9-11: The day of; a report card

Update: January 16, 2013

At 9:10, at least one controller at Boston Center notified all aircraft on his frequency to increase cockpit security.  That guidance was recorded on a traffic management phone line and a conversation concerning UA 175 overrides part of the controllers warning.  This following brief clip is an example of the multiple tasks being handled concurrently by Boston Center–warning to pilots in the air, determining data about UA175, and initiating a ground stop.

0910 Attention All Aircraft Increase Cockpit Security

Update: January 13, 2013

The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC, Herndon Center) is downgraded from high marks to low marks because of its reluctance to react immediately and positively to a Boston Center request to increase cockpit security.  Boston Center made that request at 9:15 EDT.  Here is that request.

 0915 ZBW Recommends Increased Cockpit Security

The request was to make such notifications for aircraft that had departed Boston; however, Herndon Center should have picked up and expanded the initiative. Even though Tony, Command Center East, told Boston he would get the message out that did not happen. The Herndon Center position was that such notification should come from the airlines, not air traffic control.  Nevertheless, Boston Center made such notifications on its own recognizance, which reinforces the original high marks given to that Center.

Ultimately, the notification to United Airlines flight 93, the one flight that might have benefited by such a warning, was sent belatedly by United Airlines via ACARS (Aircraft Communications Reporting and Addressing System).


(Note: The grades given are subject to revision as more is learned about events of the day.)

Today is the 10th anniversary of the battle of 9-11. Even with this small increment of history behind us it is possible to look back and grade the work done by the defenders against the attack–the government bureaucracy, with the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command at the fore, and the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center) and the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in command.

The front line of troops comprised the enroute air traffic control centers and the traffic control (TRACON) facilities and the designated air defense units at Otis and Langley Air Force Bases.  It did not include the fighters at Andrews, but they became a factor anyway.

The report card for the offense, the attackers, was long ago established; a 75% rate of accomplishment.  The report card for the emergency response I leave to others with more knowledge.

This is a report card for the government not the administration.  The standard operating procedures (SOP) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) in effect on September 11 transcended administrations, some procedures dating back for years.

Some argue that 9-11 was a failure of the Bush administration, others that it was a failure of the Clinton administration.  My position is that is was a failure of a bureaucracy of long standing, independent of who happened to be in charge, politically.

The work done that day will be graded on a curve; on the whole the defense was a failure.  Yet, within that failure, the work of some agencies stood out and deserves higher marks.  We start with the highest performing entities.

Highest Marks

  • FAA Reagan National (DCA)
  • FAA Otis Tower/TRACON
  • USAF National Guard Otis AFB, 102d Fighter Wing

High Marks

  • NORAD Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS)
  • FAA Boston Center (ZBW)
  • FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center)
  • FAA Cleveland Center (ZOB)

Passing Marks

  • FAA New York Center (ZNY)
  • FAA New York TRACON
  • USAF NG 119th Fighter Wing Detachment, Langley AFB
  • FAA Newark Tower
  • USAF Langley AFB Tower
  • FAA Norfolk TRACON

Low Marks

  • FAA Indianapolis Center (ZID)
  • Air Force Rescue and Coordination Center
  • Giant Killer (Fleet Area Control & Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes)
  • United States Navy
  • United States Air Force

Failing Marks

  • FAA Headquarters
  • FAA Washington Center (ZDC)
  • FAA Dulles TRACON
  • FAA Regions (New England, Eastern, Great Lakes)
  • White House Situation Room
  • Secret Service
  • JCS National Military Command Center (NMCC)
  • USAF Langley AFB Base Operations


  • United States Air Force Air National Guard
  • Andrews AFB, 121st Fighter Squadron

Grades given on 9/11

FAA graded the performance of both itself and the Secret Service shortly after 1052 EDT.  On line 4530 at Herndon Center this bit of fatalistic conversation transpired between Herndon Center and FAA Headquarters.  “So, Secret Service is more screwed up than we are, John?This was in reference to one of the erroneous Secret Service reports of the morning.  105231 SS More Screwed Up than we are 4530 Line

That comment was followed a few seconds later by this exchange:  105314 SS Reverse Call Not Camp David 4530 Line

Voice One:  Ah, Secret Service now is reversing their call, they think the United did go in south of Johnstown and not at Camp David.

Voice Two: We can’t reverse our calls on these things.

Voice One: [Snort]

Vocie Two: Ah, OK

Voice One  So, they’re worse, they’re worse  than we are, right?

Highest Marks Discussion

DCA. The highest mark goes to Reagan National Tower/TRACON (DCA), the only entity, military or civilian, that vectored a military aircraft to follow one of the hijacked airplanes.  Once alerted by Dulles TRACON the DCA response was immediate.

Otis. Two other entities share a mark nearly as high, Otis Tower/TRACON and the fighter detachment at Otis.  Between the two they reduced the delay time by, in effect, putting the alert pilots on battle stations before such an order was received.  Further, Otis Tower/TRACON followed up with NEADS on the request from Boston Center for military support.

A comment is needed at this point.  Marks awarded are for actual performance that morning, not for performance in the aftermath.  Afterwards, the Otis pilots internalized their experience into a myth, one of supersonic flight and direct response to the situation in New York.  Even though that myth persists to this day that is not what happened.

High Marks Discussion

NEADS. NEADS, by every measure, performed as well as it could that morning, given the information made available to it.  Specifically, NEADS immediately eliminated an exercise which had not yet restarted as an intervening variable.  Further, NEADS personnel continuously responded with speed to fragmentary orders issued on the fly.  NEADS is downgraded from highest marks for two reasons.  First, there was no followup to make sure the Langley scramble proceeded as ordered.  Second, NEADS had no awareness of the importance or even the existence of the Herndon Center.

ZBW. Boston Center receives equal marks for not waiting for higher FAA authority to engage the military.  Boston fell short for the same reason as did NEADS, a failure to recognize that NEADS should have been communicating with Herndon Center.

ATCSCC. Herndon Center also receives equal marks. As Center personnel told Commission staff on our first orientation visit, the ATCSCC was, in effect,  the National Military Command Center (NMCC) that morning.  Herndon receives the highest possible mark for recognizing that the only way to manage chaos was to bound the situation. That they did by ordering every commercial airplane aloft to land.  Herndon Center is downgraded for two reasons. First, they turned the requirement to request military support back to Boston Center. Second, when Boston Center recommend that a cockpit alert be sent to all planes in the air Herndon demurred.  Such communication was the provenance of the airlines, not FAA, according to SOP.

ZOB. Cleveland Center also receives high marks for its prompt and continuous reporting on the flight path of UA 93 and its initiative to establish a new flight plan to assist Washington Center.  Cleveland Center’s reporting was passed in near real time to FAA Headquarters, another high mark for Herndon Center for keeping a line open to Headquarters so that the information could be passed along as it was received at Herndon.  Had Cleveland Center notified NEADS directly and immediately they would have received highest marks.

Passing marks Discussion

CONR. NORAD’s CONUS Region, CONR, receives passing marks for facilitating the command decisions made at NEADS.

ZNY, TRACON, Newark. The FAA’s New York Center also receives passing marks as do its subordinate facilities, New York TRACON and Newark Tower.

Langley Detachment. Langley air defense detachment.  The Hooligans, a detachment from the North Dakota Air National Guard, receive passing marks, downgraded because of a lack of understanding of how Langley Tower actually launched air defense fighters.

Langley Tower. I am convinced, after three trips to Langley Tower, that their insistent story that they used and would continue to use a flight plan of “090 for 60” made sense from their perspective.  They are downgraded, here, for a failure of imagination, not action.

Norfolk TRACON. The TRACON did its job by asking the Langley lead pilot which way he wanted to go.  The Langley scramble, as a whole, was a series of understandable discrete actions that did not cohere in the aggregate.  Hence the passing marks for Langley Tower, TRACON and the air defense detachment.

Low Marks Discussion

ZID. FAA’s Indianapolis Center.  “Indy” Center was a victim of the timing, planned or otherwise, of the terrorist attack.  AA 77 was hijacked before UA 175 struck the World Trade Center and it was understandable why AA 77 was considered to be lost as opposed to hijacked.  Indy did not have the advantage that Boston Center had and Cleveland Center had, hijacker pilot broadcasts on frequency.  Nevertheless, at the time they informed Air Force Rescue and Great Lakes Region they should have also notified Herndon Center, given what had already transpired in New York.

USAF RCC. The Air Force Rescue and Coordination Center, at Langley, also receives low marks for failure to recognize the larger picture, given they were notified of the loss of AA 77 several minutes after UA 175 struck the World Trade Center.

Giant Killer. Giant Killer, the Navy air traffic control facility for military warning areas also receives low marks, for two reasons.  First, they had already handled the Otis scramble and knew the urgency of the situation.  They heard the scramble order for the Langley fighters yet did nothing to correct the situation when Langley Tower entered a flight plan of 090 for 60.  Further, Giant Killer decided on its own that its tapes could be recycled, normal procedure, and not retained for after action analysis.

United States Navy. That myopia was shared by Giant Killer’s United States Navy chain-of-command.  No one, at any level, thought it necessary to preserve the Giant Killer air traffic control tapes as evidence.  Thus the low mark for the United States Navy.

United States Air Force. The myopia was not limited to the Navy chain-of-command.  The Air Force failed to direct units at Langley Air Force Base, specifically Base Operations, to retain records beyond the normal retention period.

Failures Discussion

FAA. First and foremost on this list is FAA Headquarters.  FAA policies and procedures failed to stop any of the 19 hijackers from entering the National Airspace and then boarding the four hijacked aircraft. That is the single most egregious point of failure the morning of September 11, 2001.  Further, FAA failed to get itself organized at the highest level in reasonable fashion.  Of note, at Headquarters, there were three different crisis activity centers.  In addition to operations at the WOC (Washington Operations Center), air traffic control officials set up their own response cell at the other end of the 10th floor at FAA Headquarters.  Moreover, the only entity actually talking to the national level across all agencies, the ACI Watch, was operating in its SCIF on the 3d floor.  Since at least 0916 that morning, the ACI watch was in communication with all other watch centers in the Washington area, including the NMCC, DIA, State, NSA, State, and CIA, among others.

ZDC and Dulles TRACON. Washington Center and Dulles TRACON failed to react and look for AA 77 even though they were aware of an unknown track as early as 9:25 according to their after action documents and air traffic control communications.

FAA Regions. The FAA’s regional structure failed because, as administrative headquarters, they attempted to play an operational role that just confused things.  Herdon Center should have been the focus of activity, it was not.  Specifically, Great Lakes Region failed to promptly notify Herndon Center of the loss of AA 77 as soon as they were notified by Indianapolis Center.

WHSR. The White House Situation Room failed by facilitating the use of the Secure Video Teleconference System (SVTS) to isolate key agency personnel just as the Pentagon was struck.

USSS. The Secret Service receives the highest possible marks for protecting the President and the Vice President.  However, the Service failed to realize that its mission to protect the President and the Vice President and the mission of the President and the Vice President to protect the nation had become mutually exclusive.  Thus, the Service consigned the Vice President to PEOC purgatory and facilitated the decision to have the President flee,  to hightail it to the hinterlands.  Moreover, some of the false reporting that day was later attributed to the Secret Service.

JCS/NMCC. The National Military Command Center (NMCC) dithered in its selection of a suitable conference call.  First, they delayed because a NOIWON conference had been convened by CIA at about 9:16. (See FAA discussion) Ironically, that conference had already connected all the major entities, to include FAA.  Second, the NMCC convened a significant event conference which failed.  Then, instead of convening a significant air conference they chose a conference with serious doomsday overtones, the air threat conference.  But the most serious NMCC failure was of a different nature.  The NMCC and, by extension, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had no grasp of the disposition of friendly forces, an egregious failure.  At the time critical decisions were made concerning the President’s route, the Langley fighters were directly overhead the Pentagon, the E4B, Venus 77 was establishing a racetrack orbit centered on Richmond, Virginia, and the Andrews fighters were preparing to return from Dare Range on the North Carolina coast.

NORAD. NORAD wisely let CONR and NEADS deal with the tactical situation but failed at the national level by facilitating the choice of an air threat conference by the NMCC.

Langley Air Force Base. Base Operations at Langley had no grasp of emergency response operations by tenant units.  There was no mechanism in place for the Rescue Coordination Center to report that AA 77 was missing, a fact known at Langley by 0910 that morning.  There was no mechanism in place to provide oversight of the Langley scramble, even though Base Operations heard the original order.  Base Operations was silent as the Langley scramble went astray.  To compound things further Base Operations decided they did not need to keep records of the day longer than the prescribed time.

Incompletes Discussion

USAF ANG. The grade for the United Stated Air Force National Guard will be adjusted to “high” once the Guard gets its story straightened out with what actually happened that morning.  Specifically, the Guard expeditiously generated fighters sorties at non-air defense bases and armed them as quickly as they could.  In addition, tanker support that morning was excellent.

Andrews. The grade for the 121st Squadron at Andrews and its higher headquarters will be adjusted to “passing” once it, too, gets its story straight.

Personal Comment

The grades given are by me, not by the Commission, Commission Staff, or Team 8.  I have thought about these grades for several years now and I share them with my readers on this 10th anniversary of the battle of 9-11.