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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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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; Tyson 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; Weisman 9/16/2001; Graham 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; Graham 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)

Flight 93 apparently starts to break up before it crashes, because debris is found very far away from the crash site. (Bunch 11/15/2001) The plane is generally obliterated upon landing, except for one half-ton piece of engine found some distance away. Some reports indicate that the engine piece was found over a mile away. (Carlin 8/13/2002) The FBI reportedly acknowledges that this piece was found “a considerable distance” from the crash site. (Bunch 11/15/2001) Later, the FBI will cordon off a three-mile wide area around the crash, as well as another area six to eight miles from the initial crash site. (CNN 9/13/2001) One story calls what happened to this engine “intriguing, because the heat-seeking, air-to-air Sidewinder missiles aboard an F-16 would likely target one of the Boeing 757’s two large engines.” (Bunch 11/15/2001) Smaller debris fields are also found two, three, and eight miles away from the main crash site. (Carlin 8/13/2002; Wallace 9/12/2002) Eight miles away, local media quote residents speaking of a second plane in the area and burning debris falling from the sky. (Reuters 9/13/2001) Residents outside Shanksville reported “discovering clothing, books, papers, and what appeared to be human remains. Some residents said they collected bags-full of items to be turned over to investigators. Others reported what appeared to be crash debris floating in Indian Lake, nearly six miles from the immediate crash scene. Workers at Indian Lake Marina said that they saw a cloud of confetti-like debris descend on the lake and nearby farms minutes after hearing the explosion…” (Gibb, O'Toole, and Lash 9/13/2001) Moments after the crash, Carol Delasko initially thinks someone had blown up a boat on Indian Lake: “It just looked like confetti raining down all over the air above the lake.” (Gazarik and Acton 9/14/2001) Investigators say that far-off wreckage “probably was spread by the cloud created when the plane crashed and dispersed by a ten mph southeasterly wind.” (Billington 9/16/2001) However, much of the wreckage is found sooner than that wind could have carried it, and not always southeast.

Several early news reports suggest that US military fighter jets may have shot down an aircraft, perhaps Flight 93. Ireland’s Thomas Crosbie Media reports, “A Boeing 767 has crashed near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.… US anti-aircraft fighters are in place—unconfirmed reports say this plane was shot out of the sky by US defense.” (TCM Breaking News 9/11/2001) Forbes states, “There are reports of a fourth airliner [having] been brought down near Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, by US military fighters.” (Dukcevich 9/11/2001) And the Northwestern Chronicle states, “Air Force officials say an airliner has been forced down by F-16 fighter jets near Camp David.” (Hoes 9/11/2001) However, according to later reports, military officials say US aircraft did not shoot down any of the hijacked planes. (CNN 9/11/2001)

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. (Borgstrom 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.” (Borgstrom 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. (Borgstrom 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. (Eckmann 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.” (Borgstrom 2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 277) According to Eckmann, the three pilots only learn about Flight 93 on the following day, September 12. (Eckmann 12/6/2002)

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; Bunch 11/15/2001; Wallace 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. (Sack 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)

A map of the Flight 93 debris field.A map of the Flight 93 debris field. [Source: Pittsburgh Tribune- Review]Investigators say they have found debris from the Flight 93 crash far from the main crash site. A second debris field centers around Indian Lake about three miles from the crash scene, where eyewitnesses report seeing falling debris only moments after the crash. More debris is found in New Baltimore, some eight miles away. Later in the day, the investigators say all that debris likely was blown there. (CNN 9/13/2001; Gibb, O'Toole, and Lash 9/13/2001) Another debris field is found six miles away, and human remains are found miles away. State police and the FBI have cordoned off an area where there is plane debris, about six to eight miles from the main crash site. After all of this is discovered, the FBI still “stresses” that “no evidence [has] surfaced” to support the idea that the plane was shot down. (CNN 9/13/2001; Gibb, O'Toole, and Lash 9/13/2001) A half-ton piece of one of the engines is found 2,000 yards away from the main crash site. This was the single heaviest piece recovered from the crash. (Irvine 12/28/2001; Carlin 8/13/2002) Days later, the FBI says the wide debris field was probably the result of the explosion on impact. The Independent nevertheless later cites the wide debris field as one of many reasons why widespread rumors remain that the plane was shot down. (Gumbel 9/20/2001)


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