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Context of '(2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001: 119th Fighter Wing Jets Land Back at Langley Air Base; Pilots Learn Details of Attacks for First Time'

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Major Brad Derrig.Major Brad Derrig. [Source: ABC]At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, the pilots of three F-16s receive the order to scramble (i.e. take off immediately). A Klaxon horn sounds and the status lights in the hangars change from yellow to green, notifying them of the order. [Longman, 2002, pp. 65; Filson, 2003, pp. 63; Spencer, 2008, pp. 141] The fighter jets belong to the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing. The wing has a small detachment at Langley that serves as one of NORAD’s seven “alert” sites around the US, responsible for defending the nation against attack. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 114] The jets are already at “battle stations,” with the pilots in the cockpits but the engines off (see (9:09 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 55; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24; Spencer, 2008, pp. 117-119] The scramble order has just been issued by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 16]
Third Pilot Launched - The unit at Langley keeps two F-16s on “alert”—armed, fueled, and ready to take off within minutes if called upon. [Air Force Magazine, 2/2002; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17] But NEADS has instructed it to launch as many aircraft as it can (see (Between 9:10 a.m. and 9:23 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and so the unit’s operations manager Captain Craig Borgstrom is also preparing to take off in a third jet. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 118-119] Major Dean Eckmann calls the other two pilots, saying, “Quit check,” indicating a radio check. Major Brad Derrig responds, “Two.” Borgstrom replies: “Three. I’m going with you!” This is news to Derrig. According to author Lynn Spencer, Derrig is “stunned.… [N]ot much surprises him, but this does.” Borgstrom joining them as a pilot will mean that, in the middle of this unprecedented crisis, their unit will be left without a commanding officer. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 142]
Only Two Jets Fully Armed - The two jets that are kept on alert are fully armed. As Eckmann will later recall, “We can carry M9 heat seekers, Sidewinders for the M7 Sparrow, plus we have an internal 20 mm Vulcan cannon, and we were pretty much armed with all that.” [BBC, 9/1/2002] However, Borgstrom’s jet has guns only, and though the six-barrel 20 mm gun can fire 6,000 rounds per minute, it requires close range.
Pilot Unqualified to Lead Three Jets - As the three aircraft taxi out to the runway, Eckmann is concerned that he has not yet qualified as a mission commander—a “four-ship”—and is therefore not authorized to lead more than one fighter jet. He calls the other pilots, saying, “Hey, I’m only a two-ship!” But Derrig, who is a full-time instructor pilot for the Air National Guard, urges him not to worry. He responds: “Press! I’m an instructor,” giving his approval for the flight to operate as a “three-ship” under Eckmann’s lead. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 142] The three jets will take off and be airborne by 9:30 a.m. (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 16]

Entity Tags: Brad Derrig, 119th Fighter Wing, Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, Langley Air Force Base

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Controllers at the FAA’s Washington Center.Controllers at the FAA’s Washington Center. [Source: FAA]The three F-16 fighter jets launched from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) that have been directed toward Washington request and are given permission to fly at high altitude over the city. After the Langley AFB pilots are given the correct coordinates they are to head to (see (Between 9:41 a.m. and 9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001), at 9:51 lead pilot Major Dean Eckmann looks on his radar screen and sees that the area where he has been directed to set up a combat air patrol is filled with air traffic. He therefore contacts the FAA’s Washington Center and tells the controller, “I need 3,000 feet of altitude in a 20-mile ring around DC.” When the controller asks the reason, Eckmann replies, “Higher headquarters’ request!” The controller gives him an altitude range of 25,000 to 27,000 feet. Eckmann radios the other two Langley pilots and gives them their altitude assignments: he’ll fly at 25,000 feet, Major Brad Derrig will be at 26,000 feet, and Captain Craig Borgstrom at 27,000 feet. According to author Lynn Spencer, the jets then head toward Washington at 700 miles per hour, just under the speed of sound. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 180-182] However, Spencer’s account of this incident conflicts with the 1st Air Force’s book about the 9/11 attacks. According to that account, several minutes before Eckmann reportedly asks for altitude clearance—at around 9:45 a.m.—he had been directed to drop to lower altitude to check out two unidentified aircraft, and was then told to inspect the Pentagon (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 66]

Entity Tags: Dean Eckmann, Craig Borgstrom, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Brad Derrig

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The pilots that took off from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) hear a warning over radio that errant aircraft will be shot down, and receive an instruction from the Secret Service to protect the White House. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223]
Pilots Learn of FAA Order - The three Langley fighter jets have now reached the Baltimore-Washington area. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 222] The pilots hear over their radios that the FAA has ordered all civilian aircraft to land. [New York Times, 10/16/2001] (The FAA issued this instruction at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29] )
Borgstrom Hears Shootdown Warning - The three pilots are all on different radio frequencies, but are able to communicate between themselves on their auxiliary frequency. According to author Lynn Spencer, one of them, Captain Craig Borgstrom, hears a message over the emergency radio frequency that is in response to the FAA’s recent order: “Attention all aircraft! Attention all aircraft! You are ordered to land at the nearest suitable airport. All aircraft must land immediately. Violators will be shot down.” The source of this message is unstated. [Filson, 2003, pp. 66; Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223] (Author Leslie Filson will describe the Langley pilots hearing what is apparently a separate but similar message later on, some time after 10:42 a.m. (see 10:05 a.m.-11:05 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82] )
Instructed to Protect the White House - Around the time Borgstrom hears this, Major Dean Eckmann, the lead Langley pilot, is on the radio with the FAA’s Washington Center. A Secret Service agent has arrived there and wants to talk to him. [Filson, 2003, pp. 68; Spencer, 2008, pp. 222-223] Eckmann then receives a garbled message over his radio, which is difficult to make out. [New York Times, 11/15/2001] The message is, “Protect the house.” Eckmann will later recall, “I took it to mean protect the White House.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 68] He notifies the two other pilots—Borgstrom and Major Brad Derrig—of this message. He tells them, “I think I just talked to the Secret Service, but I’m not sure.” [New York Times, 11/15/2001]
Possible Shootdown Order? - According to Spencer, this message means that “Unknown to NEADS” (NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector), Eckmann has been “given shootdown authority directly from the Secret Service, bypassing the military chain of command.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 223] But Borgstrom and Derrig will later say they “never received explicit orders to fire on incoming planes perceived to be hostile.” [New York Times, 11/15/2001] Borgstrom radios NEADS weapons director Steve Citino and asks for specific instructions about what to do (see 10:07 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 223] According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS will only learn that NORAD has been given clearance to shoot down threatening aircraft at 10:31 a.m., and even then it does not pass this order along to the fighter pilots under its command (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42-43]

Entity Tags: Brad Derrig, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, US Secret Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The three F-16 fighter jets that launched from Langley Air Force Base to defend Washington, DC (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) land back at their base after flying a combat air patrol (CAP) over the capital. The flight lead, Major Dean Eckmann, was refueling on a tanker when the order came for the three fighters to return to base. The two other pilots, Captain Craig Borgstrom and Major Brad Derrig, immediately headed back to Langley and Eckmann joined them shortly after. [Leslie Filson, 2002; Longman, 2002, pp. 222; Spencer, 2008, pp. 277]
Fighters Kept Planes Away from Washington - During the four hours they were over Washington, the three F-16s, which belong to the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard, kept aircraft away from the capital. According to Borgstrom, they only had to intercept a few planes. He will say: “It wasn’t intercept upon intercept. It was one here and, maybe 50 minutes later, one here. There was not a lot of it.” Borgstrom will recall that the three fighters were alone in flying a CAP over Washington for about the first hour, but were then joined by other aircraft “from all over the place.” By the time they headed back to Langley Air Force Base, Borgstrom will say that he “personally counted 17 other fighters in the CAP.” [Leslie Filson, 2002]
Pilots Learn Details of Attacks - The three pilots had been unaware of precisely why they were scrambled and did not realize the threat was from hijacked planes (see (9:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 45] They only learn the details of the terrorist attacks after landing back at Langley. Borgstrom is surprised to see over a dozen trailers carrying missiles lined up near the runway. He will recall, “I thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’” because, “At this point, I still didn’t know it was airliners” that were involved in the attacks. [Leslie Filson, 2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 277] According to Eckmann, it is only after they land that the three pilots learn about the World Trade Center towers collapsing. Eckmann learns of the collapses in a phone call with his wife. [Leslie Filson, 12/6/2002] Borgstrom asks his crew chief, “What else did they get?” As Borgstrom will later recall, the crew chief says he isn’t sure, “but he thought there was some others,” presumably meaning more planes and targets involved. Borgstrom recalls, “So at that point I was like, oh no, a really terrible thing has happened.” [Leslie Filson, 2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 277] According to Eckmann, the three pilots only learn about Flight 93 on the following day, September 12. [Leslie Filson, 12/6/2002]

Entity Tags: Craig Borgstrom, Brad Derrig, Dean Eckmann

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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