9-11: Air Defense Response; first things first, the Scott Trilogy (part 2)

This is the second in a series of three articles concerning the Scott trilogy.  To set the stage, I recommend a reading of the short introductory article and the article concerning the first of William Scott’s three articles published in 2002.  In this article we will consider Scott’s second article, “Command Cells Speed Airspace Reactions,” published June 10, 2002.

FAA/Military Interface

Government functions because agencies establish relationships with each other to facilitate work and the flow of information.  Since the military is a constant presence in air space controlled by the FAA it is natural that such relationships would have developed over time between the military services and the FAA. In this article we will identify and discuss three such relationships in existence on 9-11.  The three are the Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC), the Central Altitude Reservation Function (CARF) and the exchange of liaison officers.

Some have speculated that because of these relationships the FAA had direct, immediate, and responsive communication with the military concerning the events of the day, in other words what FAA knew in real time the military, especially NORAD, also knew in real time.That was not the case as we shall see. None of the three relationships was structured to help with the battle that morning.

Two, the CARF and the liaison function, were ultimately helpful in establishing a secure communications link between the NMCC and FAA, but not until the fate of all four hijacked aircraft had been determined.  All three, especially the ATSC, were extremely helpful the rest of day as the nation transitioned to military control of the sky; they were not helpful in fighting the battle itself.

Scott’s first article, setting the stage

Scott’s first article is a departure point for our discussion.  In that article Scott stated, “the…hijack notification was being passed by phone to a Norad [sic] command center…and the joint FAA/Defense Dept. Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC) colocated with the …Command Center in Herndon…”  Scott provided no antecedent to tell us who made those two passes.

Moreover, Scott’s own reference is to a page in a December 2001 AW&ST article which simple shows the floor layout at Herndon.  There is a desk specifically designated for the DoD/CARF, but not the ATSC.  It was not a desk normally occupied except when needed, according to Herndon managers who briefed the Commission Staff.  Two desks in the immediate vicinity were for the Air Traffic Association and the National Business Aircraft Association.  Scott’s source article stated that the latter two organizations were represented on the operations floor and “in a fluke, so was what Herndon called the ‘military cell’.”

Scott set up his second article with this passage in his first article: “The Air Traffic Services Cell [was]created  by the FAA and the Defense Dept. for use when needed to coordinate high priority aircraft movements during warfare or emergencies.  The Pentagon staffs it  only three days per month for refresher training, but Sept. 11 happened to be one of those days.”

He segued smoothly into a discussion of a small office “established after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War to facilitate movements of military aircraft in U.S., Pacific and European airspace.  Reservists assigned to ATSC have strong backgrounds in fighter, tanker, AWACS and strategic airlift operations.  Many were also pilots.”  This was not a crisis management operation, it was simply a routinized process set in place to manage significant military use of domestic and foreign airspace.

Scott goes astray

As we discussed in the first article, Scott had little help to validate what he was being told.  He clearly gained the impression that the ATSC was something more than it turned out to be.  He assessed it this way.  “That experienced cadre…paid dividends on Sept. 11, when the cell quickly became a key communications node during the military’s response to terrorist attacks.”  Scott then goes on to give a reasonable account of how valuable the ATSC was, except that value came in the aftermath, well after the battle was over.  The ATSC played no role in the response to the four hijacked aircraft that morning.  Before we can establish what actually happened we first need to consider the other two interface functions, the CARF and the liaison officers, and we start with the CARF.

Central Altitude Reservation Function

The CARF operated a secure facility co-located with the ATSC.  Its function is further described in the Robert Williams MFR. Among other activities, “the primary space they reserve is for military movement overseas, and for mass military movements.  They also handle ‘more unusual’ circumstance [sic] like the dropping of rocket boosters for a space shuttle launch..”

As a secure facility it had phone lines capable of linking to the NMCC.  The Commission Staff determined that sometime in the 10:15 time frame a CARF member, Rayford Brooks, was monitoring the Air Threat Conference Call.  Brooks and Williams, both civilian, were two people on duty in the CARF that morning.  Although the CARF mission was to provide military interface its work force was civilian, no military personnel were assigned.  ATSC was the military cell which, according to the Williams MFR, “co-join[ed] the CARF office for the practicality of proximity for secure information.”

In order to find out how the CARF ended up as the FAA node on the Air Threat Conference Call we first need to discuss the last of the three interface functions, liaison officers. Scott did not discuss the liaison function in his article.

Liaison between FAA and NORAD

A long-established liaison relationship existed between FAA and NORAD.  At FAA Headquarters that relationship was formalized as “Detachment Two,” the military liaison office at FAA headquarters, commanded that day by Colonel Sheryl Atkins.  Each service had its own liaison officer who reported to his/her service directly but worked administratively under Atkins.

FAA regional offices also had military liaison officers assigned.  In the Northeast those officers were accredited to both the New England Region and the Eastern Region and split their time between the two.  None of the liaison officers at any level had crisis management responsibilities.

In Atkins case she was en route work when AA 11 struck the North tower and was at FAA Headquarters by the time the second plane struck. She went to the 10th floor shortly after AA 77 struck the Pentagon, but reported to the Air Traffic Situation Room not the Washington Operations Center.  Atkins and the other liaison officers were effective in the management of airspace in the aftermath but were not engaged in the crisis, itself.

The liaison relationship was a two-way arrangement.  FAA liaison officers were accredited to key NORAD echelons, including NEADS.  At NEADS, Steve Culbertson was at the Headquarters when the World Trade Center was twice struck. (Note: Leslie Filson’s notes at one point have Culbertson at the Headquarters after the second plane struck and, later, headed for the SOCC before the second plane struck.)  My recall is that when he learned that FAA was having difficulty communicating with the military he went to the Sector Operations Center to help.  That would be closer to 9:30 and that initiative is documented in the primary sources of the day.  The NEADS tapes show that a few minutes after 9:30 Steve Culbertson was looking for a STU-III (secure telephone) and Major Nasypany is heard asking the SOCC Director if Culbertson can use his STU-III.  According to the Staff’s interview with Culbertson he estimated that the line was established around 10:15.

Culbertson and Bill Ayers, the DoD Airspace Manager for NEADS, are among the unsung group of people who struggled that day to bring order out of chaos.  Their effort, according to Filson’s notes, became the Domestic Events Network (DEN).

Back to William Scott

Scott, in his second article discusses only the ATSC.and that’s OK, given the time at which he was writing.  He focused on the visible and the tangible and that was the ATSC embedded with the Herndon Center.  Our treatment here of the CARF and the Liaison Function between FAA and NORAD completes the record.  He teed up the ATSC in his first article and made it the centerpiece for his second article.  In his opening sentence to the second article he gets the story right, “a small group of Air Force reservists and FAA air traffic experts [including CARF] started working on the inevitable next phase–how to restore the National Airspace System.”

And that was their proper role.  There should be no expectation that the three linear process in existence discussed in this article could have or should have been engaged earlier than they ultimately were.  I will add these three processes/functions to the growing list of identifiable linear procedures in effect on 9-11.