Fly Through Holes In U.S. Air Defense?
by James Kinsella,
Cape Cod Times, September 16, 2001
OTIS ANG BASE - Did terrorists exploit a flawed, outdated concept of continental air defense in Tuesday's terrorism attacks?
Or did a breakdown in military-civilian communication lead to a fatal delay in fighter-jet interception?
On Tuesday, terrorists commandeered four commercial airliners, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon.
But the nation's air defense system - which in the northeastern United States is spearheaded by the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base - is oriented toward meeting external threats.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which coordinates continental air defense, "is not normally focused inside the continental United States," according to a spokesman.
Tuesday, however, the threat came from within NORAD's perimeter -not outside of it.
FAA-military communication Under the current system, the Federal Aviation Administration, which monitors domestic flights, notifies NORAD about serious problems.
FAA controllers became aware Tuesday morning that hijackings were underway. Five days later, the question lingers whether the FAA notified NORAD as quickly as the agency could have, or should have.
Thursday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that air traffic controllers at a Federal Aviation Administration center in Nashua, N.H., were aware soon after the first of the airliners took off that something was amiss.
That airliner, an American Air Lines Boeing 767, was Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. It departed from Boston's Logan International Airport at 7:59 a.m.
About 15 to 20 minutes west of Logan, the Monitor reported, the controller gave Flight 11 permission to climb from 29,000 feet to 31,000 feet. But the plane didn't climb.
After issuing a further request to climb - which again met with no response - the controller sought to communicate with Flight 11 on an emergency channel.
Still no response. Then the plane stopped sending a radar pulse.
"Then the plane turned [south toward New York], and then they heard the transmission with the terrorist in the background," said a controller at Nashua interviewed by the Monitor.
"The voice upset him [the controller] because he knew right then that he was working a hijack," the controller told the Monitor.
If a problem is detected, what protocol is a controller supposed to follow?
"The air traffic controller would notify the supervisor on the floor, who would then immediately notify the FAA's regional operation center who would notify NORAD, as well as others," an FAA spokeswoman, Alison Duquette, said Friday.
Surveillance of hijacked craft The 102nd always has two F-15 fighter jets on 24-hour alert, according to the wing. The wing also is specifically charged with protecting the northeastern United States, including New York City and Washington.
Would the wing's jets be prepared to close in on a hijacked airliner?
"We also provide surveillance of hijacked aircraft and assist aircraft in distress," the wing has stated.
The errant airliner's flight lasted 46 minutes Tuesday, between taking off in Boston and crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Based on the Monitor account, the FAA would have been aware of a problem for perhaps the last 20 minutes or so of the flight.
An FAA spokesman yesterday declined to comment whether the Monitor's account was accurate.
"We're not releasing any details," he said.
Yesterday, however, a NORAD spokesman confirmed that the FAA notified NORAD of a hijacked aircraft.
The spokesman, Maj. Mike Snyder, said NORAD was notified about 10 minutes before Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.
That notification would have come around 8:35 a.m. The airliner hit the North Tower around 8:45 a.m.
An F-15 Eagle can fly at about three times the speed of a 767. An F-15 departing from Otis can reach New York City in 10 to 12 minutes, according to an Otis spokewoman.
Neither NORAD nor the 102nd will comment on whether the wing scrambled to intercept any of the airliners.
"We're not discussing any operational details," Snyder said yesterday.
Was interception possible? Published reports Friday and yesterday said that Otis jets did scramble to intercept the hijacked airliners, although the reports gave differing times for that action.
LHThe first crash, of Flight 11, arguably was too unexpected to stop.
But what about United Airlines Flight 175, which left Boston 15 minutes after Flight 11?
Flight 175 departed off its course over Connecticut, 16 minutes into its flight, according to USA Today.
The United flight was over central New Jersey when it turned and headed northeast, back toward Manhattan, USA Today reported. Radar contact was lost between Philadelphia and Newark.
Forty minutes after its Boston departure - and 16 minutes after Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center - Flight 175 hit the center's South Tower.
Forty-nine minutes later, at 9:50 a.m., the South Tower collapsed. The North Tower collapsed at 10:29 a.m. Nearly 5,000 people have been reported missing since the collapse of the towers.
Could have - should have - F-15s shadowed the errant Flight 175, especially after Flight 11 already had hit the World Trade Center?
If not, why not?
F-15s from Otis also are responsible for protecting national command centers in Washington.
At 8:10 a.m., according to the Washington Post, American Airlines Flight 77 departed from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.
Flight 77 also deviated from its course. According to the Dallas Morning News, military officials scrambled three F-16s from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to intercept the airliner.
But the intercept failed.
About 90 minutes after its departure from Washington - and almost 40 minutes after the second World Trade Center crash - Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
The fourth airliner - United Flight 93 - departed from Newark, N.J., at 8:01 a.m. for San Francisco.
After Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, controllers watched as Flight 93 took a turn in western Pennsylvania and headed for Washington.
That airliner, however, apparently fell from the sky and crashed in southern Pennsylvania at 10:10 a.m.
The crash may have been the outcome of a struggle between passengers and the hijackers, the Washington Post has reported.