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10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001: Two DC Air National Guard Fighters Take Off, but without Missiles

Heather Penney Garcia.Heather Penney Garcia. [Source: Johnathon Orrell]Two F-16 fighter jets belonging to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) take off from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, but they have no missiles and only training bullets for their guns. The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville and Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia. [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
Possibly Given Shootdown Authorization - Before they headed to their jets, Sasseville and Penney Garcia were given a short briefing by Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. Wherley will later recall telling Sasseville that he has “weapons free flight-lead control,” meaning he is responsible for deciding whether to fire on hostile aircraft (see (Between 9:40 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] But Sasseville will say he does not recall receiving any such rules of engagement until after he has taken off. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file]
Jets Only Have Training Ammunition - The two pilots run out to their jets and climb into the cockpits. But their F-16s are armed only with “hot” guns and 511 rounds of non-explosive training practice (TP) ammunition. According to Sasseville: “They had two airplanes ready to go, and were putting missiles on numbers three and four. Maintenance wanted us to take the ones with missiles, but we didn’t have time to wait on those.”
Rookie Pilot 'Never Scrambled Before' - Penney Garcia, who is a rookie pilot, will later say: “I’d never scrambled before, I’d never done this. I was screaming to the maintainers to pull the chocks, and the guys were pulling the pins to arm the guns. We were going without INS [inertial navigation system].” Sasseville and Penney Garcia are airborne about six minutes after reaching their jets. They are unaware that fighters launched from Langley Air Force Base are also flying over Washington, at around 20,000 feet (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Told to Look for Hijacked Plane - Over their radios, Sasseville and Penney Garcia receive instructions from their squadron to look for a hijacked aircraft approaching from the northwest and heading toward Georgetown (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). But, Sasseville will later recall, “We didn’t know what we were looking for—how high he was coming, or low, or where he was going.” [Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] He will say, “I don’t have the whole picture, but have word from Washington National Approach that something is coming.”
Pilot 'Making Things Up on the Fly' - The two jets will fly over Washington at low altitudes, around 5,000 or 6,000 feet. Sasseville will later say, “I didn’t want to get too low for a good radar angle, and not too high, so we could get somewhere fast.” He will admit that he is “making things up on the fly,” as he has no precedent to draw upon. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82] Another DCANG pilot, Billy Hutchison, launched from Andrews four minutes before Sasseville and Penney Garcia take off, but he is airborne for less than 10 minutes (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). The next DCANG jets to take off, which will be armed with missiles, launch at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]

Entity Tags: Heather Penney Garcia, David Wherley, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Andrews Air Force Base, 121st Fighter Squadron, Marc Sasseville

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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