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Context of 'After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001: Attorney General Ashcroft Insists on Leaving Milwaukee and Flying to Washington, despite FAA Ground Stop'

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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)


FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. [Source: FAA]Time magazine later reports that Jane Garvey, head of the FAA, “almost certainly after getting an okay from the White House, initiate[s] a national ground stop, which forbids takeoffs and requires planes in the air to get down as soon as is reasonable. The order, which has never been implemented since flying was invented in 1903, applie[s] to virtually every single kind of machine that can takeoff—civilian, military, or law enforcement.” Military and law enforcement flights are allowed to resume at 10:31 a.m. (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001) A limited number of military flights—the FAA will not reveal details—are allowed to fly during this ban. (Donnelly 9/14/2001) Garvey later calls it “a national ground stop… that prevented any aircraft from taking off.” (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001) Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta later says he was the one to give the order: “As soon as I was aware of the nature and scale of the attack, I called from the White House to order the air traffic system to land all aircraft, immediately and without exception.” (US Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation 9/20/2001) According to Mineta, “At approximately 9:45… I gave the FAA the final order for all civil aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible.” (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) At the time, 4,452 planes are flying in the continental US. A later account states that Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, makes the decision without consulting his superiors, like Jane Garvey, first. It would be remarkable if Sliney was the one to make the decision, because 9/11 is Sliney’s first day on the job as National Operations Manager, “the chess master of the air traffic system.” (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) When he accepted the job a couple of months earlier, he had asked, “What is the limit of my authority?” The man who had promoted him replied, “Unlimited.” (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) Yet another account, by Linda Schuessler, manager of tactical operations at the FAA Command Center where Sliney was located, says, “… it was done collaboratively… All these decisions were corporate decisions. It wasn’t one person who said, ‘Yes, this has got to get done.’” (Bond 12/17/2001) About 500 planes land in the next 20 minutes, and then much more urgent orders to land are issued at 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Donnelly 9/14/2001; US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; Adcock, Donovan, and Gordon 9/23/2001; Scott 6/3/2002; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Associated Press 8/21/2002; Adcock 9/10/2002)

General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [Source: VisitingDC.com]Attorney General John Ashcroft insists that the plane he is traveling on take off from Milwaukee and head to Washington, DC, even though he has been discouraged from getting airborne due to the possibility of further attacks, and his pilot has been told by air traffic control that he will not be allowed to take off. (Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258) Ashcroft was flying from Washington to Milwaukee in a Cessna Citation V jet when he learned of the attacks in New York in a phone call with the Justice Department command center. He’d wanted to immediately head back to Washington, but his pilot, David Clemmer, said they would first need to land in Milwaukee to refuel (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Their aircraft then landed, presumably at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.
SWAT Team Surrounds Plane - After the plane touched down, Ashcroft and the others on board were met by a SWAT team, brandishing weapons, which surrounded the plane. Then, while Clemmer took care of refueling, Ashcroft and his fellow passengers—some colleagues of his from the Justice Department—went into the airport’s evacuated terminal and found a television on which they could watch the news coverage from New York. Soon after, they learned that the Pentagon had been hit.
Ashcroft Discouraged from Taking Off - While at the airport, Ashcroft spends much of his time speaking over the phone to the Justice Department command center in Washington. He will later recall, “Some people were discouraging us from getting back on the plane until we knew whether there was going to be another attack.” But Ashcroft “didn’t want to wait that long,” so as soon as Clemmer has finished refueling the plane, Ashcroft gives him the order to take off. (Eggen 9/28/2001; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 115-117)
Ashcroft Overrules Order Not to Take Off - However, the FAA has ordered a nationwide ground stop to prevent aircraft from taking off (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and air traffic control has informed Clemmer that his plane will not be allowed to leave Milwaukee for Washington. (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 25; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258) Clemmer therefore tells Ashcroft: “I’m sorry, sir. We can’t take off. I just received orders that we are not supposed to be flying.” But Ashcroft responds: “No, we’re going. Let’s get back in the air.” Ashcroft and his fellow passengers then board the plane. (Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117) They are joined by another Justice Department aide and another FBI agent in addition to the one who’d been on the plane when it landed in Milwaukee. (Eggen 9/28/2001)
Pilot Convinces Controller to Let Him Take Off - Clemmer is eventually able to convince air traffic control to allow him to leave Milwaukee. He then takes off and heads toward Washington. However, when Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Command Center, hears about this, he will reportedly be “livid,” and Ashcroft’s plane will be ordered to land (see 10:40 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117; Spencer 2008, pp. 258)

The plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft is ordered to land by the FAA’s Cleveland Center, but Ashcroft is intent on reaching Washington, DC, and instructs his pilot to ignore the order. (Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002 pdf file; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117; Spencer 2008, pp. 258) Ashcroft learned of the attacks in New York while flying to Milwaukee in a small government jet, and immediately wanted to return to Washington, but his plane needed to land first in Milwaukee to refuel (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Even though the FAA had issued a nationwide ground stop to prevent aircraft from taking off, Ashcroft then insisted that his plane leave Milwaukee to fly back to Washington (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001).
FAA Manager Furious, Wants Plane to Land - When Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, hears about Ashcroft’s plane defying the ground stop order, he is livid. He immediately calls the FAA’s Cleveland Center and tells it to order the plane to land. An air traffic controller at the Cleveland Center then issues this order to Ashcroft’s plane. (Brill 3/10/2003; Spencer 2008, pp. 257-258) David Clemmer, the plane’s pilot, tells Ashcroft, “They’re instructing me to land outside of Detroit,” but Ashcroft tells him, “No, keep going.” (Eggen 9/28/2001; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 117)
Controller Reports that Plane Is Not Complying - According to a 2002 FAA report, Ashcroft then requests that his plane be allowed to immediately return to Washington, and he receives permission to do so. (Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002 pdf file) But author Lynn Spencer will give a different account, saying that Clemmer “chooses to ignore the controller and continues toward Washington.” The Cleveland Center controller then informs the FAA Command Center that the pilot of Ashcroft’s plane is not responding and not complying. (Spencer 2008, pp. 258) Ashcroft’s plane will subsequently be redirected toward Richmond, Virginia, and is threatened with being shot down if it does not land (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Lines 9/29/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 3/21/2002 pdf file; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 118)

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 pdf file; 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 pdf file) 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)

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 pdf file) 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 pdf file) 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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