9-11: Langley Scramble, addendum

This addendum updates the article “9-11: Langley Scramble, gang aft agley.” The Letter of Agreement, “Northeast and Southeast Air Defense Sectors/FACSFAC VACAPES/Norfolk Tower/Langley Tower/Oceana RAFCF/First Fighter Wing and 177 Fighter Group,” EFFECTIVE: October 1, 1994 is available on the History Commons Scribd site. Interested researchers will need to upload it for clarity. That document was in effect on September 11, 2001. FACSFAC VACAPES is GIANTKILLER.

The Letter states that certain “information must be relayed with the order,” and provides an example of a scramble order: “Scramble Echo Lima 01, 2 F 16s, immediate departure heading 090, FL 230, contact Huntress on 251.0. Unknown target bearing 090, 180 miles, FL 210.”

In the initial article I established that there were four components to a scramble order, distance, direction, altitude and target. The letter also calls for the provision of the aircraft call sign, number and type aircraft and Huntress radio frequency. The NEADS scramble order contained all required information except the target information, including distance. NEADS also could not, according to the Letter, change the route of flight, altitude or beacon code without prior approval of the concerned ATC facility.

Scramble procedures in the Letter specify that “Langley Tower shall: Enter a flight plan in the NAS [National Airspace System], specifying pertinent information provided in the scramble order. Routing shall be via the fix (sic) radial and distance from LFI [Langley] as specified for the target bearing and rangeā€¦” Except there was no range, a necessary component to enter a flight plan in the NAS computer.

Langley Tower used an established flight plan which was consistent with the Letter: According to the Letter, “The initial departure instruction shall be specified as fly runway heading, climb and maintain 4,000, unless otherwise coordinated and approved by Norfolk Departure Control.” Langley Tower immediately turned control over to Norfolk Tower/TRACON after creating a “090 for 60” flight plan in the NAS computer.

The Letter specifies that “Norfolk Tower shall: After departure, establish the scrambled aircraft on the requested vector and authorize climb to the highest altitude available (at or below the scramble altitude), as soon as traffic and coordination permit. And, the Tower shall: “Provide a radar hand-off to the appropriate facility. Transfer control and communications as soon as practical.” In the case on 9-11, given the flight plan entered by Langley Tower, the next appropriate facility was GIANTKILLER. Had the lead pilot and the Norfolk Controller agreed on a turn North then the next appropriate facility would have been the FAA’s Washington Center.

Lynn Spencer in Touching History reported that the scramble altitude was 230, not the 290 that was actually specified in the NEADS scramble order. That makes some sense since the fighters were cleared for 230 and, according to the 84th RADES radar files that is the altitude they flew. The assignment of a lower altitude is consistent with the intent of the Letter of Agreement.

Finally, the Letter states that: “Giant Killer shall provide a radar hand-off and transfer of control to Huntress as soon as scrambled aircraft are clear of known traffic.” Nowhere does the letter state that Giant Killer shall or will take control of scrambled aircraft as a matter of procedure.

Based on the Letter of Agreement, the procedures that were in place, the scramble started unraveling from the beginning. The Letter is specific that certain information must be provided. Target data is one such piece of information.