This article is the first in a series. It sets the stage for a discussion of the national level’s descent into chaos as it pursued a plane which no longer existed, UA 93. I will show that, threat aircraft aside, real or imagined, the national level had little situation awareness of friendly forces.
I define the national level as the National Command Authority; the Vice President; relevant Departments of government, specifically Defense and Transportation (including the FAA); and certain supporting organizations, specifically the National Military Command Center and the White House Situation Room.
The national level did not start getting organized until 9:20–I will speak to that in a later article-and never gained situational awareness of the threat during the terrorist attack. What is little understood is that decision makers and their supporting staff apparently had little awareness of the friendly situation.
The decision at hand was whether or not to allow Air Force One to continue north and return the President to the nation’s capital. The collective wisdom dictated that the President not return, that he seek safe haven to the west, ultimately Omaha, Nebraska, with a short stop in Louisiana.
The danger was knowledge of another hijacked aircraft (UA 93) and a vague, false threat to Air Force One. Yet, there were adequate friendly forces available to support the President’s return.
Friendly Force Disposition
At 10:10 EDT, the moment Air Force One turned west just south of Ocala, Florida, there were at least six fighters in the air that could have provided protection or escort, and there was an E4B, Venus 77, that had been positioned south of Washington D.C. specifically to support Air Force One.
Three Langley air defense fighters, two fully armed, had established a combat air patrol over the nation’s capital at 10:00. Three Andrews fighters had just been recalled from scheduled training over Dare range in North Carolina. One, Bully 2, was already en route home base, the other two were just beginning the flight north.
Other military aircraft, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine, were active in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Here is a powerpoint screen print of the Mode 2 (military) tracks during the period 10:00-10:30, as contained in the 84th RADES radar files from the Southeast Air Defense Sector.
Military Air Activity (view as slide show for better clarity)
Although the Andrews fighters had training ammunition only, they did have tanker support and could have escorted Air Force One until the Langley fighters, also supported by tankers, could take over.
Retrospectively, it is clear that the National Military Command Center and, by extension, the White House Situation Room, was not able to accurately advise the National Command Authority concerning either the enemy or the friendly situation. That was more than a failure of imagination it was a failure of execution.