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(Between 9:05 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001: AWACS Plane near Washington Told to Return to Oklahoma, Limiting NEADS’s Communications and Surveillance Capabilities

Logo of the 552nd Air Control Wing.Logo of the 552nd Air Control Wing. [Source: US Air Force]An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane on a training mission in the Washington, DC, area is instructed to return to its base in Oklahoma, even though its advanced communications and surveillance capabilities would significantly benefit the military’s air defense efforts in response to the terrorist attacks. The AWACS belongs to the 552nd Air Control Wing, located at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. [US Air Force, 4/1/2000; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/16/2006; Spencer, 2008, pp. 265] It has been flying a training mission somewhere near Washington (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Code One Magazine, 1/2002]
AWACS Sent Back to Oklahoma - According to author Lynn Spencer, the AWACS is directed to return to Tinker Air Force Base “in the immediate confusion after the attacks.” The exact time the plane’s crew receives this order, and the identity of the person or organization that gives the order, are unstated. NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) will contact the AWACS later on, and instruct it to turn around and head to Washington, to provide radio and radar coverage over the capital (see (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 265-266]
AWACS Has Advanced Surveillance and Communication Capabilities - The AWACS, also called the E-3 Sentry, is a modified Boeing 707 that provides surveillance, command, control, and communications to military commanders. [New York Times, 9/23/1995; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/16/2006; US Air Force, 9/22/2015] According to a US Air Force manual, the plane’s “advanced surveillance radar provides long-range, low-level detection of aircraft targets over all types of terrain.” [US Air Force, 4/1/2000] It can track friendly and enemy aircraft over a 300-mile radius. [New York Times, 9/23/1995] Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, will say that AWACS planes “give you the big picture in the sky. They’re able to identify what’s a friend, what’s a foe.” [White House, 8/29/2002]
AWACS Would Help NEADS Contact Fighters - These planes are particularly important to NEADS. [9/11 Commission, 10/30/2003 pdf file] Spencer will describe: “The NEADS radio transmitter, like all radio transmitters, operates by line of sight. This means that the radio signals, which travel in a straight line, require an unobstructed path between the transmitter and the [fighter] jets” that NEADS is trying to communicate with this morning. Due to the curvature of the earth and the distance between NEADS, in Rome, New York, and Washington, the fighters’ launched to protect the capital (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001) will be unable to pick up the NEADS signal on their radio receivers when they descend below 20,000 feet, after arriving over Washington (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). “What’s needed,” Spencer will write, “is an AWACS plane, which has the capability to provide both radar and radio coverage over a citywide area.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 265]

Entity Tags: Mark Rosenker, Lynn Spencer, 552nd Air Control Wing

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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