the skies after the Pentagon was hit.
After September 11th the official web site for the fighter wing stationed at Andrews was taken down, while news reports had jet fighters from Andrews flying in defense of the "no-fly zone" over Iraq -- planes that were being shot at.
Censorship of official military web sites in the aftermath of 9/11 appears tardy, since any interested on-line terrorist would have already downloaded the necessary information before 9/11, much like the plans for a New Jersey nuke power station were said to have been found in a cave in Afghanistan. It would be like closing the barn door after the horses had escaped.
The 177th FW also removed two issues of their official monthly newsletter Contrail from their web site [www.njatla.ang.af.mil, http://www.njatla.ang.af.mil/contrail/index.htm], the June, 2001 [Volume XXXIV No.6, Egg Harbor Twp.,N.J., http://www.njatla.ang.af.mil/contrail/Jun01/index.html] and the September, 2001 issue [Volume XXXIV No.9, http://www.njatla.ang.af.mil/contrail/Sep01/index.html].
Both issues, of course, could have been read and downloaded by terrorists before September 11th, so now, it is only the general public who are being kept from reading their contents. I obtained copies of both issues in order to see if there was any big scandal being hidden, but rather, found only information concerning base security and live air-to-air missile training.
The September issue concerns the Combat Arms Training Management program, which was originally developed by General Curtis LeMay (Air Force Chief of Staff 1961-65) because of an incident that occurred during the Korean War when a numerically superior Chinese communist force attacked and overran Kimpo Air Base. According to Contrail, "One of the problems the investigation uncovered was there was no formal weapon training program for non-Air Police personnel."
The June issue concerned "The Art of Rocket Science," the Air Force air-to-air weapons systems evaluation program, COMBAT ARCHER, which evaluates the total air-to-air weapon system including aircraft, weapons delivery system, weapon, aircrew, support equipment, technical data and maintenance actions."
During the course of this training exercise, held at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, pilots fired AIM-9 Sidewinder and IAM 120 AARAM missiles at unmanned flying drones over the Gulf of Mexico range, ensuring the pilots proficiency in using the weapons.
Less efficient on September 11th was the ability to arm and launch the jets when not on alert, a situation that has undoubtedly been rectified.
In the end, the two major policy changes concerning reactions to aircraft hijackings after September 11th are the reversal of the strategy of cooperation with hijackers, and to actively resist them, and giving the Air Force jet fighters the option of shooting down hijacked commercial aircraft, "to take lives in the sky to save lives on the ground."
- William Kelly - October, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 William Kelly