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(9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Langley Tower Gives Jets Incorrect Heading, Sends Them East instead of North

The air traffic control tower at Langley Air Force Base.The air traffic control tower at Langley Air Force Base. [Source: Langley Air Force Base]The air traffic control tower at Langley Air Force Base (AFB) instructs the three F-16s taking off from the base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) to fly east for 60 miles, even though the scramble order issued by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) specified that they be directed north toward Washington, DC. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 96; Spencer 2008, pp. 142-143)
Controller Directs Jets Eastward - The air traffic controllers at the Langley tower responsible for getting the three fighter jets launched are Master Sergeant Kevin Griffith and Senior Airman Raymond Halford. (9/11 Commission 10/6/2003 pdf file) One of them tells the jets they are “cleared for takeoff, 090 for 60,” meaning they are to fly east for 60 miles. (Spencer 2008, pp. 143) According to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, “A takeoff to the east on the Langley radial for 60 miles was the standard takeoff from Langley in order to clear local traffic and get the fighters to altitude as quickly as possible.” But this document will add that the jets are “not bound to the 60 mile distance and could have turned to the north at any time they were directed to or had orders to do so.” (9/11 Commission 10/6/2003 pdf file)
Pilot Assumes Controllers Have More Information - The command post at Langley AFB has already forwarded the NEADS scramble instructions directing the jets to the north—“010, flight level 290”—to the pilots. According to author Lynn Spencer, lead pilot Major Dean Eckmann “knows that the scramble calls for a northerly heading, but he assumes they are being vectored eastward in order to fly around the traffic in their way. He doesn’t second-guess the instructions; he assumes that the controllers have more information than he does.” (9/11 Commission 1/9/2004; Spencer 2008, pp. 142-143)
Scramble Order Did Not Include Distance and Location - The 9/11 Commission will later try to explain why the Langley tower directs the fighters east. According to the Commission, the scramble order from NEADS lacked complete instructions. Though it included a direction of “010” and an altitude of 29,000 feet (“290”), it “did not include a distance to the target, nor the target’s location, two key components that are normally included in a scramble order.”
Generic Flight Plan Used - Additionally: “In order to launch aircraft, the Langley AFB tower was required to file an automated flight plan specifically designating the direction and distance of intended flight. Prior to 9/11, the standard—or generic—flight plan for aircraft departing Langley AFB to the east was ‘090 for 60.‘… Langley tower personnel assumed that once fighters got airborne they would be vectored to the target of interest by either NEADS or the FAA.” (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 96)
Operator Could Have Entered a Unique Flight Plan - According to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, Langley tower personnel follow established procedures and accomplish their duties “efficiently and effectively.” (9/11 Commission 10/6/2003 pdf file) However, John Harter, an operations supervisor at the FAA’s Norfolk Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), will tell the Commission that he disagrees with a claim made by Langley tower personnel, “that it was more efficient to enter a flight plan known to be acceptable to the system than to enter something different. That is an operator issue. An operator knowing what he/she was doing would have been able to correctly enter a unique flight plan.” (9/11 Commission 12/1/2003 pdf file)
Tower Responsible for Establishing Flight Plan - The Langley control tower is one of four facilities that are notified when NEADS issues a scramble order. (The other three are the Langley AFB command post, the 119th Fighter Wing, and the Norfolk TRACON.) The duty of Langley tower controllers is to get a flight plan established in the system so the system will accept an aircraft’s departure. The Langley tower’s control over aircraft launching from the base extends only five miles off the runway, so scrambled aircraft are passed on to the Norfolk TRACON upon takeoff (see 9:31 a.m.-9:33 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 10/6/2003 pdf file)

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