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Context of 'Shortly After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001: DC Air National Guard Officers Learn of First WTC Crash, Think It Is an Accident'

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Logo of the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard.Logo of the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard. [Source: Air National Guard]Pilots and officers with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) are notified of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, but mistakenly assume this must have been an accident and continue with a meeting they are holding. [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file; Spencer, 2008, pp. 122] The 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which includes the 121st Fighter Squadron, is based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, 10 miles southeast of Washington. [District of Columbia Air National Guard, 7/24/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006]
Pilots and Flight Managers in Meeting - Some DCANG officers are currently in a conference room at their unit at Andrews, conducting the weekly scheduling meeting, where plans for the upcoming week are discussed. According to Captain Brandon Rasmussen, a pilot who is also the chief of scheduling with the unit, about five or six people are in the meeting. [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file] As well as Rasmussen, those present include Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the 113th Wing; pilots Marc Sasseville and Daniel Caine; and a new officer, Mark Valentine.
Officers Think Crash Is an Accident - An intelligence officer interrupts the meeting and says a plane has just flown into the WTC. However, the meeting participants assume the crash is an accident involving a small aircraft. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file; Spencer, 2008, pp. 122] Rasmussen will later recall: “[A]ll of us in the meeting kind of looked at each other and looked outside the window, it was clear blue skies. It doesn’t get any more flying weather than that. So we thought, ‘What kind of a moron can’t see those big buildings right in front of them?’ We all figured it was just some light civil aircraft… little Cessnas, Piper Cubs, or whatever, someone doing some sightseeing flying up and down the Hudson and just not paying attention where he was going.” Therefore, “we continued on with the meeting, thinking we’d catch the news clips later on in the day.” The scheduling meeting will continue until its participants learn of the second plane hitting the WTC and realize this is a terrorist attack (see (9:04 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file; Spencer, 2008, pp. 122-123]
Some at Base Suspicious about Crash - However, according to the Washington Post, at least some individuals with the DC Air National Guard are “immediately suspicious” upon hearing of the first crash. Pilot Heather Penney Garcia will recall having wondered, “How do you make a mistake like that?” (Penney Garcia is at the 121st Fighter Squadron headquarters at Andrews, though whether she is attending the scheduling meeting is unstated.)
Only Four DCANG Pilots Available - Members of the 121st Fighter Squadron have just returned from “Red Flag,” a major training exercise in Nevada (see Late August-September 8, 2001). Most of the squadron’s pilots, who fly commercial planes in their civilian lives and are involved with the unit on only a part-time basis, are consequently away from the base on this day, either back at their airline jobs or on leave, according to different accounts. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 156] Of the seven pilots the squadron has available at the base today, three have just taken off for a training mission over North Carolina (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001), meaning only four available pilots are left at the base. [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file]
DCANG Not Part of NORAD Air Defense Force - The DC Air National Guard flies the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter, and its mission includes providing “capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency.” [DC Military (.com), 6/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005] Unlike other Air National Guard units, it reports to the president, instead of a state governor. It works closely with Secret Service agents who are across the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, in the Air Force One hangar. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Vogel, 2007, pp. 445] According to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, the 121st Fighter Squadron is “not standing alert on Sept. 11” because the DC Air National Guard is “not assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command air defense force.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Brandon Rasmussen, Daniel Caine, David McNulty, Mark Valentine, Marc Sasseville, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Heather Penney Garcia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Marc Sasseville.Marc Sasseville. [Source: CBC]Four pilots with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, finally receive authorization to get airborne in their fighter jets, and are given instructions on their mission. The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia, Captain Brandon Rasmussen, and Major Daniel Caine.
Pilot Waiting 'for Somebody to Task Me with Something' - Rasmussen will later recall that, although he and his colleagues at the unit had been aware of the attacks in New York, it is only after the Pentagon is hit (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001) that “we knew that we were going to be sticking around home and being quite busy.” And until the pilots are authorized to take off, he is “just kind of standing back, waiting for somebody to task me with something.” He will recall, “I was just waiting at the ops desk for someone to say, ‘Okay, we’ve been cleared to take off and go.’”
Sasseville Briefs Other Pilots - Rasmussen says that, after Sasseville and Caine receive authorization from their wing commander to get airborne and to use missiles, Sasseville, who is the acting operations group commander, looks at Penney Garcia and says, “You’re flying with me, and [Caine] you’re flying with [Rasmussen], do suit up and get out there as quick as possible.” According to another account, Sasseville gives his three fellow pilots a short briefing, telling them: “I have no idea what’s going on, but we’re flying. Here’s our frequency. We’ll split up the area as we have to. Just defend as required. We’ll talk about the rest in the air.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82-84; Rasmussen, 9/18/2003] Sasseville will recall, “There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to talk about, because we didn’t know what was going on.” [Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
Pilots Prepare to Fly - According to Rasmussen: “We were relieved to actually be given permission to go up and do something instead of feeling totally helpless. I mean we are fighter pilots, just like guard dogs chomping at the bit ready to go.” The four pilots run down the hallway and throw on their gear, grabbing their helmets, g-suits, and parachute harnesses, before heading to the operations desk to get their aircraft assignments. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Rasmussen, 9/18/2003]
Commander Gives Instructions - According to author Leslie Filson, before Sasseville and Penney Garcia head to their jets, Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, gives them instructions, regarding their mission. As Wherley will later recall, “My translation of the rules [of engagement] to [Sasseville] was, ‘You have weapons free flight-lead control.’” [Filson, 2003, pp. 82] “Weapons free” means the decision whether to shoot at a hostile aircraft rests with the lead pilot. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44] Wherley says, “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?” and both pilots respond, “Yes.” Wherley then tells them to be careful. “It was important for them to understand that this was weapons free,” he will recall. [Filson, 2003, pp. 82] However, Sasseville will tell the 9/11 Commission that he does not remember receiving the rules of engagement he is supposed to follow until later on, after he has taken off. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file]
Jets Don't Launch until 10:42 and After - The exact times when the four pilots are authorized to get airborne and receive their mission instructions are unclear. But Sasseville and Penney Garcia will take off from Andrews at 10:42 a.m., with their planes armed only with guns, and no missiles (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). Rasmussen and Caine take off at 11:11 a.m., by which time their jets have been armed with missiles (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82-84; 9/11 Commission, 2004]

Entity Tags: David Wherley, Daniel Caine, Heather Penney Garcia, Leslie Filson, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Marc Sasseville, Brandon Rasmussen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Heather Penney Garcia.Heather Penney Garcia. [Source: Johnathon Orrell]Two F-16 fighter jets belonging to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) take off from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, but they have no missiles and only training bullets for their guns. The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville and Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia. [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
Possibly Given Shootdown Authorization - Before they headed to their jets, Sasseville and Penney Garcia were given a short briefing by Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. Wherley will later recall telling Sasseville that he has “weapons free flight-lead control,” meaning he is responsible for deciding whether to fire on hostile aircraft (see (Between 9:40 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] But Sasseville will say he does not recall receiving any such rules of engagement until after he has taken off. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file]
Jets Only Have Training Ammunition - The two pilots run out to their jets and climb into the cockpits. But their F-16s are armed only with “hot” guns and 511 rounds of non-explosive training practice (TP) ammunition. According to Sasseville: “They had two airplanes ready to go, and were putting missiles on numbers three and four. Maintenance wanted us to take the ones with missiles, but we didn’t have time to wait on those.”
Rookie Pilot 'Never Scrambled Before' - Penney Garcia, who is a rookie pilot, will later say: “I’d never scrambled before, I’d never done this. I was screaming to the maintainers to pull the chocks, and the guys were pulling the pins to arm the guns. We were going without INS [inertial navigation system].” Sasseville and Penney Garcia are airborne about six minutes after reaching their jets. They are unaware that fighters launched from Langley Air Force Base are also flying over Washington, at around 20,000 feet (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Told to Look for Hijacked Plane - Over their radios, Sasseville and Penney Garcia receive instructions from their squadron to look for a hijacked aircraft approaching from the northwest and heading toward Georgetown (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). But, Sasseville will later recall, “We didn’t know what we were looking for—how high he was coming, or low, or where he was going.” [Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] He will say, “I don’t have the whole picture, but have word from Washington National Approach that something is coming.”
Pilot 'Making Things Up on the Fly' - The two jets will fly over Washington at low altitudes, around 5,000 or 6,000 feet. Sasseville will later say, “I didn’t want to get too low for a good radar angle, and not too high, so we could get somewhere fast.” He will admit that he is “making things up on the fly,” as he has no precedent to draw upon. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82] Another DCANG pilot, Billy Hutchison, launched from Andrews four minutes before Sasseville and Penney Garcia take off, but he is airborne for less than 10 minutes (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). The next DCANG jets to take off, which will be armed with missiles, launch at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]

Entity Tags: Heather Penney Garcia, David Wherley, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Andrews Air Force Base, 121st Fighter Squadron, Marc Sasseville

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Weapons load crew members from the District of Columbia Air National Guard arming an F-16 on September 11.Weapons load crew members from the District of Columbia Air National Guard arming an F-16 on September 11. [Source: Corensa Brooks / District of Columbia Air National Guard] (click image to enlarge)Two District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) fighter jets take off from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, to defend the capital, the first DCANG planes to launch armed with missiles as well as bullets. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 pdf file] The two F-16s are piloted by Captain Brandon Rasmussen and Major Daniel Caine. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] Although Caine was his unit’s supervisor of flying (SOF) this morning, he decided earlier on that he was going to get airborne, and so Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson has taken his place as SOF (see (Shortly After 9:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 76; Spencer, 2008, pp. 184]
Commander Supposedly Gave Shootdown Authority - As Caine and Rasmussen were passing the SOF area on the way to their fighters, they were quickly briefed by Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. Wherley had by then received instructions from the Secret Service for his fighter jets to follow (see (10:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (Between 10:16 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). According to author Lynn Spencer, he told the two pilots: “You need to establish a CAP [combat air patrol] over Washington. Intercept any incoming aircraft 60 miles out and use whatever force necessary to keep it from targeting buildings downtown.” Wherley said, “You will be weapons free,” which means the decision whether to fire on a hostile aircraft rests with the lead pilot, and added, “Just be careful.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44; Spencer, 2008, pp. 238] However, Rasmussen will contradict this account, saying that once he is airborne, “we still haven’t been told, ‘You are clear to engage anybody.’ They just said, ‘Get airborne as quick as you can.’” But while the two pilots were getting suited up ready to fly, Caine, who will be the flight lead, had reassured Rasmussen that he would take responsibility for firing on any hostile planes. He’d said: “Whatever you do, don’t be the first one to shoot.… Let me be the first one to shoot, if it comes to that, and then do what I do.” [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003]
Fighters Loaded with Missiles - Three DCANG jets took off from Andrews earlier on, but none of them were armed with missiles (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Missiles were loaded onto Caine and Rasmussen’s F-16s while they were sitting in the cockpits. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] Rasmussen will later recall that “we were probably 20 to 30 minutes behind” the previous two jets to launch, “because they were loading heat-seeking missiles on the aircraft.… Once they armed us up, we just rolled right down the runway and blasted off.” The jets take off with hot guns and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles each. According to Rasmussen, this is the first time he has flown with live missiles. He will say, “I had never flown with real missiles and had never so much as seen them on the jet.”
Communicate with FAA Controllers - After taking off, Caine and Rasmussen communicate with the FAA’s Washington Center, “primarily to control us and give us an idea of the air picture,” according to Rasmussen. The Washington Center normally controls all of the air traffic in the area. However, its controllers are not trained as weapons controllers. Rasmussen will say: “[W]e’re used to working with AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System] weapons controllers or GCI [ground control intercept].” GCI is “a ground-based radar facility with weapons controllers who will give you the tactical air picture; control and coordinate who is targeting what aircraft; and run the air war that way.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 84; Rasmussen, 9/18/2003]
Airborne for 3-4 Hours - DCANG pilot Marc Sasseville, who took off at 10:42 a.m., was initially the CAP commander, but Caine takes over this responsibility from him once he is in the air. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Caine and Rasmussen will remain airborne for three or four hours, which is at least twice as long as the usual maximum duration for an air-to-ground sortie, of about an hour and a half. [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003]

Entity Tags: 121st Fighter Squadron, Daniel Caine, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, District of Columbia Air National Guard, David Wherley, Brandon Rasmussen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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