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Context of '(10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Langley Pilots Hear Warning that Planes Could Be Shot Down; Ordered to Protect the White House'

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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; Christian Science Monitor, 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; USA Today, 9/16/2001; Washington Post, 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; Washington Post, 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]

Entity Tags: Brad Derrig, Alan Scott, Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, Langley Air Force Base, Larry Arnold

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney.FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney. [Source: Publicity photo]Ben Sliney, FAA’s National Operations Manager, orders the entire nationwide air traffic system shut down. All flights at US airports are stopped. Around 3,950 flights are still in the air. Sliney makes the decision without consulting FAA head Jane Garvey, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, or other bosses, but they quickly approve his actions. It’s Sliney’s first day on the job. [CNN, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/12/2001; Washington Post, 9/12/2001; MSNBC, 9/22/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002; Associated Press, 8/12/2002; USA Today, 8/12/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; Newsday, 9/10/2002] Seventy-five percent of the planes land within one hour of the order. [USA Today, 8/12/2002] The 9/11 Commission will later remark that this “was an unprecedented order” that the “air traffic control system handled… with great skill.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29] The Washington Post has reported that Mineta told Monte Belger at the FAA: “Monte, bring all the planes down,” even adding, “[Expletive] pilot discretion.” [Washington Post, 1/27/2002] However, it is later reported by a different Post reporter that Mineta did not even know of the order until 15 minutes later. This reporter “says FAA officials had begged him to maintain the fiction.” [Slate, 4/2/2002]

Entity Tags: Ben Sliney, Federal Aviation Administration, Jane Garvey, Monte Belger, Norman Mineta

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The pilots that took off from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) hear a warning over radio that errant aircraft will be shot down, and receive an instruction from the Secret Service to protect the White House. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223]
Pilots Learn of FAA Order - The three Langley fighter jets have now reached the Baltimore-Washington area. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 222] The pilots hear over their radios that the FAA has ordered all civilian aircraft to land. [New York Times, 10/16/2001] (The FAA issued this instruction at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29] )
Borgstrom Hears Shootdown Warning - The three pilots are all on different radio frequencies, but are able to communicate between themselves on their auxiliary frequency. According to author Lynn Spencer, one of them, Captain Craig Borgstrom, hears a message over the emergency radio frequency that is in response to the FAA’s recent order: “Attention all aircraft! Attention all aircraft! You are ordered to land at the nearest suitable airport. All aircraft must land immediately. Violators will be shot down.” The source of this message is unstated. [Filson, 2003, pp. 66; Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223] (Author Leslie Filson will describe the Langley pilots hearing what is apparently a separate but similar message later on, some time after 10:42 a.m. (see 10:05 a.m.-11:05 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82] )
Instructed to Protect the White House - Around the time Borgstrom hears this, Major Dean Eckmann, the lead Langley pilot, is on the radio with the FAA’s Washington Center. A Secret Service agent has arrived there and wants to talk to him. [Filson, 2003, pp. 68; Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223] Eckmann then receives a garbled message over his radio, which is difficult to make out. [New York Times, 11/15/2001] The message is, “Protect the house.” Eckmann will later recall, “I took it to mean protect the White House.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 68] He notifies the two other pilots—Borgstrom and Major Brad Derrig—of this message. He tells them, “I think I just talked to the Secret Service, but I’m not sure.” [New York Times, 11/15/2001]
Possible Shootdown Order? - According to Spencer, this message means that “Unknown to NEADS” (NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector), Eckmann has been “given shootdown authority directly from the Secret Service, bypassing the military chain of command.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 223] But Borgstrom and Derrig will later say they “never received explicit orders to fire on incoming planes perceived to be hostile.” [New York Times, 11/15/2001] Borgstrom radios NEADS weapons director Steve Citino and asks for specific instructions about what to do (see 10:07 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 223] According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS will only learn that NORAD has been given clearance to shoot down threatening aircraft at 10:31 a.m., and even then it does not pass this order along to the fighter pilots under its command (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42-43]

Entity Tags: Brad Derrig, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, US Secret Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The air traffic control tower at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC, broadcasts regular warnings over radio that any aircraft entering the restricted airspace around the capital will be shot down, even though, according to the 9/11 Commission, the president does not authorize the shooting down of threatening aircraft until 10:18 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41] The Andrews control tower begins broadcasting warning messages over the Air Traffic Information System (ATIS) at 10:05 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file] The ATIS is an automatic information system over which “[p]re-recorded airfield advisory information is automatically transmitted at timed intervals over the airways on a specific frequency.” [US Air Force, 10/1/1999 pdf file]
Planes Told They Could Be 'Shot Down' - A 9/11 Commission document summarizing key transmissions from the Andrews tower will show that warning messages are broadcast about once or twice every 10 minutes. The messages, which are all quite similar, include: “No fly notice. Remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down,” and, “Any aircraft monitoring Andrews Approach Control frequency: remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down.” [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] (Class B airspace is restricted airspace in which no one is supposed to fly without a working transponder and permission from an air traffic controller. The airspace around much of Washington is designated Class B airspace. [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/29/2001] )
Fighter Pilots Hear Warning - At least one of the warning messages is heard by District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) fighter pilots who launch from Andrews Air Force Base at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001) and by pilots launched from Langley Air Force Base by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) earlier on (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). DCANG pilots Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney Garcia are flying at low altitude over Washington, while the three Langley pilots are above them at around 20,000 feet. Although they are on different radio frequencies, both sets of pilots hear a message over a shared channel: “Attention all aircraft monitoring Andrews tower frequency. Andrews and Class Bravo airspace is closed. No general aviation aircraft are permitted to enter Class Bravo airspace. Any infractions will be shot down.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Officers Hear Warning - The warning messages are also heard by DCANG officers at Andrews. After hearing that violators of the Washington airspace will be shot down, Brigadier General David Wherley thinks to himself, “I guess that will be us doing the shooting.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Apparently referring to the warnings from the Andrews tower, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson will later recall: “We kind of winced at that, because there are plenty of hard reasons to not shoot somebody down. We were really in an ID posture—and trying to really be careful.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]
Shootdown Not Authorized until 10:18 - Although the first of the warnings is broadcast at 10:05 a.m., President Bush only gives authorization for hostile aircraft to be shot down at 10:18 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, in a phone call with Vice President Dick Cheney (see 10:18 a.m.-10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001). Furthermore, NEADS only learns that NORAD has been given clearance to shoot down threatening aircraft at 10:31 a.m. (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission document of Andrews tower transmissions will show that the warnings are broadcast until at least 11:05 a.m., although presumably they continue after that. [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41-42]

Entity Tags: District of Columbia Air National Guard, Heather Penney Garcia, Marc Sasseville, Phil Thompson, David Wherley, Andrews Air Force Base

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

NEADS personnel who are on duty the morning of 9/11.NEADS personnel who are on duty the morning of 9/11. [Source: Vanity Fair] (click image to enlarge)One of the pilots that took off from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) calls NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) to relay information he has received about an aircraft over the White House, and is promptly instructed to intercept this aircraft. [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]
Borgstrom Wants Instructions - The three F-16s that took off from Langley Air Force Base are now flying in the Baltimore-Washington area. They have just heard a warning over the radio that errant aircraft will be shot down, and received an instruction from the Secret Service to protect the White House (see (10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The FAA’s Washington Center also notified them of a suspicious aircraft flying at high speed toward the White House. In response, pilot Craig Borgstrom radios NEADS and asks weapons director Steve Citino for instructions on what to do. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223] Borgstrom says: “Baltimore [the Washington Center] is saying something about an aircraft over the White House. Any words?” Citino replies: “Negative. Stand by,” and then relays Borgstrom’s message to Major James Fox, the leader of the NEADS weapons team. Fox then notifies Major Kevin Nasypany, the NEADS mission crew commander, of the aircraft over the White House.
Ordered to Intercept - Instinctively, Nasypany responds, “Intercept!” and he then elaborates, “Intercept and divert that aircraft away from there.” Citino passes this instruction to the Langley fighters, telling them their mission is to “intercept aircraft over White House. Use FAA for guidance.” Fox then adds: “Divert the aircraft away from the White House. Intercept and divert it.” Borgstrom confirms the order, saying, “Divert the aircraft.”
Unidentified Aircraft a False Alarm - As the F-16s head for the White House, the NEADS controllers are unable to find the building on their dated equipment, and also have trouble communicating with the Langley pilots. NEADS personnel speculate that the unidentified object is probably just a helicopter or smoke from the burning Pentagon. Minutes later, the suspect aircraft will be realized to probably be one of the Langley fighters, mistakenly reported by a Washington Center air traffic controller who was unaware of the military’s scrambles. Citino will comment: “That was cool. We intercepted our own guys.” [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/11/2001; Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Kevin Nasypany, Steve Citino, Craig Borgstrom, James Fox

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Continental United States NORAD Region (CONR) issues a message to its three air defense sectors—including the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS)—stating that Vice President Dick Cheney has authorized it to shoot down suspicious aircraft.
Order Sent over Computer Chat System - About 15 minutes earlier, a military officer at the White House relayed to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) that Cheney had confirmed that fighter jets were cleared to engage an inbound aircraft if they could verify that the aircraft was hijacked (see 10:14 a.m.-10:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). According to the 9/11 Commission, “It is not clear how [this] shootdown order was communicated within NORAD.” However, Major General Larry Arnold, the CONR commander, now instructs his staff to broadcast a message over a NORAD computer chat system, passing on Cheney’s authorization. The message states, “10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond, per CONR CC [General Arnold].” The message is received at CONR’s three air defense sectors: the Western, Southeast, and Northeast. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42; Spencer, 2008, pp. 240]
Arnold Could Issue Shootdown Order Himself - Arnold, who is at the CONR air operations center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, will later comment, “I have the authority in case of an emergency to declare a target hostile and shoot it down under an emergency condition… but it was comforting to know we legally had the authority from the president of the United States.” [Filson, 2002; Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 75-76] The 10:31 chat message is the first notification personnel on the NEADS operations floor receive of the shootdown order. These personnel are reportedly confused over the order and do not pass it on to fighter pilots under their command (see 10:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42-43; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 47]

Entity Tags: Continental US NORAD Region, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Larry Arnold, Northeast Air Defense Sector

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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