Many months ago I wrote a series of articles, “The Scott Trilogy.” to depict the state of public information when the Commission began its work. There was one additional article of interest that needs mentioning. That article is “The Return of NORAD,” written by Adam Hebert and published in the February, 2002, edition of Air Force Magazine. The purpose of this additional article, filed under “The Scott Trilogy,” is to document specific information provided by Hebert.
Hebert made the following points
- NORAD operators were looking outward from US borders, seeking incoming aircraft
- NORAD did not anticipate attacks in which civil airliners would be hijacked
- Only seven locations—around the perimeter of the United States—were engaged in the air defense mission
- Alert locations had F-15 or F-16 fighters on the runways, fueled, and ready to take off in fewer than 15 minutes
That was an accurate summation with one exception. The alert fighters were not on the runways, they were in the alert sheds with ready access to the runways. Crews were on standby 24/7.
Given a standard of “less than 15 minutes,” both the Otis and the Langley fighters exceeded standards. According to the author, accurately, the Otis fighters were airborne in 12 minutes and the Langley fighters were airborne in 6 minutes. There was no delay in launching the fighters as some have speculated. The Langley fighters were quickly airborne because they had been placed on battle stations previously.
The author’s summation of the response to the four hijacked aircraft is accurate with two exceptions. First, he repeated the erroneous notification time of 9:24 for AA 77. Second, he wrote that “F-16s patrolling the Washington area were in a position to have intercepted this [UA 93] airliner. During these tense moments, the fighter pilots had permission to shoot down hijacked airliners if they were to threaten more targets.”
Neither the Langley fighters nor the Otis fighters were given shootdown authority during the terrorist attack that morning.
Scramble frequency, in perspective
Actual air defense scrambles were an infrequent event prior to 9-11. It is also important to know that a scramble did not necessarily result in fighters actually launched.
Hebert provided this perspective. “In the year 2000, during the period Sept. 10 through Oct 10, NORAD scrambled fighters a total of seven times (counting exercises).” That extrapolates to 84 scrambles in a year, not just in the NEADS sector or CONUS but in Alaska and Canada, as well.
Hebert continued: “A year later, during the same Sept 10 through Oct. 10 period, fighters were scrambled 41 times. In addition officers diverted 48 Combat Air Patrols to tracks of interest, for a total of 89 events. That twelve-fold increase was roughly three a day across all of North America, not a high volume by any means.
Another noteworthy point made by Herbert concerns how NORAD considered and treated domestic aircraft. “For some time, the FAA had been the lead agency for handling events of ‘air piracy.’ NORAD and the FAA had a cooperative arrangement that left control of domestic airspace to the hands of FAA. Domestic airliners were considered “friendly by origin.””
That is consistent but slightly different than my understanding during work on the Brothers to the Rescue project for the Department of Defense Inspector General. My understanding was that any aircraft departing from a domestic airport and squawking a Mode 3 code was friendly be definition. However, any such aircraft that departed the ADIZ and returned was of continuing interest. Those type flights were called DVFR, Defense Visual Flight Rules, and were always reported by FAA centers to NORAD sectors. The Vigilant Guardian NEADS tapes contain multiple examples of such reporting.
Herbert’s last noteworthy point documents the delegation of shootdown authority post 9/11. Herbert, quoting General Eberhart, wrote, “He said, ‘If there’s time, we’d go all the way to the President’ for approval to shoot down an airliner. ‘Otherwise, the standing orders have been pushed down.'”
Herbert listed three individuals with that authority: “Maj. Gen Larry K. Arnold, commander of 1st Air Force…LT. Gen. Norman A. Schwartz, a three-star officer at Elmendorf Air Force Base [Alaska]…In Hawaii, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, head of Pacific Command.”