The Langley scramble was a series of logical, discrete, and, in retrospect, understandable events that did not cohere in the aggregate. The fighters were placed on battle stations at 9:09, scrambled at 9:24, and airborne at 9:30, but in the wrong direction. Here is what happened. A related Commission work paper is at this link.
The Scramble Order
There were and are four components to a scramble order under procedures long established at NEADS. A complete scramble order contains a target, a distance, a direction, and an altitude. Since NEADS never scrambled against a defined target on 9-11 neither the Langley scramble order nor the Otis scramble order before it contained a target and a distance, two of the requirement elements. The Langley scramble was for a direction, 010, and an altitude, 290, only. By checklist, the scramble order was heard at the Squadron, Langley Base Operations, Langley Tower, Norfolk TRACON, and GIANTKILLER, the military air traffic control facility for training areas. The next responsible facility was Langley Tower.
The Flight Plan
It was Langley Tower’s task to get the fighters in the air as rapidly as possible, preferably over water at altitude. Everything was configured at Langley Air Force Base to accommodate that task. The main runway is essentially east-west and the Squadron alert hangers are at the western end of the runway. The fighters, literally, can take off from the hanger, if they were launched to the east. A west launch, while rare, is possible. However the fighters would have to ‘back taxi’ the runway, turn and launch. Moreover, such a launch immediately places them in traffic through which they would have step in discrete altitude increments.
Langley Tower had only one of the two necessary pieces of information to enter a flight plan into the system. They needed a direction and a distance; they only had a direction. Tower personnel knew from experience that they could waste time trying to find a combination of distance and direction that the system would accept. So, they had developed a standard launch flight plan, 090 for 60 (east takeoff for 60 nautical miles) that would immediately be accepted. It was an easy decision. Tower personnel knew that it didn’t matter because someone else always told the fighters where to go after launch. Moreover, the Tower usually turned over control before the fighters even lifted off and they did so, to Norfolk TRACON. Things had begun to unravel.
The Decision on Which Way to Go
Norfolk TRACON knew the drill and gained radar contact on the fighters while they were lifting off. Soon after takeoff, just before the fighters reached the Delmarva Peninsula, the TRACON controller asked the lead pilot which way he wanted to go, just as Langley Tower knew would happen. And that is where things began to further unravel. Now the decision was in the hands of the flight leader.
Added June 19, 2009. Here is a link to a transcript for Norfolk TRACON.
Quit 25, 26 and 27
The flight leader, Quit 25, had limited situational awareness on what was happening. He and his wingman, Quit 26, had been on battle stations for over 20 minutes and he was not aware of events as they were unfolding. Further, NEADS had begun a concerted effort to locate additional fighter assets wherever they could find them. And the first place they found help was at the Langley alert squadron.
The Supervisor of Flying, a key node in the flow of information, responded to a NEADS question of how many planes and pilots they could muster. His answer was that they had four planes and could muster three pilots, if he were the third pilot. He became Quit 27, got ready, and took off in trail of Quit 25 and Quit 26.
At the critical decision point with Norfolk TRACON the flight leader was also waiting for his trail, the Supervisor of Flying, to join up. The flight lead and the Norfolk TRACON controller agreed that the flight plan, 090 for 60 was later information than the scramble order and so the fighters veered slightly right to a heading of 090 and proceeded out to sea. The flight leader was honest when he heard the TRACON tape. He said it was an opportunity missed. Ahead of the fighters was a military training area which brought an intervening, and unsuspecting, air traffic control facility into the equation—GIANTKILLER.
GIANTKILLER is a US Navy facility which controls air activity in military training areas. GIANTKILLER heard the scramble order and knew the fighters were not coming into their area; except they did. It took a combination of NEADS, GIANTKILLER and the FAA’s Washington Air Traffic Control Center, ZDC, to get the fighters turned and headed toward Baltimore. While that was happening NEADS surveillance technicians found the fast moving unknown we now know to be American Airlines flight 77 and established a track, B32, moments before the Pentagon impact. NEADS emphatically took control of the fighters by declaring AFIO, Authority for Intercept Operations.
NEADS and AFIO
By declaring AFIO NEADS assumed responsibility for clearing air space for the fighters. This was the first and only time that morning that NEADS made that declaration. In the rush to get the fighters headed toward track B32 NEADS transposed two digits in the coordinates and as the Quit flight neared DC they veered south. The error was soon recognized and corrected and a combat air control (CAP) over the nation’s capital was established at 10:00.
The Quit flight initiated the DC CAP just before 10:00 and at 10:00 Quit 26 was directly over the Pentagon at 23,000 feet. The NMCC, directly below and struggling to gain situational awareness, did not know he was there. The three fighters, in echelon, turned west to establish a west-east CAP. The flight lead immediately circled back toward the city. Because of the AFIO declaration two of the fighters were squawking identically and ZDC could not gain a clear picture of who was who. As a result the flight lead, himself, briefly became a target of interest above the city and the fighters ended up intercepting themselves. After that false start the CAP sorted itself out with ZDC and NEADS and was in position to support the return of Air Force One. Except at 10:10 Air Force One turned away and headed for Barksdale Air Force Base. But that’s another story.