9-11: Chaos Theory; The Air Defense Response, Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions

A Note of Caution

It is  not possible to take snippets of information about 9/11 or snapshots of the Commission staff’s work and speculate that into a coherent narrative, with meaning.


I have been asked by a family member to comment on a recent speculative article posted on the web that spoke to anomalies in the air defense response on September 11, 2001, specifically concerning the fighters scrambled from Langley Air Force Base.  I subsequently learned that there is a companion You Tube video which extends that speculation to include the fighters scrambled from Otis Air Force Base.  Both the article and the video try to construct a narrative without awareness of or understanding about the totality of  information that defined the 9/11 Commission Report.  Both the article and the video are unreviewable and I won’t attempt to try and make sense of them.

Instead, I will use chaos theory to explain why the air defense response on 9/11 was fatally flawed and had little to no chance, given the times of notification to the military as discussed in the Commission Report.  But first a brief discussion of anomalies, the thesis of the article and the video.


In any event such as 9/11 there will always be anomalies, some explainable, some not, and some that will never be resolved. There are just four air defense response anomalies worth discussing, in my estimation. All other suggested anomalies are on the margin and most of those are the result of four errors by the author(s) of the article and the video–time compression, conflation of events, hind sight, and reliance on anecdotal information instead of available primary source evidence and documents of the day.

Three of the four anomalies, the Otis initial flight path, the Langley initial flight path, and the Langley flight deviation to the south are all resolved in the facts of the day. The fourth, the Langley battle station order in the 9:10 time frame, can be explained by the facts of the day, but can only be resolved retrospectively.  To put it another way, the participants that day knew about the first three anomalies as they occurred; they did not know about the fourth in real time.

The Otis initial flight path. The path was accounted for in the air traffic control communications from Cape TRACON (Traffic Control) at Otis and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) New York Center (ZNY), coupled with the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) discussions at the Senior Director (Fox) and Mission Crew Commander (Nasypany) positions.  It is clear that the Otis fighters were vectored to a holding pattern in a military training area.  They held there for one-half orbit and then broke for New York City.  All of the decisions that contributed to that path occurred in the heat of battle in an uncertain situation.  They are all logical, in context and in real time.

I wrote a comprehensive article about the Otis scramble.  The authors of the anomalies article and video have clearly read that article but have chosen snippets of information which appear, out of context, to support their speculations. Discerning readers will have no trouble sorting fact from fiction when they read my article.

The Langley initial flight path. As at Otis, the Langley fighters took off to the East, but did not turn as did the Otis fighters.  I covered the reasons for this in detail in one of my early articles. Regardless of scramble order, the operating procedures in place required the Langley fighters to fly runway heading to 4000 feet altitude, which they did.  As they approached that decision point (the Delmarva Peninsula) the flight leader, in discussion with the Norfolk controller, decided to continue East.

There is no mystery here.  That is what happened as recorded at Norfolk TRACON. When I played that recording for the flight leader he was brutally honest, commenting, “There was an opportunity missed.” In the heat of battle, the fog of war, a decision was made. It was the wrong decision.

Here is my work on the Langley scramble

The Langley diversion to the South.  Both Lynn Spencer (Touching History) and I reported the reason for this error. It was a simple transposition of two digits in a coordinate.  That was established conclusively on the NEADS tapes. There is no correlation between the Langley fighters and the E4B, Venus 77, as some have suggested by simply looking at a radar screen print.  The Langley fighters were intent in establishing a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) point and had no interest in the E4B, if they even know about it.

Here is the story of the approach of the Langley fighters to Washington from the perspective of the Mission Crew Commander, Major Kevin Nasypany.

Venus 77 was the so-called “mystery” plane, but there was nothing mysterious about it.  It took off under visual flight rules at 9:43 after the Air Threat Conference was convened by the National Military Command Center, a conference with SIOP (Single Integrated Operation Plan) overtones, a “doomsday” scenario.  The E4B declared for Wright Patterson Air Force Base, reversed course over Rock Creek Park (as captured on media video), and proceeded to establish a 60-mile, north-south racetrack orbit centered on Richmond, Virginia, to support the possible arrival of Air Force One.

The evidence for all three anomalies is conclusive in the primary source information of the day, the audio and radar files.  That is partially the case for the final anomaly that I will discuss.

The fourth anomaly.  9:10 EDT was a significant time, the only time that the facts of the day presented an opportunity for an air defense response to American Airlines flight 77 (AA 77).  By 9:10, lacking any operational information to do otherwise Colonel Robert Marr, NEADS commander overruled his Mission Crew Commander and ordered that the Langley fighters remain on battle stations and not be scrambled.  That was a prudent and proper decision at the time; those were the last two air defense fighters available to NEADS.

Unbeknownst to Colonel Marr, in the same timeframe, the FAA’s Indianapolis Center reported AA 77 as lost to its next higher headquarters, Great Lakes Region, and concurrently, per standing operating procedures, to the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB.  That notification triggered a rescue response at the local and state level in several states as law enforcement officials started rescue coordination procedures.

Also in that same time frame, and only known by retrospective analysis by the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron, the NEADS supporting Joint Surveillance Radar System (JSS) reacquired AA 77 as a primary only (search, radar only) track. Surveillance technicians on the NEADS sector floor were not aware; they were focused on New York and Boston airspace, as explained on the NEADS tapes.

That critical confluence of three pieces of information–AA 77 reported lost, AA 77 reappearing on NEADS radar, and the battle station order, remained uncorrelated and not recognized by the two people who, working together, were the only two people that stood a chance to accomplish anything air defense-wise that morning–Colonel Marr and his counterpart at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC), Benedict Sliney.

And that leads us to chaos theory and sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Chaos Theory

I have established in my work on chaos theory that while we cannot use the rigorous math and geometry of chaos theory for a situation such as 9/11 we can use chaos theory metaphorically.  Specifically, we can use the language of chaos theory.  Without elaboration, some of the language we can use includes: strange attractors, cascading bifurcation, non-linearity, and disruptive feedback.  There is another more important term that is relevant here, sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Initial conditions are not know in real time and can only be identified retrospectively.  In the case of the air defense response on 9/11 the sensitive dependence centered on the two people I previously mentioned, Robert Marr and Benedict Sliney.  Here is that story.

9/11, an attack against the National Airspace System (NAS).

The NAS is a precisely defined subsystem of the National Transportation System.  It was operated on 9/11 by the National Operations Manager, Ben Sliney, at the ATCSCC (Herndon Center).  It was defended in the Northeast [bolded text added Nov 16, 2013] on 9/11 by the Commander, NEADS, Bob Marr.  The sensitive initial condition was that there is no evidence that the two men or their predecessors had ever met, that either was aware of the others existence or role.

So, the initial condition precluded any possibility that Bob Marr and Ben Sliney would ever communicate, let alone share a common operating picture of the battlefield.  Not only did they not share information in common, neither knew at 9:10 that AA 77 had been reported lost.  Neither the ATCSCC or NEADS knew to look for the plane.

Here is how I briefed that to an Air Force historians symposium, “Global Air Power, 9/11 and Beyond,” in November, 2011. (Panelists were myself, Major General Larry Arnold and Dean John Farmer)

•Herndon and NEADS never shared a common operational picture on 9/11
•They had never met, staff visits or during exercises
•NEADS was “center-centric,” it dealt individually with the en route FAA centers
•Therefore, things self organized around NEADS and Boston Center
•That was foretold during ongoing exercise “Vigilant Guardian.”

Strange Attractors

Given the lack of communication between the two organizations who could jointly do something, the information inevitably flowed to and between people who were trying to do something. And, by name, those two people were Colin Scoggins, Military Specialist, Boston Center, and Master Sergeant Maureen “Mo” Dooley, Chief, Identification Section, NEADS. The two did the best they could that day, but it should not have been their job to share real time information. That flow of information should have been between the ATCSCC and NEADS, not Boston Center and NEADS.

There are multiple reasons why that came about. The most important is that in all the exercises and training over the years there is no evidence that the link between the two was actually practiced or even known. The primary reason, however, is the fact that NEADS was a “center-centric” operation. Its day-day operations were focused on establishing lines of communication to and relations with the FAA en route centers that controlled over ocean airspace. Specifically in the Northeast, that was Boston Center and that part of New York Center that controlled overseas arrivals.

All of that was foretold during exercise Vigilant Guardian.

Vigilant Guardian

I spent the better part of five months writing a series of articles concerning Vigilant Guardian during the days preceding 9/11. All of the NEADS tapes for those days are in the public domain and my work can be replicated. Vigilant Guardian was a series of discrete events, at a gradually escalating pace each day. An important event was the transfer of air sovereignty from one air defense sector to another. That event occurred twice at NEADS.

On the first occasion, NEADS was required to assume air sovereignty from the Southeast Air Defense Sector (SEADS), both exercise and real world while concurrently maintaining operations in its own area. The key section of operational interest on the NEADS floor was and is the Identification Section.  The Identification Technicians immediately established contact with the FAA’s Miami Center to guard the Florida Strait. Not once did they contact the ATCSCC. All information flowed to and from the FAA’s en route centers in the Southeast.

The second occasion was more complex and required a double transfer. First, NEADS transfered its operations, exercise and real world, to SEADS. Then, NEADS went to work to assume air sovereignty from the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS). The end result was that NEADS was guarding the West Coast and SEADS was guarding the East Coast.  Again, NEADS Identification Technicians established contact with the en route centers; there was no interface of any kind with the ATCSCC.

That foretold how NEADS would respond on 9/11. Just as soon as Sergeant Shelly Watson heard Sergeant Powell announce the real world hijacking information received from Joe Cooper at Boston Center she dialed Boston Center and reached Colin Scoggins. The ATCSCC was out of the loop, the link to Boston and Colin Scoggins was firmly established.

Colin Scoggins

The central role of Colin Scoggins was also foretold during Vigilant Guardian on September 9, 2001. It is clear from a recorded conversation between the exercise control cell and a person on duty in the Identification Section that the exercise structure used Boston Center, specifically the persona of Colin Scoggins, to pass critical information to the NEADS Identification Section. When I first heard this exchange while writing the Vigilant Guardian articles I immediately forwarded it to Colin and he assured me that the voice on the tape was not his.

0909133749 ZBW Scoggins Call

The totality of the NEADS Vigilant Guardian tapes establishes that the caller was the Exercise Director, Lieutenant Colonel “Grover” Cleveland. The person on duty was Sergeant Rose. On 9/11 Rose was pressed into duty as a Surveillance Technician (NEADS personnel were and are cross-trained), and it was she who followed Delta 1989, radar return by radar return as it “meandered” and then landed at Cleveland.

The Exercise Director, acting as Colin Scoggins, passed critical exercise information about a United flight from Heathrow (London) that posed a threat to New York City. According to information “Scoggins” received from FAA there were two terrorists on board who were going to detonate a bomb while the plane was over New York City. “Scoggins” reported that FAA received the information from the FBI, who obtained it via a phone call from Heathrow where terrorists on the ground had been apprehended. There was no hijacking, the cockpit was unaware of the threat, and air traffic control was talking to the pilot.

By this stage of exercise Vigilant Guardian military units had increased the force protection alert. The terrorist scenario was a force protection event, not a hijack event. It was intended that the NEADS floor work with FAA to divert the flight away from New York City, but not to Bangor, ME, a tanker base. The NEADS Mission Crew Commander did not pick up on that nuance and NEADS allowed the United flight to “land” at Bangor. The exercise controllers immediately declared that the plane had blown up on the tarmac closing Bangor as a tanker base for several hours.

This vignette, alone, foreshadowed exactly how NEADS would operate on 9/11. Most relevant information would come from Boston Center. At no time during exercise Vigilant Guardian or on 9/11 was the Air Traffic Control System Command Center at Herndon, Virginia ever “contacted” or even mentioned.

My Assessment

I have studied the air defense response in detail for nearly a decade. It is my professional estimate that the only chance for any kind of air defense response was if the NOM, Ben Sliney, and the NEADS Commander, Bob Marr, were communicating in real time and were sharing a common operating picture of the battlefield, to include real time information from the en route centers, particularly Indianapolis Center, and the TRACONS, particularly Dulles TRACON.

Absent that capability there could be no effective air defense response, regardless of actions taken at NEADS, Otis, Langley, or by military pilots in the sky.  All other anomalies, real or imagined, are simply noise in an assessment of what happened on 9/11.

A Question for the 9/11 truth community

A fixation on the air defense response, the last possible defense, begs a question which the 9/11 truth community and the authors of the article and the video about air defense “anomalies” fail to address and likely cannot answer. What is it, exactly, the air defenders were supposed to do, given a successful intercept?

Exercise Vigilant Guardian provides a single clue. When notional air defense fighters intercepted a rouge F-18 fighter, in one scenario, they were initially given shoot down authority by the NEADS floor. When the controllers injected that the fighters were over a populated area that authority was withdrawn.


9-11: The Otis Scramble; a puzzling event, explained

(Author’s note.  I will add relevant audio clips after I obtain all the files)


The public domain explanation for the Otis scramble is simple and straightforward: the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) learned of a hijack in Boston airspace and launched alert fighters, which flew, direct and supersonic, to defend New York City.  None of that conformed to the reality I saw when I first ran the 84th RADES radar files and saw not a direct flight, but a path resembling a pretzel.

We asked General Craig McKinley, General Larry Arnold, and Colonel William Scott to clarify that for us at the May 23, 2003, air defense hearing.  They did not, and possibly could not because they had never sorted it out.  One example of their inability: Colonel Scott blurred the path of the Otis fighters, blaming to Commission Staff in a later interview the inadequacies of PowerPoint.

So how did the Otis scramble actually proceed?  There is not and will not be a complete primary source historical record for the specific guidance and direction given by NEADS to the Otis fighters.  In a previous article, I established that the audio channels at NEADS for the Otis flight military controllers were not recorded the morning of 9-11. However, one of the controller voices, most likely the WD/T, was recorded at FAA’s Boston Center (ZBW), Cape Sector, during the time the fighters were vectored to Whiskey 105.

Even with limited primary source information for the NEADS controllers, we have enough other primary source information–NEADS tapes, FAA air traffic control tapes, radar–to explain what happened. We cannot, however, explain why the Otis fighters ended up over New York City.

Useful Commission Work Papers

I created screen print slide sets for planes of interest–the hijacked planes, fighters, and observers, such as Gofer 06 and the Falcon Jet vectored to the Shanksville site.  The set for the Otis fighters can be found at this link.

Another useful source is a compilation of the air traffic control contacts with the Panta flight.  (Panta 45 and 46 Scramble Timeline)  The flight was controlled by CAPE TRACON until Boston Center (ZBW), Cape Sector (18RA) gained radar contact at 8:55.  Thereafter, FAA contact was continuous as the flight was passed from Cape Sector to ZBW, Hampton Sector (31R) at 9:01, and then to New York Center (ZNY), Kennedy Sector at 9:17.  Ultimately, Panta 46 was handed off to Kennedy Approach (N90) at 10:10.

A third document, a chronological compilation of condensed audio transcripts, is a useful guide to conversations recorded at NEADS.

A fourth helpful document is a draft “Otis Story Board.”  This was a work paper created to provide a list of potentially useful audio clips for an oral monograph.  (Team 8 wrote the monograph, but it was not published because we ran out of time.  The draft should be available in the Commission’s electronic files, once they are released.)

There are multiple other useful work files, but the four listed are sufficient for the task at hand.  We begin with the scramble order.

The Scramble

NEADS obtained operational information, a set of coordinates, at 8:40, the notification time from FAA as entered in the MCC/T log, the official log book of the day.  The Otis fighters were placed on battle stations soon after 8:41, the scramble order-heading 290, flight level 290—-was issued at 8:46; and the air defense fighters, Panta 45 and 46, were airborne shortly after 8:52.  It was a rapid response, but NEADS did not have a target.

Joe Cooper at ZBW told Major Dawn Deskins at NEADS that “it’s just a primary, we lost mode so you’d have to get up and we would have to vector you.”  Deskins responded, “Okay you’d want to control intercept because…,” and Cooper broke in and concluded, “We’d have to until you pick up on primary.”

This exchange just before 8:40 established that FAA would always control the fighters, which they did.  Lynn Spencer’s narrative to the contrary, AFIO (Authority For Intercept Operations) was never declared for the Otis fighters.  Nor, according to the 84th RADES radar files, did they ever squawk AFIO, “quad sevens,” 7777.

Fighter speed, a useful source

A short digression at this point is in order.  A press release, “Air Force Says 911 Interceptors Flew Slow,” was released on November 17, 2003.  The argument was based on the NORAD timeline of events on 9/11, which stipulated that a rate of progression of .9 Mach could be used for fighter speed.  The NORAD staff wrote two point papers in response, one written by an officer in NJ33 (an operations office) and the other by Cheri Gott.  The two papers, combined, provide explicit information on how fast the Otis and Langley fighters flew, and why.  They also provide additional insight as to why fighters at Andrews AFB were not considered as a reaction force.

Now back to the Otis scramble.

NEADS did not find the primary target but did establish a “Z” point at 8:44 based on the coordinates provided by ZBW.  At that time AA 11 was well south of the “Z” point, rapidly approaching its own target.  Even though a fixed point was established, contemporary records reveal that NEADS altered its own plan to vector the fighters to that point, as we shall see.

Standard scramble procedures

As was the case with the Langley fighters later, Panta 45 and 46 launched to the east (runway 5) and proceeded toward Cape Cod before turning back at 8:54 at an altitude of 10,000 feet.  It was standing operating procedure that air defense fighters would take off easterly and fly runway heading to a certain altitude or distance.  Those standard tactics, techniques, and procedures allowed for routinized transition to FAA control and safety in the air.

Here is a Google Earth image of Otis AFB, Dec 2001.  Note that the alert area was at the southwestern end of Runway 5, with a dedicated short taxi strip.  The same configuration applied at Langley except that the alert area was on the north side.

At both facilities the fighters had the ability to start takeoff from the taxi strip.  Also, at both facilities, the pilots had the ability to “back taxi” the runway and take off westerly: this was an available procedure, but one that was rarely used.

In sum, the Otis fighters were quickly airborne and ready to fly somewhere, but the scramble order did not provide two necessary elements of information, a distance to fly and a target to find.  NEADS had an option of vectoring the air defense fighters to a military training area, Whiskey 105, and that’s exactly what happened.

Whiskey 105 and Giantkiller

Whiskey 105 (W105) is one of many offshore military training areas; its westernmost extension is southeast of New York City.  Aircraft operating in any such area come under the control of Giantkiller (Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes, Oceania Naval Air Station, Virginia Beach, VA), a Navy-operated facility and one recipient of the scramble order.

Giantkiller played a brief role in the control and vectoring of both the Otis fighters and the Langley fighters.  However, the only time we hear the voices of Giantkiller is when they appear on either FAA tapes or NEADS tapes.

Giantkiller long-standing policy was to recycle its tapes, and that is what they did post 9/11.  No one in the Giantkiller chain-of-command gave them instructions to alter the policy and retain the 9/11 tapes.  No one at Giantkiller had the presence of mind to realize that their tapes might be a valuable primary source of information concerning events of the day.

Getting to Whiskey 105

Whiskey 105 was activated by Giantkiller after the Otis fighters launched and before they turned back to the west.  Shortly before 8:50 that fact was reported to ZBW Cape Sector.  Minutes earlier, the NEADS Mission Crew Commander (MCC) Major Nasypany, summarized the situation for Colonel Robert Marr in the Battle Cab.  “I have scrambled Otis, and already, as per your direction, we’re sending them in that general direction, we’re sending them right to that Z point, and then we can maneuver them, um, as deemed uh right.”

By 8:51, however, NEADS knew that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  Still, just before the fighters turned the MCC said, “send them to New York City, still considered a go.”  He then changed his mind.

“Okay, continue taking the fighters down to the New York City area, JFK area, best that we can, make sure the FAA clears your route all the way…just press with it.”  And then, “until it’s confirmed it’s gonna be a lot easier to get them down to this area [Whiskey 105].”  “…if he didn’t crash into the world trade center [he] is 20 miles south of JFK, so I want you to take them down into this area, hold as needed.”

The FAA transcript for Boston ARTCC Cape Sector, Sector 18, Radar position, is definitive on what happened.  The transcript shows that FAA, NEADS, Giantkiller, and Panta 45 worked together to vector the fighters, first on a heading of 260 vice the scramble heading of 290, and then a direct heading of 250 to Whiskey 105.

At 8:54, HUNTRESS called Cape Sector and asked to change the Panta heading: “the heading that we gave him …is a bad heading now, actually he’s now south of JFK.”  Panta 45 checked in with Cape Sector at 8:55 and was given a new heading of 260, based on Cape Sector’s conversation with HUNTRESS.

NEADS had concluded that holding the fighters south of JFK in W105 was the best course of action.  At 8:59, according to the 84th RADES radar files, the Panta flight veered slightly south and headed directly for W105.  At 9:01, Panta 45 told Cape Sector he was “proceeding our present heading of two five zero for about a hundred miles and HUNTRESS wants us to hold just south of Long Island.”

At 9:01, Panta 45 checked in with ZBW Hampton Center and reported he was looking to hold in the corner, the west end of W105.  Hampton asked him for his destination.  Panta 45 did not know.  At 9:05, Hampton informed, probably, Giantkiller that “Panta is going to hold in W105, left to right turns at 290.”

Panta awareness

The primary sources of the day are clear that the Panta flight knew about both impacts at the World Trade Center.  First, on check-in with ZBW Cape Sector at 8:56, Panta 45 was told about the crash into World Trade Center One.

Second, at 9:08, ZBW Hampton Sector told Panta 45 about the second impact.  A minute later Panta 45 told Hampton Sector he needed to move to a holding pattern over New York City, and immediately modified that request to be a CAP over New York City, if available.  Panta was instructed to navigate for the Kennedy VOR.

The Panta pilots were angry, and that anger comes clearly across in the one cockpit voice recorder (CVR) tape that is part of the Commission’s records.

The primary sources of the day include the CVR from one of the two Panta fighters and both of their HUD (Heads Up Display).  Those tapes are in the Commission master files and have not been released by NARA.

None of the three is accurately time-stamped.  Further, the HUD tapes require a knowledgeable person to explain what is displayed.  The Air Force provided such support to the Commission Staff.

Getting out of Whiskey 105

The first left turn back east in the holding pattern began about 9:09.  The MCC’s voice is actively heard on the NEADS tapes talking to both the Senior Director (Major Fox) and to the Battle Cab and Colonel Marr.  To Fox he directed at 9:08 that “we need to talk to FAA…let’s get them over Manhattan, at least we have some kind of play.”  And at 9:09 he directed a scramble at Langley, modified by Colonel Marr to be battle stations, only.

NEADS did not know how many planes were missing out of Boston, and the MCC believed he needed to get the fighters over Manhattan.  Yet no specific orders were apparently given.  At 9:10, he told probably Fox that he did not like the fighters there, W105, and he wanted them closer in.  “I want them south of JFK.”

South of JFK and over Manhattan are two different things.  At 9:11, on the guard [emergency] channel, NEADS broadcast “Panta 45 remain current position until FAA requests assistance.”  Two minutes later the Panta flight did not make the second left turn to continue the holding pattern, but broke formation and made a sharp right U-turn and headed directly for New York City, arriving over Manhattan at 9:25.

We have no primary source information that informs us as to why the Panta flight abandoned the holding pattern.  There is no amplifying information for the odd, one-time use of the guard channel to communicate with the Panta flight.

What we do know is that the MCC was not immediately aware that the fighters were on their way to New York City.  At 9:17, four minutes after the Panta flight abandoned the holding pattern, the MCC told Colin Scoggins at Boston Center that, “I’ve got fighters in Whiskey 105 rignt now, and I’ve got a tanker there as well, I’ve got other aircraft on alert at Langley as well.”  “I’ve got trackers [looking] over JFK…just looking for anything suspicious.”

Moreover, at 9:22, after learning of the rebirth of AA 11 as a threat to Washington, the MCC wanted to “take the fighters from Otis and chase this guy down if I can’t find him.”  By then, the Panta flight was over Long Island quickly approaching New York City.

Panta flight under FAA control

As of 9:09, Panta 45 had approval from Boston Hampton Sector  to move to a holding pattern over New York City and was told to navigate to the Kennedy VOR.  That was the time that the Panta flight entered the holding pattern in W105.  The problem was that they were actually in Giantkiller-controlled air space and Hampton Sector had no control authority over New York City airspace.

Giantkiller asked for the Panta frequency shortly after 9:11, as the Panta flight was transiting west to east in its airspace.  Concurrently, Panta 45 told Hampton Sector that he was talking to HUNTRESS.

HUNTRESS is NEADS, and it is that conversation that we do not have because console 19, the console for the Weapons Director and the Weapons Director/Technician for the Panta flight, was not recorded.

Time for a short summary

Let’s step back a moment and assess what we have.  We have Panta 45 with FAA (ZBW Hampton Sector) approval to move to a holding pattern over New York City.  That approval was modified to be a controller direction to navigate to the Kennedy VOR.

We have the Panta pilots angry and, from their view, headed in the direction from which they came, not the direction of the visible evidence of the attack.  We know that they knew about both crashes into the World Trade Center.

We have the MCC under the assumption that the fighters are at his tactical direction in Whiskey 105, and we have NEADS broadcasting on guard for the Panta flight not to go to New York City without FAA approval.  They knew that FAA’s New York Center had issued an order for no more planes to enter its airspace.

So, what happened?

Absent the audio files from the NEADS controllers, we do not know what actions they took, and when.  What we do know is that at 9:14, the MCC told Colonel Marr that “we got [a tanker, MAINE 85] going to W105 right now, we also have the fighters holding there, we’re trying to move them down south of JFK, okay, we got some bad poop from FAA.”

The “bad poop” reference is possibly a reference to the original coordinates that established the “Z” point.  As the MCC was briefing Colonel Marr, the Panta flight was no longer holding in W105 and was not just navigating to the Kennedy VOR; it was headed directly for New York City.

Back to FAA control

Given what the ZBW Hampton Sector controller observed on radar, the Panta flight headed directly for New York City, he did what he was required to do: he made a “point out” to the gaining Sector, ZNY’s Kennedy Sector.  Shortly before 9:15, he pointed out the flight, “East of Kennedy 40 miles.”  Kennedy Sector acknowledged that he had radar contact, a necessary step before transfer of control can take place.

However, Hampton Sector maintained control for nearly two minutes and told the Panta flight to maintain Flight Level 240, the altitude of the holding pattern in W105.  The handoff to ZNY Kennedy Sector came at 9:17, the same time that the NEADS MCC was telling Colin Scoggins that the flight was holding in W105.

Kennedy Sector assumed responsibility for the flight and worked with adjacent sectors and New York TRACON to establish the parameters of a combat air patrol, which the Panta flight entered at 9:25, flight level 180.  Thereafter, both Panta 45 and 46 worked under Sector, NEADS, and TRACON control to check out potential targets of interest.

My Assessment

I have puzzled over the Otis scramble for the past five years and have reached this conclusion.  Retrospectively, it made tactical sense for the Panta flight to remain in W105.  The situation was fluid, they had no target, and tanker support was arriving. There was no compelling tactical imperative to send them to a combat air patrol (CAP) over New York City.

It is understandable that the Panta flight, and perhaps their controllers, felt compelled to establish a presence over New York City.  But to what end?

NEADS had no target for them.  Further, that cut NEADS’ available assets in half, and the other half, at Langley, was still on the ground, but had gotten the scramble order at 9:24.

From 9:25, the time the Panta flight began its CAP, and 9:37, the time NEADS declared AFIO for the Quit flight, NEADS had no available air defense-capable fighters immediately ready to combat the threat to the nation’s capital.

By this time the 9:21 report of a still airborne AA 11 represented a threat from the North.  A few minutes later NEADS learned that AA 77 was missing; and soon identified the track as B-32, a fast-moving unknown threatening the capital.

So, did the Panta flight proceed with FAA approval?  The answer is yes, except that the approval was granted by Boston Center, not New York Center.  Did the Otis pilots proceed with NEADS approval?  We do not know.