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Context of '(8:38 a.m.-8:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001: NORAD Personnel Mistake Hijacking for Part of an Exercise'

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NORAD’s war room in Cheyenne Mountain, ColoradoNORAD’s war room in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado [Source: Val Gempis]Lieutenant Colonel Dawne Deskins and other day shift employees at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, NY, start their workday. NORAD is conducting a week-long, large-scale exercise called Vigilant Guardian. [Newhouse News Service, 1/25/2002] Deskins is regional mission crew chief for the Vigilant Guardian exercise. [ABC News, 9/11/2002]
Exercise Includes Simulated Attack on the US - Vigilant Guardian is described as “an exercise that would pose an imaginary crisis to North American Air Defense outposts nationwide”; as a “simulated air war”; and as “an air defense exercise simulating an attack on the United States.” According to the 9/11 Commission, it “postulated a bomber attack from the former Soviet Union.” [Newhouse News Service, 1/25/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 55 and 122; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 458] Vigilant Guardian is described as being held annually, and is one of NORAD’s four major annual exercises. [Filson, 2003, pp. 41; Arkin, 2005, pp. 545; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/27/2005] However, one report says it takes place semi-annually. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/2002] Accounts by participants vary on whether 9/11 is the second, third, or fourth day of the exercise. [Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Newhouse News Service, 1/25/2002; Ottawa Citizen, 9/11/2002] Vigilant Guardian is a command post exercise (CPX), and in at least some previous years was conducted in conjunction with Stratcom’s Global Guardian exercise and a US Space Command exercise called Apollo Guardian. [US Congress, n.d.; Arkin, 2005, pp. 545; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/27/2005] All of NORAD is participating in Vigilant Guardian on 9/11. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/2002]
Exercise Includes Simulated Hijacking - Vanity Fair reports that the “day’s exercise” (presumably Vigilant Guardian) is “designed to run a range of scenarios, including a ‘traditional’ simulated hijack in which politically motivated perpetrators commandeer an aircraft, land on a Cuba-like island, and seek asylum.” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006] However, at NEADS, most of the dozen or so staff on the operations floor have no idea what the exercise is going to entail and are ready for anything. [Utica Observer-Dispatch, 8/5/2004]
NORAD Fully Staffed and Alert - NORAD is currently running a real-world operation named Operation Northern Vigilance (see September 9, 2001). It may also be conducting a field training exercise calling Amalgam Warrior on this morning (see 9:28 a.m. September 11, 2001). NORAD is thus fully staffed and alert, and senior officers are manning stations throughout the US. The entire chain of command will be in place and ready when the first hijacking is reported. An article later says, “In retrospect, the exercise would prove to be a serendipitous enabler of a rapid military response to terrorist attacks on September 11.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/2002; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003] Colonel Robert Marr, in charge of NEADS, will say: “We had the fighters with a little more gas on board. A few more weapons on board.” [ABC News, 9/11/2002] However, Deskins and other NORAD officials later are initially confused about whether the 9/11 attacks are real or part of the exercise (see (8:38 a.m.-8:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Dawne Deskins, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Operation Northern Vigilance, Vigilant Guardian, Robert Marr

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Major Kevin Nasypany.Major Kevin Nasypany. [Source: CBC]When the FAA’s Boston Center first contacts NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) to notify it of the hijacking of Flight 11 (see (8:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001), personnel there initially mistake the hijacking for a simulation as part of an exercise.
bullet Lieutenant Colonel Dawne Deskins, mission crew chief for the Vigilant Guardian exercise currently taking place (see (6:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), will later say that initially she and everybody else at NEADS think the call from Boston Center is part of Vigilant Guardian. [Newhouse News Service, 1/25/2002] Although most of the personnel on the NEADS operations floor have no idea what the day’s exercise is supposed to entail, most previous major NORAD exercises included a hijack scenario. [USA Today, 4/18/2004; Utica Observer-Dispatch, 8/5/2004] The day’s exercise is in fact scheduled to include a simulated hijacking later on. [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]
bullet Major Kevin Nasypany, the NEADS mission crew commander, had helped design the day’s exercise. Thinking the reported hijacking is part of it, he actually says out loud, “The hijack’s not supposed to be for another hour.” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]
bullet In the ID section, at the back right corner of the NEADS operations floor, technicians Stacia Rountree, Shelley Watson, and Maureen Dooley react to the news. Dooley, the leader of the ID section, tells the other members of her team: “We have a hijack going on. Get your checklists. The exercise is on” (see (8:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Rountree asks, “Is that real-world?” Dooley confirms, “Real-world hijack.” Watson says, “Cool!” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Spencer, 2008, pp. 25]
bullet When NEADS Commander Robert Marr sees his personnel reacting to the news of the hijacking (see (8:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001), he reportedly thinks the day’s exercise “is kicking off with a lively, unexpected twist.” Even when a colleague informs him, “It’s a hijacking, and this is real life, not part of the exercise,” Marr thinks: “This is an interesting start to the exercise. This ‘real-world’ mixed in with today’s simex [simulated exercise] will keep [my staff members] on their toes.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 26]
bullet Major General Larry Arnold, who is at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, also later says that when he first hears of the hijacking, in the minutes after NEADS is alerted to it, “The first thing that went through my mind was, is this part of the exercise? Is this some kind of a screw-up?” [ABC News, 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003] According to author Lynn Spencer: “Even as NORAD’s commander for the continental United States, Arnold is not privy to everything concerning the exercise. The simex is meant to test commanders also, to make sure that their war machine is operating as it should.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 38]
bullet At 8:43 a.m., Major James Fox, the leader of the NEADS weapons team, comments, “I’ve never seen so much real-world stuff happen during an exercise.” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Shelley Watson, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Stacia Rountree, Robert Marr, Maureen Dooley, Vigilant Guardian, Kevin Nasypany, Dawne Deskins, Larry Arnold, James Fox

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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