9-11: Langley Scramble, addendum

This addendum updates the article “9-11: Langley Scramble, gang aft agley.” The Letter of Agreement, “Northeast and Southeast Air Defense Sectors/FACSFAC VACAPES/Norfolk Tower/Langley Tower/Oceana RAFCF/First Fighter Wing and 177 Fighter Group,” EFFECTIVE: October 1, 1994 is available on the History Commons Scribd site. Interested researchers will need to upload it for clarity. That document was in effect on September 11, 2001. FACSFAC VACAPES is GIANTKILLER.

The Letter states that certain “information must be relayed with the order,” and provides an example of a scramble order: “Scramble Echo Lima 01, 2 F 16s, immediate departure heading 090, FL 230, contact Huntress on 251.0. Unknown target bearing 090, 180 miles, FL 210.”

In the initial article I established that there were four components to a scramble order, distance, direction, altitude and target. The letter also calls for the provision of the aircraft call sign, number and type aircraft and Huntress radio frequency. The NEADS scramble order contained all required information except the target information, including distance. NEADS also could not, according to the Letter, change the route of flight, altitude or beacon code without prior approval of the concerned ATC facility.

Scramble procedures in the Letter specify that “Langley Tower shall: Enter a flight plan in the NAS [National Airspace System], specifying pertinent information provided in the scramble order. Routing shall be via the fix (sic) radial and distance from LFI [Langley] as specified for the target bearing and range…” Except there was no range, a necessary component to enter a flight plan in the NAS computer.

Langley Tower used an established flight plan which was consistent with the Letter: According to the Letter, “The initial departure instruction shall be specified as fly runway heading, climb and maintain 4,000, unless otherwise coordinated and approved by Norfolk Departure Control.” Langley Tower immediately turned control over to Norfolk Tower/TRACON after creating a “090 for 60” flight plan in the NAS computer.

The Letter specifies that “Norfolk Tower shall: After departure, establish the scrambled aircraft on the requested vector and authorize climb to the highest altitude available (at or below the scramble altitude), as soon as traffic and coordination permit. And, the Tower shall: “Provide a radar hand-off to the appropriate facility. Transfer control and communications as soon as practical.” In the case on 9-11, given the flight plan entered by Langley Tower, the next appropriate facility was GIANTKILLER. Had the lead pilot and the Norfolk Controller agreed on a turn North then the next appropriate facility would have been the FAA’s Washington Center.

Lynn Spencer in Touching History reported that the scramble altitude was 230, not the 290 that was actually specified in the NEADS scramble order. That makes some sense since the fighters were cleared for 230 and, according to the 84th RADES radar files that is the altitude they flew. The assignment of a lower altitude is consistent with the intent of the Letter of Agreement.

Finally, the Letter states that: “Giant Killer shall provide a radar hand-off and transfer of control to Huntress as soon as scrambled aircraft are clear of known traffic.” Nowhere does the letter state that Giant Killer shall or will take control of scrambled aircraft as a matter of procedure.

Based on the Letter of Agreement, the procedures that were in place, the scramble started unraveling from the beginning. The Letter is specific that certain information must be provided. Target data is one such piece of information.

9-11: The Langley Scramble, gang aft agley

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.

Added June 18, 2009:  Here is a link to a transcript with transmissions by HUNTRESS (NEADS), ZDC, GIANTKILLER and Quit 25.


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.

9-11: Training, Exercises, and War Games; some collected thoughts

Yesterday, June 15, 2009, I received an email from author Phil Shenon asking what I knew about a recent document posted on Scribd by History Commons. That document, posted and discussed here, is one of many work papers I created during my work on the 9-11 Commission Staff. I had forgotten about it until Phil jogged my memory. The document was prepared to list what we knew about exercises before we traveled to NORAD Headquarters. On that trip, concerning exercises, we were primarily interested in talking to Ken Merchant, purported to know more about the history of NORAD exercises than anyone else. A copy of the MFR of our conversation with him prior to going to NORAD is here.


Every day in the military is a robust training day. 9-11 was no different, especially in the air. Fighters were airborne in multiple locations, especially on the Atlantic seaboard. At Otis Air Force Base, six fighters were in the air on a training mission immediately after the two air defense alert aircraft took off in response to the events in New York City. When I saw that activity on the radar files of the day I immediately sent an e-mail to CONR asking how many aircraft Otis scrambled? The answer was just two; Panta 45 and 46, the dedicated air defense aircraft.

Before Panta 45 and 46 were scrambled three fighters from Andrews Air Force Base took off for scheduled training at Dare Range over eastern North Carolina, even though the Wing had just returned from an extended training mission in Nevada and was on a training stand down the day before. (Bolded words added on July 7 to correct the record, based on training records of the day.)

The Virginia/North Carolina border area on the coast was an especially busy place in the air that morning. Among others the alert fighters at Langley, themselves, were scheduled for two v two training with the regular Wing at Langley. Because it was a robust training day tankers were plentiful and NEADS was easily able to refuel its air defense fighters.


A good web discussion of NORAD exercises (and war games)  is this analysis. The analysis is consistent with my recall of what the Commission staff learned. It concludes, as did we, that ongoing exercises involving NORAD—Vigilant Guardian and Global Guardian—did not interfere with NORAD’s real world mission that day. At NEADS, exercises as an intervening variable was dismissed in seconds when Boston ATC called for the first time.

Jeremy Powell: “Is this real world or exercise?”

Boston ATC: “…not an exercise, not a test.”

That simple exchange focused NEADS on the task at hand. As with training, the overall impact of exercises was positive. Key staff was already in position at all NORAD echelons which meant that the Battle Cab at NEADS was fully manned and operational when Powell sounded the alarm.


The most serious event and potential threat of the day was a scheduled Russian cruise missile live-fire exercise. This was a first in nearly a decade and signaled a return of the old Soviet threat. In response, NORAD was participating in Operation Northern Vigilance; not an exercise. Although air defense aircraft were forward deployed in Canada and Alaska, there was only one slight effect on the air defense mission for the Continental United States. Because air defense fighters were loaded with extra armament and fuel their top speed was limited, but that didn’t matter. The Otis and Langley fighters were not going to go that fast anyway.

Air defense techniques and procedures are well established and they call for air defense fighters to fly subsonic. NORAD specified in its September 18, 2001, press release that the time for the fighters to travel to a given location could be determined using a speed of .9 Mach. There are very good reasons for this. First, the fighters must arrive safely at their destination through traffic without running into something. Second, they need the capability to remain on target—dwell time–until tanker support can be arranged. Third, they need to be going slow enough on arrival to spot a slower moving target.


There are two issues concerning training, exercises, and war games. First is the notion that the US Government, NORAD specifically, had an exercise history which specified that hijackers would seize multiple aircraft and use them as weapons. Second is the impression that ongoing exercises and war games on 9-11 impeded or hampered the air defense response. The answer to the first issue is that the exercise history did not prepare either NORAD or the US Government to face the threat it did on 9-11. While exercise scenarios generally included a hijack as one event, such play was notional, a paper exercise. The answer to the second issue is that the ongoing training, exercises and war games were a net positive for the air defense response that day.

The Ghosts of 9-11, the transponder story

Addendum August 17, 2009

Relevant Commission work files recently became available.  Information concerning AA11A is modified accordingly.  My notes taken while reviewing a replay of TSD tapes at Herndon reveal that  “0844 11A pops up” and 0851 11A disappears 290 FL 291 GS.”  This information is secondary source information; the TSD tapes themselves are the primary source information.  The disappearance of AA 11A from TSD supports a Commission Staff working hypothesis (still our hypothesis to this day) that emerging information from Indianapolis Center about the loss of AA77 was conflated with continued uncertainty about the whereabouts of AA11 and the fact of a plane missing in the system became AA11.  It is important to remember that American Airlines, itself, was confused at the same time and thought both AA 11 and AA77 impacted the WTC.  This time frame is one of the chaotic moments of 9-11 and I will have more to say about that as I continue my chaos theory discussions.

Original Article

Air traffic control reactions to hijacker tactics created two significant ghosts on September 11, 2001. The ghosts were American Airlines (AA) 11A, the southerly track of AA 11, tagged by Boston Center in order to follow the first plane hijacked, and United Airlines (UA) 93, a new flight plan entered by Cleveland Center to allow Washington Center to follow the last plane hijacked. Those air traffic control actions were not passed in any form to FAA management outside of air traffic control, the Department of Transportation, and, by extension the Department of Defense and the National Command Authority. The actions taken were the result of a hijacker tactic to exploit the transponders differently on each of the hijacked aircraft.  (Added July 18, 2009)  The use of the term ‘ghost’ has no relationship to the air traffic control term ‘coast.’  ‘Coast’ is a specific air traffic control term to define a scope track no longer associated with data from an aircraft.  It disappears from a controller’s scope after a few radar sweeps.  While AA 11A showed in ‘coast’ in the immediate aftermath of the impact into the north tower it wasn’t until much later that it became a ‘ghost.’ (end addition)

The strategic terrorist plan was to hijack fuel laden jets and fly them into buildings. One tactic used, once the cockpits were secured, was to manipulate the transponders. We know post facto each transponder was manipulated differently and each of the four manipulations presented a different problem to air traffic control and, separately, to the managers of the National Airspace System. We do not know, and will likely never know, the extent to which the hijackers planned the tactic used or the extent of their awareness of the problems the tactic would cause. We do know in retrospect the tactical plan, as shown in this chart:

Transponder Tactics
AA11 Turned Off before the turn to the target
UA175 Code Changed when AA 11 impacted the North Tower
AA77 Turned Off as the turn to the target began
UA93 Turned Off after the turn to the target

At this point we need to talk about what can be “seen” and what was “seen” by FAA and the Northeast Air Defense Sector, NEADS. Concerning FAA, we need to distinguish between air traffic control and management of the National Airspace System. The National Airspace System is controlled in one way and is managed in a distinct and separate way. En route air traffic control centers and local Traffic Control (TRACON) and Towers have scopes which display air traffic in near real time. Unless specific steps are taken to do otherwise, en route centers only follow transponding aircraft and are not concerned with primary radar returns.

NEADS also had scopes which displayed air traffic in near real time. NEADS radars, co-located with FAA radars but tuned differently, provided air defenders with information biased toward non-responding aircraft. NEADS controllers looked outward, away from land unless directed otherwise. To make their life simpler any transponding aircraft that departed from the continental United States was friendly, by definition. Even though both FAA and NEADS were monitoring air traffic in real time, their procedures and activities were fundamentally different.

All other concerned entities, including the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Command Center), FAA Regions and Headquarters, and the airlines, had displays which depicted the current state of flight plans entered into the National Airspace System. These displays were refreshed every minute or so. The display is called TSD, Traffic Situation Display. It is the display the FAA used to show the public how the density of aircraft in the sky decreased incrementally to near zero after the nationwide ground stop was ordered. The difference between what can be seen by air traffic control and what can be observed by all other interested observers with the capability is distinct and is what wittingly or unwittingly, the hijackers exploited. Plane by hijacked plane, each transponder manipulation presented a different problem set to air traffic control, to managers of the National Airspace System and ultimately, to the National Command Authority.

American Air flight 11 (AA 11)

Both Boston Center and New York Center made the conversion to allow their radar scopes to see AA 11 after the transponder was turned off. What air traffic control lost was the ability to determine altitude. Flight level 290 (29,000) would remain the last known altitude for AA 11 and would be the altitude specified in the scramble order for the air defense aircraft at Otis Air Force Base. In order to help everyone monitor the aircraft as it presumably proceeded to a long runway-capable airfield somewhere to the south, a new track (AA 11A) was entered into the system by Boston Center New York Center (changed Jul 22, 2009). However, the original flight plan for AA 11 was left in the system and it became a notional flight, a ghost itself, which ultimately “landed” in Los Angeles. What could be seen and what was seen prior to the moment AA 11 flew into the World Trade Center North Tower are depicted here.

0845 EDT
AA 11 No/No Yes/Yes No/No
AA 11A Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/No

Air traffic control could not see and did not see AA 11 after the transponder was turned off and the new track was created. Entities watching a TSD could see and did see AA 11 continue to the west coast. Air traffic control could see and did see AA 11A so long as it was flying. Entities watching a TSD could see and did see AA 11A so long as the track remained in the system. So, at the moment of impact air traffic control lost the ability to “see” the real AA 11 (now 11A) and lost it. Entities watching a TSD could and did “see” the track, AA 11A, a ghost in the system. This point is critical and bears repeating. At the moment AA 11 flew into the World Trade Center North Tower it was lost to air traffic control and to NEADS. It was not lost to anyone with access to a TSD. The now notional AA 11A continued southbound. The long notional AA 11 continued westbound.

Things became exponentially confused at 8:46 a.m. when AA 11 ceased flying. The impact caused three things to happen; one spontaneous and two deliberate. Spontaneously, speculation started as to what hit the north tower—a helicopter, a commuter aircraft, a Boeing 737, or something else. Deliberately, flight AA 11A continued southbound as a notional ghost in the traffic display system. More ominous and also deliberately, the transponder code on UA 175 changed, and then changed again.

United Air Lines flight 175 (UA 175)

We may never know how the code change tactic was conceived, planned and carried out by Mohammed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi. What we do know is in the space of a few seconds two things happened, AA 11 ceased to exist and UA 175 changed its identity. Orchestrated or not, that was a remarkable tactical achievement.

New York Center was immediately presented with four problems—where was AA 11A, what hit the north tower, where was UA 175 and what was the squawking intruder, code 3321? What could be seen and what was seen, overall, is depicted here:

0846 EDT
AA 11 No/No Yes/Yes No/No
AA 11A No/No Yes/Yes No/No
UA 175 No/No Yes/Yes No/No
Code 3321 Yes/Yes No/No Yes/No

It is clear from this matrix that air traffic control and FAA administrative Regions and Headquarters were not seeing the same picture, nor was there any overlap, any common point of reference. Entities watching a TSD display could not see the transponding intruder, Code 3321, there was no associated flight plan. Air traffic controllers could see the squawking intruder, 3321, and they quickly equated this to be UA 175 and a probable hijack. Other than NEADS, entities outside the air traffic control system could only see the, now notional, flights AA 11 and UA 175 proceeding to the west and the also now notional flight AA 11A proceeding to the south. Air traffic control was seeing the real world. NEADS was seeing the real world but was not looking for either UA 175 or Code 3321, no one had told them. All others were seeing ghosts.

American Airlines flight 77 (AA 77)

A few minutes before 9:00 a.m. and not long before UA 175 struck the south tower the transponder on AA 77 was turned off, just as air traffic controllers observed the plane beginning to turn to the southwest. Even though Indianapolis Air Traffic Control center switched its scopes to observe radar only returns it could not find AA 77. The Center looked primarily to the Southwest since that was the direction the plane seemed to be heading. Even had they looked to the East they would not have seen it, the radar only returns were not presenting on Indianapolis scopes. Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center assumed the aircraft to be down and it quickly initiated search and rescue operations and alerted local law enforcement.

We will likely never know why and how the terrorist plan directed tactics for AA 77 as it did. The AA 77 transponder was turned off in the worst possible place for air traffic control, and for the air defenders. The military radars did not cover the interior of the United States and the FAA’s own coverage in that area was sometimes problematic. Surely, Atta did not know that Indianapolis ATC would lose AA 77 completely but he must have estimated that a transponder turned off during a turn would present a different problem of some sort to air traffic control. And, demonstrably, it certainly did.

NEADS radar lost AA 77 just as the plane began its turn, but it didn’t make any difference, NEADS surveillance technicians weren’t looking and they had no reason to do so. FAA radar lost the plane a couple of radar sweeps later. It would be several minutes before either the FAA or NEADS radar would pick up AA 77 as a radar-only target, FAA first by a few minutes, but again it made no difference, no one was watching, certainly not Washington Air Traffic Control Center which could have but was not cued to do so. At no time did Washington Center reset its scopes to monitor radar-only planes; it never saw AA 77. What could be seen and what was seen at that moment are shown here:

0852 EDT
AA 77 Yes/No Yes/Yes Yes/No
AA 11A No/No No/No No/No

Note: in this updated version of December 8, 2011, I changed the TSD block for AA11A from Yes/Yes to No/No. It is now clear to me that the new track entered for AA11A was not a new flight plan that would have continued in the TSD system. Rather it was a data block that faded after AA11A (AA11, actually) impacted the North tower. Even so, as a faded track in the radar system and as a plane reported to have been south of Kennedy (airport), it still caused confusion.

AA 77 could have been seen on air traffic control scopes, specifically at Washington Center, but was not. While observers of any TSD could “see” AA 77 they could only see it as a ghost continuing its flight plan to the West. NEADS could have seen AA 77 somewhere over western Virginia, but did not know the aircraft was hijacked and was not looking for it.

As Indianapolis Air Traffic Control center and American Airlines were grappling with what happened a ghost, AA 11A, and a real plane, AA 77, were bearing down on Washington DC. At about 9:21 a. m. the ghost was “seen” and reported. At about 9:32 a. m. the real plane, AA 77, was spotted by an alert controller at Dulles TRACON who sounded the alarm. It remains undetermined how AA 11A and AA 77 became conflated. One explanation is that emerging information about the loss of AA 77 became merged with confusing information as to what happened in New York City and the new information of a third plane became not identification of AA 77 but re-identification of AA 11A. The most likely source of this misinformation is one of the administrative FAA Regions or somewhere at FAA HQ, itself. From wherever the source the information was heard by a traffic management specialist at Boston Air Traffic Control center and it was he who notified NEADS at 9:21 a. m. that AA 11, the first hijacked plane, was still in the air. A few minutes later, at 9:33, came specific reporting to Reagan National Tower and to the Secret Service that an unknown aircraft, AA 77, was approaching the National Capitol Region (NCR).

NEADS, heard the information at 9:34 and, frustrated that it was never able to establish a track on AA 11, was able to locate and track AA 77 and establish track B32 a few moments before impact, but not long enough to forward the information to NORAD.

United Airlines Flight 93 (UA 93)

The final ghost of the day was UA 93. By far, according to primary sources of the day–the radar, flight data recorder, and the FAA tapes–the poorest performing hijack pilot was Ziad Jarrah at the controls of UA 93. It may even be that he was supposed to turn off the transponder before he turned back, or even in the turn, both of which tactics make more sense, especially given what happened with AA 77. But he didn’t, he waited until well after the turn back to do so.

Whatever the hijacker tactic was supposed to be, Cleveland Air Traffic Control Center seldom lost track of UA 93 and when it did, only briefly. Cleveland Center was able to do what New York Center tried to do, use other planes in the sky to monitor the progress of UA 93. Cleveland constantly updated the FAA Herdon Command Center in near real-time and that Center immediately passed this information quickly and continuously to the FAA Washington Operations Center (WOC).

What is important to know for any discussion of UA 93 is that it was never a real threat to the National Capital Region and that the air traffic control side of FAA knew this, as did the FAA WOC. Yet, this very real and very explicit timely tactical information never made it out of the WOC to the White House or the NMCC in useful form. UA 93 went down at Shanksville at 10:03, as recorded and reported by multiple, independent sources. At its demise UA 93, itself, became a ghost.

This point about the uncertainty caused by the ghost UA 93 cannot be understated. Much of the confusion about the testimony and recall of Norman Mineta and the Vice President, the inability of NORAD and FAA to come up with agreed upon timelines, and the inability of NORAD to present credible testimony to the Commission, can be attributed to a ghost, a plane that did not exist.  Shortly before 10:00 a.m. Cleveland Center took the initiative to enter a new flight plan for UA 93 in the National Airspace System and in the process took out the old flight plan. Recall that in order to manage AA 11 New York Center left the old flight plan in and created, literally, a new airplane, AA 11A. Cleveland Center took a different approach and deliberately replaced the original flight plan to help Washington Center and told them they were doing so. At this point here is what could be seen and what was seen.

0958 EDT
UA 93 old No/No No/No No/No
UA 93 new Yes/Yes Yes/Yes Yes/No

This is the one time that air traffic control and viewers of the traffic situation display are seeing the same thing, up to a point. Observers of both systems knew that UA 93 had turned around, that it was headed for the National Capital Region, and where it was. NEADS neither saw nor looked for UA 93 because the first they heard was after it was down.

The simple act of replacing one flight plan for another in the system caused no problem for air traffic control but major problems for Traffic Situation Display observers, by this time, at least, now including the Secret Service. The congruence in what could be seen and what was seen by air traffic control and observers of the TSD system ended abruptly at 10:03 a.m. when the real UA 93 ceased to exist. Notionally, the new UA 93 flight continued as a believable threat to TSD observers unless they knew what Cleveland Center knew, Herndon Command Center knew, the FAA WOC knew, and four minutes after impact NEADS, and by extension NORAD, knew, UA 93 was no longer a threat.

Absent that necessary information, the TSD display allowed multiple entities to observe and report the progress of the ghost UA93 in either minutes or miles, take your pick. This is almost certainly the information that Norman Mineta recalled as pertaining to AA 77 but actually the ghost of AA 11 UA93 (corrected August 12, 2009) : right information, wrong ghost, and wrong time.

NORAD’s Sudoku Puzzle, a failure to tell the truth

This is an unpublished letter submitted to the Editors, Washington Post.  It details how the NORAD testimony at the May 23, 2003, 9-11 Commission hearing came to be.


August 4, 2006

Letters to the Editor
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Editors,

Recent news media highlight the issue of why the NORAD account was so wrong about the events of September 11, 2001. Answers range from the position of NORAD officials that they were telling the truth as they knew it to the opposing position that they deliberately lied to the 9-11 Commission. My assessment is that poor staff work and a single error in logic, compounded, led NORAD far astray from the facts of the day.

Metaphorically, the NORAD task was to solve a difficult Sudoku puzzle. An early mistake in logic makes such a puzzle impossible to solve. The NORAD mistake was made prior to September 18th, 2001, the day it published an official timeline. That mistake led to inaccurate accounts in every official government story at every level thereafter, including NORAD testimony before the 9/11 Commission on May 23, 2003.

I arranged for the presence of General McKinley, General Arnold, and Colonel Scott at that hearing. General Eberhart, the NORAD Commander, had a previously scheduled trip to Europe and seconded Major General McKinley, CONUS Region (CONR) Commander, to represent him. In my initial conversation with General McKinley he was inclined to testify alone, even though he was not in the NORAD chain-of-command on September 11, 2001.

The Commission staff had the NORAD and FAA timelines, the military radar data, and an initial document delivery from the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). We knew from that limited data that fighters had not flown directly from either Otis or Langley and that the NORAD and FAA timelines were not in agreement. General McKinley was advised that we needed a definitive explanation of the scrambles and an accurate timeline.

General McKinley added Major General Arnold, former CONR Commander to the attendee list. General McKinley was again advised that the scrambles were a critical issue and asked if General Arnold could speak to that issue. General McKinley then added Colonel Scott explaining that Scott, alone, knew more about the scrambles and the timelines than any other NORAD official; he was the definitive source.

Scott had the original NORAD timeline of September 18, 2001. That timeline showed notification times of 8:40 for AA11, 8:43 for UA175, 9:24 for AA77, and no time for UA93, alluding to the fact that Langley fighters were already airborne. An accompanying note explained that: “The FAA and NEADS established a line of open communication discussing AA Flt 77 and UA Flt 93.”

There was one critical and two other serious mistakes in the timeline. The critical error was the 9:24 time for AA77. The accurate NEADS log information was: “American Airlines No. N334AA hijacked.” N334AA is the tail number for AA11, not AA77, a basic fact apparently never checked by any NORAD, CONR, or NEADS staff officer with either American Airlines or FAA.

The 8:43 time for UA175, was impossible and never explained in any document or during any interview conducted by the Commission staff. It was most likely a NORAD misunderstanding of information from FAA. That is the approximate time that UA175 was hijacked, a fact only known post facto.

The “open line” caveat was disingenuous. FAA called the National Military Command Center at 9:20 on an unclassified line but no operational information was ever passed. NEADS tapes show that about 9:23 [sic: the time was actually 9:33, the original letter submitted contained a typo] the FAA representative to NEADS began work to establish a secure line. That effort was not completed until after 10 am, and had no relationship to real time information about either AA77 or UA93.

Both NORAD and FAA separately engaged in staff deliberations during the period Sep 11-17, 2001, and they were in periodic contact. According to the lead official for FAA she was in frequent contact with her NORAD counterpart, General Arnold. The two organizations could not agree. NORAD pre-empted and published its timeline on Sep 18. FAA did not publish a timeline until some months later.

NORAD was also preparing General Eberhart for October 2001 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In that appearance, Senator Levin asked about notification on AA77, citing a time of 9:25. Eberhart responded: “I show it as 9:24 that we were notified.” Eberhart’s testimony solidified the critical error in formal CINC testimony before the Congress. It became the CINC-approved NORAD story.

Essential NORAD files and data were held at NEADS. The single, most important document was the MCC/T (Mission Crew Commander/Technician) log, a handwritten journal maintained in real time. It is that log, in particular, to which Colonel Scott refers when he stated to the Commission on May 23, 2003; “I will tell you the times on this chart come from our logs.”

Therefore, the 8:43 notification time for UA 175 was not mentioned by Scott. It was not in any log and had never existed. Scott’s review repeated the original mistake concerning the 9:24 entry for AA11 and made another mistake in interpretation by attributing a 9:16 entry concerning a United flight (probably UA175) to UA93. (The 9:16 time may come from a different log than the MCC/T log) Nearly two years after the initial mistake about AA77 was made and became CINC-approved, it was repeated and compounded to include UA93.

On the day after the hearing Colonel Scott sent an e-mail to Colonel Marr, with a copy to the Commission staff, stating that it became easier to explain the Langley fighter scramble in terms of UA93 than AA77. It is clear from that email that neither Scott nor Marr, whose staff supported Scott, took the time to listen to the tapes or look at the actual transcripts. The NEADS staff, and Colonel Scott, had sufficient data available to them to find the rebirth of AA11 misinformation and the real reason for the Langley scramble. If they found it they did lie. If they did not they could not tell the truth. They could not solve their Sudoku puzzle.

We await the findings of the Inspectors General of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense.


Miles L. Kara, Sr., Former Staff, 9/11 Commission