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Context of '11:27 a.m. September 11, 2001: Attorney General Ashcroft’s Plane Met by Fighter Jet to Escort It into Washington'

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Susan Dryden.Susan Dryden. [Source: Davar Ardalan / NPR News]Attorney General John Ashcroft learns of the attacks in New York while flying to Milwaukee, and immediately instructs his pilot to turn the plane around and return to Washington, DC. (Lines 9/29/2001; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 115-116; Spencer 2008, pp. 257)
Ashcroft Scheduled for Reading Event - Ashcroft is heading from Washington to Milwaukee in one of the FAA’s Cessna Citation V jet planes, to read with some schoolchildren as part of the president’s child literacy program. With him are David Israelite, his deputy chief of staff; Susan Dryden, the deputy communications director for the Justice Department; Ralph Boyd, the assistant attorney general for civil rights; and a detail officer from the FBI.
Command Center Tells Ashcroft of Attacks - As the plane is nearing Lake Michigan, its pilot calls out to Ashcroft, “Sir, you are to call back to the Justice Department command center in Washington immediately.” Ashcroft makes the call and is informed that two commercial airliners have struck the World Trade Center towers. He then turns toward the cockpit and tells the pilot, David Clemmer: “Turn this plane around. We’re flying back to Washington.” Clemmer replies that they don’t have enough fuel to make it back to Washington and will need to land in Milwaukee to refuel. Ashcroft says, “All right, get us down for fuel and back in the air as fast as you can.”
Plane Lands at Milwaukee Airport - Ashcroft then turns toward the other passengers and describes to them what he has learned from the command center. A few minutes later, his plane will land in Milwaukee to refuel. Ashcroft and his fellow passengers will go inside the terminal and get their first glimpses of the television coverage of the attacks in New York. (Eggen 9/28/2001; Brill 3/10/2003; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 115-117) Despite an FAA ground stop, which is supposed to prevent aircraft from taking off, Ashcroft will insist on flying from Milwaukee back to Washington (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258)

Captain Craig Borgstrom.Captain Craig Borgstrom. [Source: US Air Force / Austin Knox]The three F-16 fighter jets ordered to scramble from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) take off and, radar data will show, are airborne by 9:30 a.m. (North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; Tyson 4/16/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27)
Delayed during Launch - Major Dean Eckmann will recall that, after receiving the scramble order, he and the two other pilots have “a pretty quick response time. I believe it was four to five minutes we were airborne from that point.” (BBC 9/1/2002) According to the 1st Air Force’s book about 9/11, the three fighters are “given highest priority over all other air traffic at Langley Air Force Base” as they are launching. (Filson 2003, pp. 63) But, according to author Lynn Spencer, in spite of this, the jets are delayed. As Eckmann is approaching the runway, he calls the control tower for clearance to take off, but the tower controller tells him, “Hold for an air traffic delay.” Air traffic controllers at the FAA’s Washington Center “have not had time to clear airliners out of the way for the northerly heading. Dozens of aircraft at various altitudes fill the jets’ route.” After having to wait two minutes, Eckmann complains: “We’re an active air scramble. We need to go now!” Finally, the tower controller tells him, “Roger, Quit flight is cleared for takeoff, 090 for 60,” meaning the fighters are to fly due east for 60 miles (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Taking Off - The three jets launch 15 seconds apart, with Eckmann in front and the two other jets following. (Spencer 2008, pp. 143-144) Pilot Craig Borgstrom will later recall, “[W]e took off, the three of us, and basically the formation we always brief on alert, we’ll stay in a two- to three-mile trail from the guy in front.” (Filson 2003, pp. 63) According to the BBC, the pilots get a signal over their planes’ transponders, indicating an emergency wartime situation. (BBC 9/1/2002)
Could Reach Washington before Pentagon Attack - F-16s have a maximum speed of 1,500 mph at high altitude, or 915 mph at sea level, so the three fighters could plausibly travel the 130 miles from Langley Air Force Base to Washington in just minutes. (Chant 1987, pp. 404; Associated Press 6/16/2000; Weisman 9/16/2001; Graham 9/16/2001 pdf file; US Air Force 10/2007) Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, will tell the 9/11 Commission, “I think if those aircraft had gotten airborne immediately, if we were operating under something other than peacetime rules, where they could have turned immediately toward Washington, DC, and gone into burner, it is physically possible that they could have gotten over Washington” before 9:37, when the Pentagon is hit. (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) Yet according to the 9/11 Commission, the jets are redirected east over the Atlantic Ocean and will be 150 miles from the Pentagon when it is hit (see 9:30 a.m.-9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27)
Conflicting Times - Some early news reports after 9/11 will say the Langley jets take off at the later time of 9:35 a.m. (Washington Post 9/12/2001; CNN 9/14/2001; Graham 9/15/2001; CNN 9/17/2001) But according to Colonel Alan Scott, the former vice commander of the Continental US NORAD Region, though the jets are airborne at 9:30, the report of this does not come down until 9:35, so this fact may account for the conflicting times. (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003)

A fighter and helicopter both fly directly above the Pentagon on 9/11 on the morning of 9/11. Exact time is unknown.A fighter and helicopter both fly directly above the Pentagon on 9/11 on the morning of 9/11. Exact time is unknown. [Source: Agence France-Presse]The three F-16s scrambled from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, at 9:30 a.m. finally reach Washington and the burning Pentagon. The 129 mile distance could theoretically have been covered by the fighters in six minutes, but they’ve taken a wide detour over the ocean (see 9:30 a.m.-9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). The exact time they arrive is unclear. An early timeline laid out to CNN by senior Defense Department officials will claim they arrive as early as 9:49 a.m., but the 9/11 Commission later claims they only establish “a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington” at “approximately 10:00 a.m.” (CBS News 9/14/2001; CNN 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 34)
Conflicting Press Accounts - Press accounts of when the first fighters reach Washington are highly contradictory. Early news accounts describe fighters arriving from Andrews Air Force Base, not Langley, “within minutes,” “a few moments,” or “just moments” after the Pentagon crash. (McAllister 9/11/2001; Wastell and Jacobson 9/16/2001; ABC News 9/11/2002) Other newspaper accounts inaccurately deny that fighters from Andrews are deployed (Weisman 9/16/2001) , and some deny Andrews even has fighters available. (Stone 9/16/2001) Defense officials will initially claim, “There were no military planes in the skies over Washington until 15 to 20 minutes after the Pentagon was hit”—in other words, 9:53 a.m. to 9:58 a.m. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 9/14/2001) But an ABC News report will suggest that by around 10:00 a.m., “Dozens of fighters are buzzing in the sky” over Washington. (ABC News 9/11/2002)
Fighter Jets Don't Arrive until Later? - In contrast, the New York Times reports: “In the White House Situation Room and at the Pentagon, the response seemed agonizingly slow. One military official recalls hearing words to the effect of, ‘Where are the planes?’” The Pentagon will insist it had air cover over its own building by 10 a.m. However, numerous witnesses on the ground, including a reporter for the New York Times who is headed toward the building, will say they did not see any fighters until around 10:40 a.m., or “closer to 11” (see (10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sanger and van Natta 9/16/2001; Creed and Newman 2008, pp. 130-131) According to some accounts, the plane that flies over the Pentagon at that time is Major Billy Hutchison’s F-16, launched from Andrews Air Force Base. (Filson 2003, pp. 81-82; Spencer 2008, pp. 235-236) NORAD will initially claim the Langley fighters were about 105 miles from the Pentagon when it was hit at 9:37, and the 9/11 Commission will later claim they were 150 miles away (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27)

The plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft, which is heading toward Washington, DC, is threatened with being shot down by the military if it does not land, and is diverted to Richmond, Virginia. (Eggen 9/28/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 258) Even though the FAA had issued a national ground stop preventing aircraft from taking off (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Ashcroft insisted that his plane take off and fly back to Washington after it landed in Milwaukee to refuel (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). And though the FAA has been instructing all aircraft to land at the nearest airport (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Ashcroft told his pilot to ignore an order to land near Detroit, and instead continue toward Washington (see 10:40 a.m. September 11, 2001). (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258)
Fighters Intercept Ashcroft's Plane - When Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, hears that Ashcroft’s pilot is refusing to land, he notifies NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). As a result, two F-16 fighter jets from a nearby Air National Guard base intercept Ashcroft’s plane, but they remain out of sight and undetected by its pilot. The F-16s’ pilots report to NEADS that the errant plane is a private corporate jet without any markings, which is heading for Washington and does not seem to have any intention of landing.
Sliney Wants Plane 'out of My Sky' - Ashcroft’s pilot, David Clemmer, has started broadcasting a message “in the blind,” meaning it is not intended for any specific air traffic controller, stating that the attorney general is on the plane and they are returning to Washington. The F-16 pilots notify NEADS of this, but when a NEADS officer then tells Sliney about the message, Sliney asks, “Can you guarantee me that it is indeed John Ashcroft on that plane?” The officer replies, “No sir, we cannot,” and so Sliney demands, “Then get him out of my sky!” NEADS issues the order to the two F-16 pilots that if the plane will not land voluntarily, then they must take it down. The F-16 flight lead calls the FAA’s Washington Center and arranges for one of its controllers to call the plane’s pilot and tell him that if he does not divert and land, his plane will be shot down. (Spencer 2008, pp. 258)
Pilot Warned Plane Could Be Shot Down - The Washington Center controller tells Clemmer, “Land your plane immediately, or risk getting shot down by the US Air Force.” (Thomas and Hosenball 9/24/2001) Clemmer relays this warning to Ashcroft, telling him: “Sir, there’s a shootdown order. If we get any closer to Washington, they might blow us out of the sky.” (Ashcroft 2006, pp. 118) Clemmer also turns to an FBI agent who has been assigned to guard Ashcroft, and says, “Well, Larry, we’re in deep kimchi here, and basically, all the rules you and I know are out the window.” He tells air traffic controllers that he is carrying the attorney general, but is worried that this information won’t get through to military commanders who control the airspace around Washington. (Thomas and Hosenball 9/24/2001) Clemmer will later recall: “We didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize our safety or the safety of the [attorney general]. I know I didn’t want to get shot down either.”
Plane Diverted to Richmond - According to some accounts, Ashcroft finally relents, and, at the insistence of the FAA, his plane is diverted to Richmond. Ashcroft will later recall, “It was a real negotiation [with the FAA].” (Eggen 9/28/2001; Brill 3/10/2003; Spencer 2008, pp. 258) However, according to a 2002 FAA report, Ashcroft’s plane is diverted to Richmond “due to air traffic requests for the release of medevac aircraft in the Washington, DC, area.” (Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002) As the plane flies toward Richmond, Clemmer negotiates getting a fighter escort for it. Ashcroft will persist in his desire to reach Washington, and his plane will eventually be cleared to land in the capital (see 11:27 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Eggen 9/28/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 272)

One of the FAA’s Cessna Citation V jet planes.One of the FAA’s Cessna Citation V jet planes. [Source: Unknown]Although it was recently redirected toward Richmond, Virginia, the plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft tries again to head to Washington, DC, and a military fighter jet arrives to escort it into the capital. (Eggen 9/28/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 118) Ashcroft’s plane, a small government Cessna jet, has been trying to return to Washington after an engagement in Milwaukee was aborted due to the terrorist attacks (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Ashcroft has ignored requests to land, and so his plane has been threatened with being shot down by the military and diverted to Richmond (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Thomas and Hosenball 9/24/2001; Brill 3/10/2003; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258)
Pilot Persuaded to Head toward Washington - However, Ashcroft still wants to reach Washington. He therefore calls the Justice Department command center for assistance. Then, according to author Lynn Spencer, “With some high-level coordination,” one of the protective agents on Ashcroft’s plane “convinced the pilot to try once again to enter the city.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 272) The pilot, David Clemmer, negotiates to have fighter jets escort the plane into Washington. (Thomas and Hosenball 9/24/2001; Eggen 9/28/2001)
Controller Requests Fighter Escort - The FAA’s Washington Center consequently calls the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. The Washington Center controller says: “Hey, we’ve got November 4 out here. He wants to land at [Reagan Airport]. There’s some concern and they want a fighter escort.” TRACON controller Dan Creedon recognizes the plane’s N-number (specifically, N4) as belonging to one of the FAA’s jet aircraft, and confirms, “Yeah, November 4 is based out of Washington.” He then calls District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) pilot Major Daniel Caine, who recently launched from Andrews Air Force Base to defend Washington (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001), and tells him of the plane requesting a fighter escort. When Caine asks who is on it, Creedon replies: “I don’t know. My assumption is FAA-1 or DOT-1,” meaning FAA Administrator Jane Garvey or Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
DCANG Pilot Gets Langley Jets to Provide Escort - Caine says the jets launched from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) that are defending Washington (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001) will handle this. He forwards Creedon’s request to Major Dean Eckmann, the lead pilot from Langley. Eckmann responds that the inbound plane “can have one” of his fighters. He then directs his wingman, Major Brad Derrig, to intercept it. (9/11 Commission 12/1/2003; 9/11 Commission 12/1/2003; Spencer 2008, pp. 272-273) While Ashcroft’s plane is waiting for Derrig’s fighter to arrive, it is put in a holding pattern outside of Washington. (9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file) Ashcroft’s plane will be escorted to Reagan Airport, but the time it lands at is unclear (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (Thomas and Hosenball 9/24/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002; Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; Vogel 2007, pp. 453)

David Israelite.David Israelite. [Source: Publicity photo]The plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft finally arrives in Washington, DC, landing at Reagan National Airport. (Eggen 9/28/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002) Ashcroft has wanted his plane, a small government Cessna jet, to return to Washington since he learned of the attacks in New York while flying out to Milwaukee (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001 and After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Brill 3/10/2003; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 115-118) Despite his plane being instructed to land on more than one occasion (see 10:40 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001), Ashcroft has insisted on returning to the capital. (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 258, 272)
Plane Lands, Passengers Met by Agents with Machine Guns - Ashcroft’s plane has finally been cleared to land in Washington, and an F-16 fighter jet escorts it in to Reagan Airport. (Eggen 9/28/2001; 9/11 Commission 12/1/2003) After touching down, the plane taxies to the tarmac near Signature Aviation, the private executive aircraft terminal. When Ashcroft and the other individuals with him get off, they are met by numerous agents, some with machine guns at the ready. Apparently concerned about possible snipers, the agents quickly cover Ashcroft with a bulletproof trench coat and pass out bulletproof vests to the others with him. All of them are hustled into a hangar, where several vans are waiting. Ashcroft and his deputy chief of staff, David Israelite, get into a heavily reinforced SUV, while their colleagues disperse to other vehicles.
Ashcroft Advised to Go to Classified Site - Ashcroft calls the White House Situation Room to ask where he should go to set up operations. He is connected to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who suggests that he head to the remote, classified site, where other Justice Department personnel have gone, until it is known if any more attacks are forthcoming. Ashcroft’s vehicle heads toward the site, but due to the roads being clogged with traffic, it turns around and goes instead to the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center in Washington, where Ashcroft will spend much of the rest of the day. (9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 118-120, 129)
Conflicting Accounts of Landing Time - The time when Ashcroft’s plane lands at Reagan Airport is unclear. According to a 2002 FAA report, it lands “just before noon.” (Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002) According to USA Today, it does not arrive in Washington “until afternoon.” (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) And a federally funded report on the emergency response to the Pentagon attack will claim that an unidentified aircraft—later determined to be Ashcroft’s plane—is approaching Washington and leads to an evacuation of the Pentagon site at around 2:00 p.m. (see (2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A30 pdf file; Vogel 2007, pp. 453) Ashcroft’s plane is one of the last aircraft to land in the United States on this day, according to the Washington Post. (Eggen 9/28/2001)

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