9-11: Air Force One; Flight to Barksdale, an uncertain decision

(updated July 22, 2020, added material in red)

Introduction

By all accounts, the President was determined to return to Washington, D.C. the morning of September 11, 2001, but was denied. Fog of war clouds ruled the day and the wrong decision was made for all the wrong reasons. We begin with published recollections.

Recollections

Published memoirs by the Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet are all silent on the decision.

Richard Clarke, National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, wrote this:

…somebody has to tell the President he can’t come right back here. Cheney, Condi, somebody. Secret Service concurs.

Clarke, Against All Enemies, Free Press, p. 7.

National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, wrote this:

Then I called the President, “I’m coming back,” he said. “Mr. President,” I said, “stay where you are. You cannot come back here.”

No Higher Honor, 2011, Crown, p.72

Commander Anthony Barnes, Deputy Director, Presidential Contingency Programs, said this:

The President was safer aboard Air Force One than trying to come home, and Mr. Cheney — without question — was in charge.”

Goff, The Only Plane In The Sky, Avid Reader Press, p. 166

President George W. Bush wrote this:

[The Secret Service] said conditions in Washington were too volatile, the danger of attack too high…I told them I was not going to let terrorists scare me away. “I’m the President,” I said firmly. “And we are going to Washington.”

Decision Points, Crown, 2010, p. 130

The 9/11 Commission Concluded:

The issue still was undecided when the President conferred with the Vice President at about the time Air Force One was taking off [9:54 EDT]. The Vice President recalled urging the President not to return to Washington. The President strongly wanted to return to Washington and only grudgingly agreed to go elsewhere.

The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004, W. W. Norton, p. 39

Two roles had become mutually exclusive. It is the role of the Secret Service to protect the President. It is the role of the President to protect the nation. As Commander-in-Chief his duty is to lead even at great personal risk. He was denied and was sent, literally, hightailing to the hinterland. Secret Service concerns held sway.

The Fog of War

All memoirs of the day cite poor communication capability between the President and the Vice President in the PEOC (President’s Emergency Operations Center) and even within the PEOC itself. Consider this bizarre memory of the same event at the White House by the two people at either end of a telephone line between the Situation Room and the PEOC.

Richard Clarke: I picked up the open line to the PEOC. I got a dial tone. Someone had hung up on the other end.

Clarke, ibid, p. 6

Angler, The Cheney Vice Presidency

Clarke wanted an open line to the bunker. He called again. Then again.

Cheney kept answering, still expecting Bush. He stopped saying anything when he heard Clarke’s voice, just put the receiver down.

“Who’s the asshole who keeps answering the phone down there?” Clarke demanded, after finally getting his man back on the line.

“That would be the vice president,” [his man] replied.

Gellman, Angler, Penguin, 2007, p. 118.

The Secret Service

The Secret Service was bedeviled with false information and was in reactive mode to each perceived threat to the President. That included a report of an unknown over the White House, itself. That turned out to be one of the Air Defense fighters from Langley Air Force Base. The report came from air traffic control and military controllers themselves, took it seriously, and intercepted the target. Langley fighters intercepted themselves, a complex story for another day.

Commission Staff reviewed, but was not allowed to keep the Secret Service’s own timeline of the day. My recall is that it was simply a mashing together of information from its various elements. Much of the false reporting of the day did come from the Secret Service, to include a report that United Airlines flight 93 had crashed at Camp David.

Specifically, concerning Air Force One, it had a takeoff time of 10:15 EDT (my recall). Air Force One was airborne at 9:54 EDT.

Air Force One

Air Force One was airborne at 9:54 EDT, turned west at 10:10 EDT, and landed shortly after 11:30 EDT. Altitude was 39,000 feet, despite the President’s personal recall. The flight path was the length of the Florida panhandle direct to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB). Here is the path as recorded by United States Air Force Radar sites supporting the Southeast Air Defense Sector.

Air Force One flight path, September 11, 2001
Commission File RDoD04021430

Air Force One flew unescorted until just before landing at Barksdale AFB. Fighters from the Texas National Guard joined up about five minutes before landing and escorted Air Force One in trail, one fighter north and one south. Here is the combined paths of Air Force One and the fighter escort.

Here is the recall of the Air Force One pilot, Mark Tillman. “USA Today” reported:

We get out over the Gulf of Mexico, and the vice president advises the plane that ‘Angel’ is next. . .In the cabin, reporters and staffers noticed a fighter jet flying off the right wing. One at 11:29 a. m., according to the pool report.

“USA Today, August 25, 2011, “Air Force One pilot’s 9/11 mission: Keep president safe

Radar data establishes that the fighters joined up with Air Force One at 11:28 EDT, consistent with the pool reporting. The only inconsistency in Tillman’s account is the flight path is over land, not the Gulf.

The radar data contradicts an early 1st Air Force contention that:

Four F-16s from the 147th Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard, escorted President Bush from the panhandle of Florida to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. [sic]

Filson, Air War Over America, 2003, p. 87.

Despite multiple vague threats and anecdotal statements the fact remains that Air Force One flew for an extended period, unescorted and unprotected by air defense fighters. That would not have been the case had Air Force One simply proceeded directly to Washington, D.C., once airborne.

A digression

A key requirement in any battle is to establish the disposition of forces, enemy and friendly. Commanders’ briefings at any level start with that requirement. The intelligence officer briefs the disposition of enemy forces and the operations officer briefs the disposition of friendly forces. The separation of duties is clear and longstanding.

Both the Congressional Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission established that 9/11 was an intelligence failure, the disposition of enemy forces on 9/11 was never known during the battle. Neither report, however, established that operations did not have an understanding of the disposition of friendly forces. As a result the National Command Authority was not aware that Air Force One, headed North, would have been protected.

This operational failure is independent of events of 9/11. As the day unfolded the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Command Authority did not have a common operating picture of friendly force disposition.

(added information) At 10:32 EDT, this conversation took place between Herndon Center and FAA Headquarters:

Herndon: Air Force One. . .still does not have a fighter escort

FAA HQ: They still do not!? Holy Cow!

FAA HQ? Is the NMCC [National Military Command Center] aware of this?

Transcribed phone line x4530, Herndon Center. Commission file 148-911-03011356A-1-s2
10:2 EDT: Air Force One no fighter escort

Friendly Force Disposition

Whereas Air Force One had no protection west bound it had at least three elements of protection north bound.

  • Air Defense fighters, fully armed over the National Capital Region
  • An E4B, Venus 77, in position to guard
  • Andrews Air Force Base fighters, unarmed, returning from North Carolina

Air Defense. Two fully armed active air defense fighters from Langley Air Force Base established a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington, D.C. beginning at 10:00 EDT. They had a third lightly armed fighter in trail. This was a full ten minutes before the decision was made to turn Air Force One to the West.

The CAP was initially established west-east, to protect against an attack from the east. About 11:34 EDT the CAP orientation shifted to north-south, shortly before Air Force One landed at Barksdale AFB, as shown here.

Langley Air Defense, Quit Flight, 0945-1200 EDT
Quit 25 lead, Quit 26 wing, Quit 27 trail
Commission File RDoD94021432

E4B. An E4B is a National Airborne Operations Center B747 which flies in support of the National Command Authority. One E4B, Venus 77, established a 60-mile, north-south, racetrack orbit centered on Richmond, VA. Venus 77 took off in a hurry when the National Military Operations Center convened an Air Threat Conference Call. That, according to staff officers interviewed by Commission Staff had “SIOP (Single Integrated Operations Plan) implications.” Venus 77 was in such a hurry that it took off VFR (visual flight rules) without waiting for a flight plan to be filed. Its declared destination was Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

USAF Fact Sheet
September 23, 2015

Somewhere over Rock Creek Park it was diverted to Richmond. That diversion was noticed by multiple observers and Venus 77 became the “mystery plane.” Despite that notoriety it was in place to protect the President, as shown on this graphic

E4B, Venus 77 9:44 to 11:15 EDT
Commission File RDoD94021432

First radar return was 9:44 EDT. Venus 77 turned back east and then to the south at 9:47 EDT. The race track north-south orbit began at 9:57 EDT, three minutes after Air Force One became airborne. It was well positioned to support a return flight north. The orbit changed, pointed toward Barksdale Air Force Base at 10:32 EDT. Just one NE-SW orbit was flown and then Venus 77 circled west and headed in the direction of Omaha, NE, at 10:46 EDT, in likely anticipation of the next Air Force One destination.

Unarmed Fighters. Three Andrews Air Force Base fighters were in various stages of returning from an early morning training mission over Dare Range in Northeastern North Carolina. The call sign Bully aircraft returned in stages. The lead, Bully One with Bully Three on wing could have been vectored to accompany Air Force One. Bully Two had returned early and was not available.

Andrews AFB Fighter Bully One
Morning training flight to Dare Range, NC
Commission File RDoD94021432

Bully One was over Dare Range while decisions were being made concerning Air Force One. Bully One, with Bully Three on wing, headed north at 10:05 EDT, just as the final decision was being made to turn Air Force One to the west. He had tanker support.

Here is the spatial relationship of Air Force One, Quit 25, Venus 77, and Bully One at 10:10 EDT. Quit 25 is the lead air defense fighter launched from Langley Air Force Base.

Friendly Forces, 10:10 EDT September 11, 2001
Data from 84th RADES radar files provided to the 9/11 Commission

Air Force One is distant from friendly defense aircraft, but protected for a return to Washington, D.C. This disposition of friendly forces was not known to the National Command Authority while deciding on the destination for Air Force One. This is an operational failure.

Conclusion

In the best of all possible worlds the formation of Northern Command will preclude another operational failure of this significance. According to their website: “USNORTHCOM consolidates under a single unified command existing missions that were previously executed by other DOD organizations. This provides unity of command, which is critical to mission accomplishment.” Northern Command has one essential element: “The commander of USNORTHCOM also commands the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).”

Even so, decision makers need to remember one 9/11 lesson learned. The mission of the President is to protect the nation. The mission of the Secret Service is to protect the President. Sometimes those missions become mutually exclusive.