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Context of '(9:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Atlantic City Non-Alert Military Unit Goes to Wartime Posture'

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The NORAD emblem.The NORAD emblem. [Source: NORAD]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the military organization responsible for monitoring and defending US airspace, gradually reduces the number of aircraft it has on “alert”—armed and ready for immediate takeoff—in response to the changing nature of the threats it has to defend against, so that there will be just 14 fighter jets on alert across the continental United States when the 9/11 attacks take place. [Jones, 2011, pp. 7-8 pdf file]
NORAD Has 1,200 Interceptor Aircraft in 1960 - NORAD is a bi-national organization, established by the US and Canada in 1958 to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16] It is initially responsible for intercepting any Soviet long-range bombers that might attack the Northern Hemisphere. By 1960, it has about 1,200 interceptor aircraft dedicated to this task. But during the 1960s, the Soviets become less reliant on manned bombers, and shift instead to ballistic missiles. In response to this changed threat and also budget constraints, the number of NORAD interceptor aircraft goes down to about 300 by the mid-1970s.
NORAD's Mission Changes after Cold War Ends - With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the threats NORAD has to counter change significantly. During the early 1990s, NORAD’s mission consequently changes from one of air defense to one of maintaining “air sovereignty,” which NORAD defines as “providing surveillance and control of the territorial airspace.” The new mission includes intercepting suspicious aircraft, tracking hijacked aircraft, assisting aircraft in distress, and counterdrug operations. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 14-15; 9/11 Commission, 2/3/2004 pdf file; Jones, 2011, pp. 7 pdf file] As this change takes place, the number of aircraft defending American airspace is reduced. In 1987, there are 52 fighters on alert in the continental United States. [Filson, 1999, pp. 112-113] But by December 1999, there are just 14 alert fighters remaining around the continental US. [Airman, 12/1999]
Number of Alert Sites Goes Down Prior to 9/11 - The number of NORAD “alert sites”—bases where the alert aircraft are located—is also reduced in the decades prior to 9/11. During the Cold War, there are 26 of these sites. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16] By 1991, there are 19 of them, according to Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of NORAD’s Continental US Region from 1997 to 2002. [Filson, 2003, pp. v] By 1994, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, there are 14 alert sites around the US. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 1] And by 1996, only 10 alert sites remain. [Utecht, 4/7/1996, pp. 9-10]
Military Officials Call for Eliminating Alert Sites - In the 1990s, some officials at the Pentagon argue for the alert sites to be eliminated entirely. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16-17] The Department of Defense’s 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review indicates that the number of alert sites around the continental US could be reduced to just four, but the idea is successfully blocked by NORAD (see May 19, 1997). [Filson, 2003, pp. iv-v, 34-36; 9/11 Commission, 2/3/2004 pdf file] However, three alert sites are subsequently removed from the air sovereignty mission. These are in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Burlington, Vermont; and Great Falls, Montana. [American Defender, 4/1998]
Seven Alert Sites Remain - By December 1999, therefore, there are just seven alert sites around the continental US, each with two fighters on alert. These sites are Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida; Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Portland Air National Guard Base, Oregon; March Air Reserve Base, California; Ellington Air National Guard Base, Texas; Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts; and Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. Only two of these sites—Otis ANGB and Langley AFB—serve the northeastern United States, where the hijackings on September 11 will take place. [Airman, 12/1999; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Larry Arnold

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

William Cohen.William Cohen. [Source: US Department of Defense]Secretary of Defense William Cohen issues a comprehensive assessment of America’s defense requirements, called the Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This is a six-month analysis of the “threats, risks and opportunities for US national security,” and reviews all aspects of the US defense strategy. [US Department of Defense, 5/19/1997] Among other things, the 1997 QDR outlines the conversion of six continental air defense squadrons to general purpose, training or other missions. It calls for there being just four “alert” air defense sites around the US: at Otis, Massachusetts; Homestead, Florida; Riverside, California; and Portland, Oregon. [US Department of Defense, 5/1997; Filson, 2003, pp. 348] Major General Larry Arnold, who is commanding general of NORAD’s Continental Region on 9/11, later says: “The QDR didn’t make any sense at all. [T]here was a fight just to maintain the number of alert sites that we had. We felt we could operate fairly reasonably with about ten sites and thought eight was the absolute highest risk we could take.” NORAD Commander in Chief General Howell M. Estes III has written to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a minimum of seven alert sites are needed to maintain America’s air sovereignty. In the end, three extra alert sites are added to the four suggested in the QDR. These are at Hampton, Virginia; Panama City, Florida; and Ellington, Texas. Larry Arnold later says, “I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with seven [alert sites] because there are great large distances between the alert sites.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 36] Other bases will lose their NORAD air defense functions over the next year, including those in Fresno, California; Fargo, North Dakota; Duluth, Minnesota; Burlington, Vermont; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Great Falls, Montana. [US Department of Defense, 5/1997] Of these closed bases, the most critical loss on 9/11 will be the Atlantic City, New Jersey base, located about halfway between New York City and Washington. Boston air traffic control, apparently unaware the base has lost its air defense function will try and fail to contact the base shortly after learning about the first hijacking of the morning, Flight 11 (see (8:34 a.m.) September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Howell M. Estes III, Larry Arnold, William S. Cohen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Major General Larry Arnold, who became commander of the Continental United States NORAD Region (CONR) in December 1997, fights to preserve the resources assigned to US air sovereignty (see May 19, 1997 and Late August 2001). To emphasize the need for air bases with fighter jets on alert, Arnold frequently gives a presentation describing “asymmetric” threats and including a slide featuring Osama bin Laden. As Arnold will later recall: “[W]e thought that the biggest threat to the US in the briefing that I always gave… was going to come from an asymmetric threat, from a terrorist or a rogue nation, or maybe associated with the drug cartels to some degree. The picture that we used to have on one of our slides there, dating all the way back to 1997 and 1998, was Osama bin Laden.” [Filson, 2002] Colonel Alan Scott, who serves under Arnold at CONR, will later describe the “El Paso example” that Arnold uses to illustrate the need for more alert sites. Scott says: “We had fairly large gaps between our seven alert sites pre-9/11. The largest was between Riverside, CA, and Houston, TX. El Paso, TX, was in the middle of those two alert sites. There was no perceived ‘military’ threat from Mexico. As the threat of terrorism arose, General Arnold began to use the example in his talks to various groups. The example was that if a terrorist called and said in one hour he would overfly El Paso, TX, and spray deadly gas, we would watch it live on CNN because we could not get aircraft to that location in time to stop the attack.” [Filson, 7/14/2002]

Entity Tags: Larry Arnold, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Alan Scott

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

As the military community is discussing the future of continental air defense in a post-Cold War world (see May 19, 1997), Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of the 1st Air Force, orders a study to review the Air Force’s air sovereignty mission. At his request, Major General Paul Pochmara forms a 12-member roles and mission (RAM) team to gather information and ideas on the subject. The team has a one-hour presentation that outlines the military’s responsibility for protecting the nation’s air sovereignty. Major General Mike Haugen, a member of the team, will later say that the group discusses everything from technology to the future of the air sovereignty mission to the terrorist threat. Haugen will say: “We made some pretty bold predictions in our briefing.… In fact, it included a photo of Osama bin Laden as the world’s most dangerous terrorist.… We didn’t predict how the terrorists would strike but predicted they would strike.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 37-38] A 9/11 Commission memorandum will add, “Osama bin Laden is featured on the cover of the brief developed by the RAM team, and he figures prominently in the study.” Colonel Alan Scott of the Continental US NORAD Region will tell the Commission: “As we started talking about Osama bin Laden, the examples we gave in our mission brief were the first WTC bombing, the Tokyo subway, Oklahoma City bombing, and Atlanta Olympics. What we did was connect those dots. The conclusion we drew was that we had a viable threat.” [9/11 Commission, 6/9/2004]

Entity Tags: Mike Haugen, Paul Pochmara, Alan Scott, Larry Arnold, North American Aerospace Defense Command, 1st Air Force

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Apparently around 8:34 a.m., the FAA’s Boston Center attempts to contact an Atlantic City, New Jersey, military unit, to have it send fighters after Flight 11. However, the outcome of this call, and whether it is even answered, is unclear. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20] Atlantic City International Airport is the home of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which flies F-16 fighter jets. The 177th FW was part of NORAD’s alert force for many years, and kept two F-16s constantly on alert, ready to scramble when requested. But in October 1998, as a result of Pentagon cutbacks, it lost its scramble-ready status and began converting to a general-purpose F-16 mission (see May 19, 1997). [Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005] The outcome of Boston Center’s attempt at contacting the Atlantic City unit is unclear. The 9/11 Commission will only state, “The center… tried to contact a former alert site in Atlantic City, unaware it had been phased out.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20] NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) will also try contacting the unit minutes later, but its call will not be answered (see (Between 8:40 a.m. and 8:46 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 34] The Bergen Record will later comment that, with the removal of the Atlantic City fighters from NORAD’s alert mission, “the Pentagon left what seems to be a yawning gap in the midsection of its air defenses on the East Coast—a gap with New York City at the center.” [Bergen Record, 12/5/2003] Around this time, two F-16s from the 177th FW are away from base performing a training mission, and are just minutes from New York City, but the pilots are unaware of the unfolding crisis (see 8:46 a.m.-9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, 177th Fighter Wing

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

At the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center, two F-16 fighter jets are performing a training mission just eight minutes flying time away from New York, but the pilots are unaware of the crisis taking place. The two jets belong to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which is based at Atlantic City International Airport. [Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005] F-16s at Atlantic City are involved in scheduled training missions every day, and their first mission is usually between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. [Griffin, 2007, pp. 62] The two fighter jets are unarmed and performing practice bombing runs over a section of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey that is designated for military drills. The pilots are unaware of the attacks in New York. They will not be called back to base until shortly after the second WTC tower is hit, and will then have their training munitions replaced with live air-to-air missiles. At the time of the second attack, another two jets from the 177th FW are preparing to take off for routine bombing training, but they too have their mission canceled (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). No jets will take off from Atlantic City in response to the attacks until after 9:37, when the Pentagon is hit. [Code One Magazine, 10/2002; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003]
NEADS and FAA Tried Contacting 177th Fighter Wing - Colin Scoggins, the military liaison at the FAA’s Boston Center, is aware that the 177th FW launches F-16s for training flights every morning around this time, and suggested to NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) that it contact Atlantic City to use these jets in response to the hijacked Flight 11. However, when NEADS tried phoning the unit, its call was not answered (see (Between 8:40 a.m. and 8:46 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Griffin, 2007, pp. 62; Spencer, 2008, pp. 33-34] Apparently around 8:34 a.m., the Boston Center also attempted to contact the Atlantic City unit, but the outcome of that call is unclear (see (8:34 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20]
F-16s Might Have Prevented Attacks on WTC - Author Peter Lance will later point out that, had the two Atlantic City F-16s flying over the Pine Barrens “been notified by the FAA at 8:34… they could have reached the Twin Towers by 8:42 a.m.,” four minutes before Flight 11 hit the North Tower (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). “Even unarmed, and without a shootdown order, they might have been able to take defensive action to prevent the big 767 from crashing into the tower. In any case, the fighters would certainly have been on patrol and able to interdict UA 175, which didn’t hit the South Tower until 9:03 a.m.” [Lance, 2004, pp. 230-231] Yet despite the crucial role these two fighters could have played, the 9/11 Commission Report will make no mention of them. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004] Pointing out the irony of having the two F-16s so near to Manhattan yet with such an unrelated mission, 177th Fighter Wing public affairs officer Lt. Luz Aponte will later remark, “Isn’t that something?” [Bergen Record, 12/5/2003]

Entity Tags: 177th Fighter Wing, Luz Aponte

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mike Cosby.Mike Cosby. [Source: US Department of Defense]Two fighter jets at a New Jersey military unit that are about to launch for training are recalled to respond to the attacks in New York, but will not be airborne until after the Pentagon is hit. The two F-16s belong to the 177th Fighter Wing, located at Atlantic City International Airport, and are only loaded with BDUs (practice bombs) for their routine training mission. [Code One Magazine, 10/2002] Colonel James Haye, the supervisor of flying (SOF) at the 177th FW, was informed of the first aircraft hitting the World Trade Center, and then went to a nearby television to see the footage of the burning North Tower. He’d alerted Lt. Col. Randall King, one of the base’s pilots, who was in the same room as him. King, who is an experienced commercial pilot, said: “Whoever was at the controls did that on purpose. That is no accidental crash! And that was no small airplane!” After watching the television coverage for several minutes, Haye sets about putting the scheduled training mission on hold. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 58-59 and 120] As they are taxiing to the runway, the two fighters preparing to launch are told to stop and return to the flight line (the parking and servicing area for aircraft). Personnel at the base then set about removing the training munitions and arming the planes with live missiles. Major Tom Cleary, one of the pilots, will later recall, “We launched almost immediately after the Pentagon was hit.” However, apparently his aircraft will not be properly armed. He recalls, “I was still carrying training munitions, but I had live guns.” Col. Mike Cosby, the commander of the 177th FW, indicates the jets may not launch until slightly later, saying, “We were airborne within the hour after the Pentagon attack.” Later on, four F-16s with live missiles will be launched from the unit, followed by another four, also with live missiles. According to Cosby, “We were the first non-alert unit to fly armed ordnance over the Northeast corridor anywhere the Northeast Sector of NORAD wanted us to fly, between New York City and Washington, DC.” [Code One Magazine, 10/2002] Two F-16s with the 177th FW have been airborne already this morning, practicing bombing runs near Atlantic City, and are called back to base following the attacks on the WTC to be re-fitted with live missiles and then re-launched (see 8:46 a.m.-9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Bergen Record, 12/5/2003]

Entity Tags: Mike Cosby, James Haye, 177th Fighter Wing, Randall King, Tom Cleary

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 177th Fighter Wing, a military unit based at the Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey, raises its threat protection level to a wartime posture, and, though it is no longer part of NORAD’s alert mission, starts preparing to launch its aircraft with live missiles. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 120-122]
Commander Orders Increased Threat Condition - Lt. Col. Brian Webster, who is the acting wing commander for the 177th Fighter Wing, was at home when he learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center. After watching the second attack live on television, he rushes out to drive to the base. Webster calls the command post there on his cell phone and gives the order, “Raise the base’s threat protection level to Charlie!” Threatcon Charlie is a wartime posture, and will mean various security measures are activated in preparation for a possible attack. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 120-121]
Command Post Brought Online - For many years, up to 1998 (see May 19, 1997), the 177th FW was part of NORAD’s alert force. It kept two fully armed F-16s on constant alert, and was responsible for providing air sovereignty of the mid-Atlantic, between Long Island, New York, and the Virginia Capes. [New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, 1999 pdf file; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005] But since the unit was removed from the NORAD alert mission, its command post has been used just once a month for training. It is now coming to life, though, as personnel switch on the lights, and turn on computers and monitors. The workers increase their pace after hearing an announcement about the transition to Threatcon Charlie. A master sergeant busily calls members of staff and orders them to report to base.
Webster Wants Live Missiles on Aircraft - When Webster arrives, he instructs the operations support flight commander to replace practice missiles and munitions on the unit’s fighter jets with live ones. The missiles are not stored by the aircraft, so this will take some time. Webster also orders, “Get me authenticators.” An authenticator is a piece of paper given to pilots with a code in a series of letters on it, and which is only valid for a 24-hour period. If a pilot receives an order to fire, he must ask for an authentication code. If this doesn’t match the code on his authenticator, he cannot legally comply with the order. NORAD’s alert sites receive authenticators each month, but as it is no longer part of the alert mission, Atlantic City has none.
Weapons Chief Uncertain - According to author Lynn Spencer, Webster’s orders are unprecedented at a non-alert fighter wing of the Air National Guard. “Air National Guard jets don’t simply fly around the United States with live missiles. Guardsmen train to fight wars overseas, not to fly armed combat over the United States.” The weapons chief with the 177th FW is unenthusiastic, and asks to have a word with Webster. But Webster tells him abruptly, “Just do it![Spencer, 2008, pp. 121-122] Within two hours, the first fighters will take off from the Atlantic City unit. These had been preparing for a training mission at the time of the attacks in New York (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Code One Magazine, 10/2002]

Entity Tags: 177th Fighter Wing, Brian Webster

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Logo of the 192nd Fighter Wing.Logo of the 192nd Fighter Wing. [Source: Air National Guard]More fighter jets arrive over Washington, DC. These include F-16s from Richmond, Virginia, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] The Atlantic City jets belong to the 177th Fighter Wing (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and the Richmond jets belong to the 192nd Fighter Wing. [GlobalSecurity (.org.), 10/21/2001; Code One Magazine, 10/2002] Fighters from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001), are already flying over the capital. Captain Brandon Rasmussen, who took off from Andrews at 11:11 a.m., actually flies out to intercept the fighters from Richmond, apparently not realizing who they are. He will later recall: “I ended up running an intercept out of a two-ship out of Richmond, two-ship F-16 out of Richmond that just came flying north. In essence, we would find whatever we could on the radar, ask [the FAA’s] Washington Center if they knew who it was, and if they didn’t, we would run an intercept on them to visual identify who they were.” [Rasmussen, 9/18/2003] According to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, with jets from different units arriving over Washington, “The air picture was confused, at best, and radio frequencies were alive with chatter.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]

Entity Tags: 177th Fighter Wing, Brandon Rasmussen, 192nd Fighter Wing, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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