9-11: Exercise Vigilant Guardian; Sep 11, 0001-0837 hours


In a series of previous articles we have listened to the voices of NEADS as they worked their way through Exercise Vigilant Guardian, day by day.  Here is a brief recap to set the stage.

Initially, NEADS responded to one major scenario on each exercise day.  On Sep 6, the scenario concerned a military C-130 that was behaving strangely.  On Sep 7, the scenario was a defecting Aeroflot plane.  On Sep 8, NEADS exercised counter narcotics procedures dealing with a split track out of Bermuda headed for Philadelphia.

On Sep 9, CONR raised the force protection condition to “Bravo.”  NEADS then dealt with a terrorist rogue aircraft that was a threat to the tankers at Bangor, Maine, the preferred FAA divert landing site.  NEADS did not push back and the plane exploded on the runway at Bangor.

On Sep 10, activity picked up.  NEADS was required to expand and cover for SEADS, both exercise and real world.  They then had to deal with simultaneous events.  One was a hijacked Cubana flight with persons on board seeking political asylum.  NEADS had to prepare for a handoff from SEADS, which did not occur.  In their own AOR they had to deal with a rogue F-18 pilot who shot his wing man and threatened air traffic.  NEADS exercised shoot down authority including what to do if the target was over a populated area.  The event ended uneventfully as the F-18 landed at BWI.

Exercise Day 9-11, Overview

Contrary to the impression of some researchers, NEADS was not engaged in Exercise Vigilant Guardian in the hours immediately prior to the terrorist attacks.  The exercise was a series of discrete events, not a continuum. There was one early morning requirement to expand and cover for WADS handing over responsibility for the entire East coast to SEADS.  NEADS resumed air sovereignty over the Northeast at 0832Z (0432 LOCAL)

There was no exercise activity and very limited real world activity after the resumption of air sovereignty until Boston Center called with news of a real world hijack.  Thereafter, there was still no exercise activity on the NEADS sector floor.  There were occasional anecdotal remarks about exercise and real world, and a clearance of exercise tracks from scopes, but no events, scenarios or injects. At 1403Z (1003 local) NORAD convened a conference call to terminate all exercise inputs.

The primary source evidence is conclusive that Exercise Vigilant Guardian at NEADS effectively ended at 0430 local time on 9-11 and was officially terminated at 1003 local time.  The Exercise was not a detracting variable that morning, in fact just the opposite.  The Battle Cab was manned in preparation for the days events and sufficient backup personnel were available in the break area to immediately expand operations on the sector floor.

But we are getting ahead of the story.  We begin the day’s activity with a double expansion.


Previously, NEADS had expanded to cover for SEADS.  In today’s event NEADS expanded to cover for WADS.  It was a double expansion, however.  First, SEADS had to expand to cover for NEADS, then NEADS expanded to cover for WADS.  Both expansions were like the earlier expansion, exercise and real world.

The first notification concerning an expansion was a heads up from WADS that they had received a bomb threat.  0911042819 Heads up SEADS bomb threat The ID sections at both WADS and NEADS compared notes in anticipation and then the actual requirement was passed by WADS.  0911043332 Expansion required

The MCC then announced that it would be a dual expansion.  Even though he stated the expansion was for the exercise, real world responsibilities were also part of the dual expansion.  0911043403 MCC for the exercise The time was 0455Z (0055 local), shortly after midnight on 9-11.

The SEADS expansion went quickly with the net result that SEADS was guarding the entire East coast and WADS the West.  NEADS was off line until its expansion to the West was complete.  The MCC announced that SEADS had air sovereignty effective 0511z (0111 local).  0911045113 SEADS has air sovereignty The nation’s air defense was provided by SEADS and WADS.

It took longer for  NEADS to expand as they worked to bring the WADS radios on line and to resolve feeds from the aerostat radars on the Southern border.  It was a multi-step process. First, NEADS Maintenance had to assure that the AST had a clear air picture of WADS.  Then the transfer of radars began.  The first radar was transfered at 0520 (0120 local).  0911045724 Expansion started NEADS provided its status to WADS about nine minutes later, referencing the radios problem.  0911050849 Almost complete problem with radios

NEADS and WADS, together worked a potential target, a probable boat or beacon.  WADS advised that if NEADS could not solve the radio problem WADS would have to take the area back, immediately.  0911051346 NEADS WADS conversation

Ultimately, it turned out to be a simple problem, a contractor did not hit the reset button.  It is not stated whether that was intentional or part of the exercise.  0911052909 Just a button The MCC declared air sovereignty at 0546Z (0146 local).  The nation’s air defense was now provided by SEADS and NEADS.

The SEADS expansion took 16 minutes, the NEADS expansion took 26 minutes.  Once the two expansions were completed we no longer hear conversations, real world or notional, with Boston, New York, and Washington Centers.  What we do hear is NEADS with West coast responsibilities.

NEADS as WADS (Western Air Defense Sector)

The early morning of 9-11 was apparently C-130 day in CONR, for the exercise.  In the hand off to SEADS, NEADS had alerted them to an exercise track, a C-130 headed for Mildenhal.  In turn, they picked up a C-130 exercise track of their own, as WADS.

The NEADS procedures were similar in all respects to  previous notional scrambles during the exercise.  NEADS debated whether to scramble Portland or Fresno, the C-130, Coast Guard 1750, was out of Sacremento and was not  returning to base, as planned.  It was not responding to calls on normal Coast Guard frequency or on the guard frequency.  NEADS vectored the fighters to identify the target by type. The controller to fighter exchanges were typical of all NEADS-directed scrambles.  Here is a audio file with the resolution of the C-130 scenario.  “Railbird” was the exercise call sign for WADS.  Jonah was the call sign for the air defense fighters.  0911070349 Coast Guard C130 resolution

More importantly, that was the last exercise Vigilant Guardian 01 air defense event in which NEADS participated.  The time was 0726Z, 0326 local.  NEADS continued as WADS for most of an hour until a de-expansion which restored the normal CONUS air defense responsibilities.

Identification Technicians’ experience

The NEADS mode of operation, routinely verifying tracks approaching the ADIZ, caught at least two FAA Centers by surprise.  In this next clip we hear the FAA Los Angeles Center contact, real world, state that he has had more calls tonight than he had in the past four years.  0911062335 Los Angeles Center comment That conversation continued about an hour later.  0911072707 Los Angeles continued

Between those two calls there was a similar exchange with Oakland Center.  0911064644 Oakland Center

This call and the two Los Angeles center calls were not indicative of a NEADS problem on the East Coast.  The East Coast FAA centers, specifically New York, Boston and Washington, were used to NEADS calling to routinely check everyone.  The East Coast experience was that DVFR (Defense Visual Flight Rules) flights were always problematic.  Moreover, the East Coast experience, including SEADS, was that the proximity of Cuba to the ADIZ was always a concern.

Return to normal

The remaining exercise task was to restore normal operations.  That required NEADS to return air sovereignty to WADS and then gain air sovereignty back from SEADS.  Here, briefly, is how and when that happened.

First, WADS returned to its building and became mission capable.  That began the NEADS de-expansion, as announced by the MCC at 0802Z (0402 local).  0911074145 WADS mission capable prepare to deexpand

Fourteen minutes later WADS declared air sovereignty. 0911075739 WADS air sovereignty That left NEADS with no CONUS air defense responsibility, exercise or real world, until they could reclaim air sovereignty.  That declaration was made by the MCC at 0832Z (0432 local). 0911081143 NEADS air sovereignty Both de-expansions took about 15 minutes.  During that second 15 minutes NEADS had no air defense responsibilities, exercise or real world.

The Day Shift On Board

Things remained quiet on the NEADS sector floor thereafter until Boston Center called at 1238Z with news of a real world hijack.  NEADS was poised in anticipation of an exercise event that never came.  They quickly transitioned to the real world event as reported by the Commission and by Michael Bronner in Vanity Fair.

Following are some clips of interest to round out the story.  We start with voices and names familiar to researchers and historians conversant with the NEADS tapes.

First, even though the night shift was still on duty, we learn that Lt Col Ian Sanderson, the SOCC Director, was already in, as was, then, Major Deskins.  The time was 1100Z (0700 local)  0911103939 Sanderson Deskins This is the only time of which I am aware that we hear Sanderson’s voice.

By 0730, local, the day shift ID technicians had assumed duty.  Their pattern of work is evident in this next clip, a pattern that Los Angeles and Oakland Centers found remarkable several hours earlier.  The time was 0738, local, and NEADS was routinely dealing with unknown tracks.  The call was to “New York AMIS,” the same desk the ID Technicians would call a little over an hour later in the hunt for AA 11.

That link, not a link to the military specialist, was the established New York Center connection, primarily to deal with unknowns approaching or entering the ADIZ.  The connection to Boston Center was to the military desk.  Boston Center did not have the same over water responsibilities as did New York Center.  0911111753 ID Technician

Major Fox was on duty.  Recall that he had assigned himself to be the Senior Director.  He directed an “unknown rider” call on the potential target the ID Technician was working and also learned it was bad data.  He then announced that he had just come on duty.  0911111815 Major Fox

Major Nasypany, the MCC, was also on duty.  He called the night shift Director of Operations for the exercise to ask if he wanted a real world briefing; he did not.  0911111815 Major Nasypany

Have a nice/good day

Major Nasypany’s closing remark, “have a good day,” was not the first instance of such a comment.  The “good day”  tone was set at the moment NEADS assumed air sovereignty back from SEADS as each AST section said to the other, at 0432 in the morning, “have a nice day.”  0911081203 Have a nice day

About one hour and 15 minutes later Mohammed Atta and an accomplice passed through security at Portland, ME, and entered the National Airspace System (NAS) at 0545.  The attack had begun.

As Major Nasypany voiced his “have a good day” salutation two hours later, hijackers had boarded UA 175, were boarding AA 11 and UA 93, and were about to board AA 77.  It was not going to be either a good or nice day.