9-11: Air Defense Response; first things first, the Scott Trilogy (part 3)

This is the last article in the Scott series and it stands alone, independent of the other two articles.  Scott chose the week of the first anniversary of 9-11 to publish “F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93,” September 9, 2002.  In his article Scott told the story of the Air National Guard at Andrews and literally set in stone a story contrary to the events of the day; one that has been difficult to unravel.

The Commission Staff thought we had put the Andrews story to rest when our final report was published.  The story was resurrected in Lynn Spencer’s Touching History which compelled three members of the Staff, including me, to publish an OpEd article in the “New York Times.”  I spoke to the Andrews Story in a previous article which should be read first.  With the understanding that the primary and secondary sources of the day do not support Scott’s narrative we can now look at the issue that Scott raises in his title, rules of engagement.

The Facts

At no time during the battle of 9-11 did any military aircraft have authenticated rules to engage a target.  NEADS, itself, did not have any such guidance until well after the fate of UA 93 had been determined.  That guidance was not passed to either the Otis or Langley pilots that morning.  No Andrews pilot had written “weapons free” authority until a pair of fully armed fighters lifted off after 11:00.

The Rationalization

Scott told us two things.  First, he addressed the title of his article by writing: “all three [Hutchison, Sasseville, Lucky] acknowledge they were prepared to ram a terrorist-flown aircraft, if necessary.”  Second, he further wrote: “Sasseville planned to fire from behind and ‘try to saw off one wing…and bring it down.”  There is no primary or secondary souce information to support either supposition.

Scott did not address the Langley pilots, but we do know that the stated NORAD rationalization by both Arnold and Marr was that they would take lives in the air to save lives on the ground.  That being said, they did not give the pilots in the air the authority to engage.

Since the circumstances never came to that Hobson’s Choice the ‘what if?’ is a matter of speculation.  What we do know is that only the Langley fighters had authentication tables with them; the Andrews pilots did not, according to what they told me during interview.  We also know that the Langley fighters were over the nation’s capital long before the Andrew’s fighters.  We also know that only the Langley (and Otis) fighters under any plausible scenario could have conceivably had to take terrible, swift action.

So, we can set the Andrew’s fighter story aside with one final point about Scott’s narrative turning again to an issue with all eyewitness and participant recall information, time compression.

Time Compression

Scott wrote: “Within minutes of American airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Air National Guard F-16s took off from here [Andrews AFB, MD] in response to a plea from the White House to ‘Get in the air now’.”  That establishes a takeoff time prior to 9:45, which is not possible.  It is no wonder that Lynn Spencer had so much difficulty with time compression in her own narrative concerning the Andrews fighters.  Three of the available seven pilots were in the skies over North Carolina.. The other four had no planes immediately ready for use.The first Andrews fighter airborne, Hutchison just returning from North Carolina, lifted off a hour later than Scott’s narrative has it.

The Realm of Speculation

I leave it to the reader to rationalize what might have happened.  As you do so consider these points.

First, in my article on the Battle of 9-11 I make reference to rules of engagement and to my work on this last Scott article.  I wrote: “All informal time-distance analyses that I have worked through in my mind [given a scramble at 9:09] indicate that AA 77 and the Langley fighters would have arrived over greater DC skies at about the same time. And the unanswered question is, “then what?””

Second, I have worked through in my mind the time distance factors for both the Otis and Langley fighters and in the most perfect of worlds there is a slender chance that the Otis fighters would have arrived over a heavily populated area at the same time as did UA 175.  There is a slightly less slender chance that AA 77 and the Langley fighters would have also arrived over a heavily populated area at the same time.

Third, arriving on the scene and actually intercepting a target are two very different things.  It takes time, time the pilots would likely not have had.

Fourth, there is the issue of authority and authentication.  That, too, takes time.

Finally, there is the cognitive problem for the reader of where is it, exactly, the two hijacked airliners are going to go down?

With the possible exception of UA 93, NORAD was not going to take lives in the air to save lives on the ground, despite their rationalization.

AA 11 and UA 93

The Otis pilots had no chance to defend against AA11.  FAA declared a hijack at 9:25.  It took NEADS, once alerted, the Otis pilots, once scrambled, (edited Nov 1, 2009) on the order of thirteen minutes to get fighters (edited Nov 1, 2009) airborne.  Air defense fighters fly at ‘military power,’ maximum subsonic.  NORAD specified in its timeline a rate of advance of .9 mach.  That approximates 9 nautical miles per minute.  It is nearly 170 nautical miles from Otis to Manhattan according to Google Earth.  I leave it to the reader to do the math.

The Langley pilots were in position to do something about UA 93, but they had no authority to engage.  That is the one plane that could have been engaged to save lives on the ground.  Except the passengers and crew aboard UA 93 had already figured that out for themselves.

A Final Observation

We have now completed a review of the Scott Trilogy.  That body of work together with other published information in the aftermath of 9-11 established a story that was simply not true.  The quote at the top of my home page is the Staff’s summation of the situation as we found it.