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Profile: 552nd Air Control Wing
552nd Air Control Wing was a participant or observer in the following events:
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 ] 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]
Ben Robinson. [Source: US Air Force]An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane is directed toward Sarasota, Florida, where President Bush is currently located, and will accompany Air Force One as it carries Bush back to Washington, DC. The AWACS has been flying a training mission off the east coast of Florida (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). NORAD now instructs it to head toward Sarasota, on Florida’s west coast.
Pilot Thinks This Is an Exercise - Several months previously, Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, made arrangements with Brigadier General Ben Robinson, the commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, for AWACS support to be provided during training exercises simulating attacks on the United States. As Arnold will later recall, the pilot of the AWACS that NORAD now contacts “thought it was an exercise.” However the pilot is then told “what happened at the World Trade Center” and realizes “his responsibility was to follow the president.” Arnold will say: “We told him to follow Air Force One, and he asked the question we all asked: ‘Where is it going?’ We said: ‘We can’t tell you. Just follow it.’” [Filson, 2002; Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 86-87]
AWACS Escorts President to Washington - The time the AWACS plane gets close enough to Air Force One to be of assistance to it is unclear. According to journalist and author Bill Sammon, by around 10:30 a.m., it has not yet arrived to protect the president’s plane. [Sammon, 2002, pp. 107] Arnold will recall that NORAD maintains “the AWACS overhead the whole route,” as Air Force One flies to Barksdale Air Force Base, then Offutt Air Force Base, and then back to Washington. [Code One Magazine, 1/2002]
AWACS Is a 'Wonderful Asset' - According to Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, AWACS planes “give you the big picture in the sky. They’re able to identify what’s a friend, what’s a foe.” Rosenker, who will fly with Bush on Air Force One after it takes off from Sarasota (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001), says the AWACS is “a wonderful asset to have up there for us, it tremendously helped us to be able to guide for where we needed to go, to what potential problems we might encounter.… [I]t was an important part of what we needed to do to guarantee the safety of the president of the United States.” [White House, 8/29/2002]
An E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. [Source: John K. McDowell / US Air Force]An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane that is on its way back to its base in Oklahoma is called by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) and instructed to head to Washington, DC, in order to provide radar and radio coverage, and help NEADS to communicate with fighter jets that are in the airspace over the capital.
Poor Communications over Washington - NEADS is having trouble communicating with fighters that have arrived over Washington (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and the radio reception is nonexistent when those aircraft go below 20,000 feet. As Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, will later recall, NORAD’s “picture over DC was pretty poor. And the communication was poor.” As a result, “the aircrews themselves” of the fighters over Washington “coordinated the refueling and the combat air patrols.”
NEADS Contacts AWACS Heading toward Oklahoma - NEADS weapons controller Trey Murphy therefore gets on the radio to an AWACS belonging to the 552nd Air Control Wing, based at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. [Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 265-266] An AWACS is a modified Boeing 707 equipped with long-range radar and sophisticated communications equipment, which can track aircraft within a radius of several hundred miles. [New York Times, 9/23/1995; Asia Times, 1/27/2000] The AWACS Murphy contacts had been flying a training mission earlier in the morning, somewhere near Washington (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001), but was directed to return to Tinker, supposedly as a result of the “immediate confusion after the attacks” (see (Between 9:05 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
AWACS Told to Head to Washington - Murphy instructs the pilot of the AWACS to turn around and head back toward Washington. He says: “Here’s the deal. We need you to cover the NCA [national capital area].” The pilot responds, “Roger that,” and asks, “Where do you want us?” Murphy replies: “No, no. You’re the one with the big jet with the rotor-dome on it. You tell me where you need to go to get me a surface to infinity look at that area.” As author Lynn Spencer will later describe, with Murphy’s request, “The problem of radar and radio coverage over DC has been solved.” After it arrives over the Washington area, according to Arnold, “The AWACS could talk to the Northeast [Air Defense] Sector and provide a better picture to them.” [Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 265-266]
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