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Context of '(After 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001: 119th Fighter Wing Pilots Write Letter Confirming No Shootdown of Aircraft'

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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

Captain Craig Borgstrom.Captain Craig Borgstrom. [Source: US Air Force / Austin Knox]The three F-16 fighter jets ordered to scramble from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) take off and, radar data will show, are airborne by 9:30 a.m. [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/18/2001; Christian Science Monitor, 4/16/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 27]
Delayed during Launch - Major Dean Eckmann will recall that, after receiving the scramble order, he and the two other pilots have “a pretty quick response time. I believe it was four to five minutes we were airborne from that point.” [BBC, 9/1/2002] According to the 1st Air Force’s book about 9/11, the three fighters are “given highest priority over all other air traffic at Langley Air Force Base” as they are launching. [Filson, 2003, pp. 63] But, according to author Lynn Spencer, in spite of this, the jets are delayed. As Eckmann is approaching the runway, he calls the control tower for clearance to take off, but the tower controller tells him, “Hold for an air traffic delay.” Air traffic controllers at the FAA’s Washington Center “have not had time to clear airliners out of the way for the northerly heading. Dozens of aircraft at various altitudes fill the jets’ route.” After having to wait two minutes, Eckmann complains: “We’re an active air scramble. We need to go now!” Finally, the tower controller tells him, “Roger, Quit flight is cleared for takeoff, 090 for 60,” meaning the fighters are to fly due east for 60 miles (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Taking Off - The three jets launch 15 seconds apart, with Eckmann in front and the two other jets following. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 143-144] Pilot Craig Borgstrom will later recall, “[W]e took off, the three of us, and basically the formation we always brief on alert, we’ll stay in a two- to three-mile trail from the guy in front.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 63] According to the BBC, the pilots get a signal over their planes’ transponders, indicating an emergency wartime situation. [BBC, 9/1/2002]
Could Reach Washington before Pentagon Attack - F-16s have a maximum speed of 1,500 mph at high altitude, or 915 mph at sea level, so the three fighters could plausibly travel the 130 miles from Langley Air Force Base to Washington in just minutes. [Chant, 1987, pp. 404; Associated Press, 6/16/2000; USA Today, 9/16/2001; Washington Post, 9/16/2001 pdf file; US Air Force, 10/2007] Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, will tell the 9/11 Commission, “I think if those aircraft had gotten airborne immediately, if we were operating under something other than peacetime rules, where they could have turned immediately toward Washington, DC, and gone into burner, it is physically possible that they could have gotten over Washington” before 9:37, when the Pentagon is hit. [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003] Yet according to the 9/11 Commission, the jets are redirected east over the Atlantic Ocean and will be 150 miles from the Pentagon when it is hit (see 9:30 a.m.-9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 27]
Conflicting Times - Some early news reports after 9/11 will say the Langley jets take off at the later time of 9:35 a.m. [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; CNN, 9/14/2001; Washington Post, 9/15/2001; CNN, 9/17/2001] But according to Colonel Alan Scott, the former vice commander of the Continental US NORAD Region, though the jets are airborne at 9:30, the report of this does not come down until 9:35, so this fact may account for the conflicting times. [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003]

Entity Tags: Brad Derrig, Alan Scott, Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, Langley Air Force Base, Larry Arnold

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

The three fighter pilots that launched from Langley Air Force Base to defend Washington, DC (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) sign a letter in which they confirm that they did not shoot down any aircraft on 9/11. At some point after the pilots, who belong to the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard, land their fighter jets back at base (see (2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001), one of them, Captain Craig Borgstrom, speaks over the phone with Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region (CONR). According to Borgstrom, who will later recall that Arnold phones him either on September 11 “or in [the] next day or two,” the CONR commander requests “a detailed, in writing, accounting of what happened that day.” Consequently, as another of the three pilots—Major Brad Derrig—will recall, “all three pilots signed a letter to 1st Air Force certifying that they had not shot down an aircraft.” Borgstrom will say he believes that “ammunition records were checked” as a part of the response to the 1st Air Force. [9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003; 9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003] Some early news reports suggested the possibility of a plane having been shot down by the US military (see 11:28 a.m.-11:50 a.m. September 11, 2001), and what appears to be debris from a plane is discovered far away from the main Flight 93 crash site (see (Before 10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and September 13, 2001). [TCM Breaking News, 9/11/2001; CNN, 9/13/2001; Philadelphia Daily News, 11/15/2001; Mirror, 9/12/2002] But in later interviews with the media and the 9/11 Commission, the three 119th Fighter Wing pilots will state that they received no orders to shoot down a commercial airliner, and did not shoot down any planes on 9/11. [New York Times, 11/15/2001; Longman, 2002, pp. 222; 9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003; 9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003; 9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003]

Entity Tags: Craig Borgstrom, Dean Eckmann, Larry Arnold, Brad Derrig

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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