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1990-2001: NORAD Regularly Launches Fighters to Intercept Suspicious Aircraft before 9/11

Captain Tom Herring, an F-15 pilot with the Florida Air National Guard.Captain Tom Herring, an F-15 pilot with the Florida Air National Guard. [Source: Airman]Fighter jets are regularly scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in response to suspicious or unidentified aircraft flying in US airspace in the years preceding 9/11. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 4; Associated Press, 8/14/2002] For this task, NORAD keeps a pair of fighters on “alert” at a number of sites around the US. These fighters are armed, fueled, and ready to take off within minutes of receiving a scramble order (see Before September 11, 2001). [American Defender, 4/1998; Air Force Magazine, 2/2002; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; Grant, 2004, pp. 14] Various accounts offer statistics about the number of times fighters are scrambled:
bullet A General Accounting Office report published in May 1994 states that “during the past four years, NORAD’s alert fighters took off to intercept aircraft (referred to as scrambled) 1,518 times, or an average of 15 times per site per year.” Of these incidents, the number of scrambles that are in response to suspected drug smuggling aircraft averages “one per site, or less than 7 percent of all of the alert sites’ total activity.” The remaining activity, about 93 percent of the total scrambles, “generally involved visually inspecting unidentified aircraft and assisting aircraft in distress.” [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 4]
bullet In the two years from May 15, 1996 to May 14, 1998, NORAD’s Western Air Defense Sector (WADS), which is responsible for the “air sovereignty” of the western 63 percent of the continental US, scrambles fighters 129 times to identify unknown aircraft that might be a threat. Over the same period, WADS scrambles fighters an additional 42 times against potential and actual drug smugglers. [Washington National Guard, 1998]
bullet In 1997, the Southeast Air Defense Sector (SEADS)—another of NORAD’s three air defense sectors in the continental US—tracks 427 unidentified aircraft, and fighters intercept these “unknowns” 36 times. The same year, NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) handles 65 unidentified tracks and WADS handles 104 unidentified tracks, according to Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of the Continental United States NORAD Region on 9/11. [American Defender, 4/1998]
bullet In 1998, SEADS logs more than 400 fighter scrambles. [Grant, 2004, pp. 14]
bullet In 1999, Airman magazine reports that NORAD’s fighters on alert at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida are scrambled 75 times per year, on average. According to Captain Tom Herring, a full-time alert pilot at the base, this is more scrambles than any other unit in the Air National Guard. [Airman, 12/1999]
bullet General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD on 9/11, will later state that in the year 2000, NORAD’s fighters fly 147 sorties. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004 pdf file]
bullet According to the Calgary Herald, in 2000 there are 425 “unknowns,” where an aircraft’s pilot has not filed or has deviated from a flight plan, or has used the wrong radio frequency, and fighters are scrambled 129 times in response. [Calgary Herald, 10/13/2001]
bullet Between September 2000 and June 2001, fighters are scrambled 67 times to intercept suspicious aircraft, according to the Associated Press. [Associated Press, 8/14/2002]
Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, the commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region at the time of the 9/11 attacks, will say that before 9/11, it is “not unusual, and certainly was a well-refined procedure” for NORAD fighters to intercept an aircraft. He will add, though, that intercepting a commercial airliner is “not normal.” [Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 pdf file] On September 11, 2001, NEADS scrambles fighters that are kept on alert in response to the hijackings (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20, 26-27]

Entity Tags: Larry Arnold, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Norton Schwartz, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Ralph Eberhart, Tom Herring

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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