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.