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Context of '(9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Supervisor Tells DC Air National Guard Pilots on Training to Hurry Back to Base'

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Three F-16 fighter jets that are on their way back from a training mission over North Carolina finally make contact with their supervisor of flying (SOF) and are instructed to return to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland as quickly as possible. [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] The jets belong to the 121st Fighter Squadron, part of the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which is based at Andrews AFB, 10 miles from Washington, DC. [District of Columbia Air National Guard, 7/24/2001; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006] They left Andrews at 8:36 for a routine training mission on a range about 200 miles away from there, in North Carolina (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 pdf file]
Supervisor Wants Jets Back Immediately - Major Daniel Caine, who is the SOF with their unit, had been concerned about the three F-16s since the time of the second crash in New York. He’d felt certain that airspace restrictions would be implemented around Washington, and realized he needed to get the jets back to base right away before the Washington airspace was closed. Because the jets were outside his radio range, he called a refueling plane they were scheduled to meet, and asked its pilot to tell them to return to Andrews. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 122-124]
Pilots Told to Return as Fast as Possible - Having met with the refueling plane (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), the lead pilot of the F-16s, Major Billy Hutchison, is now about half way back from the training mission and finally in radio range of Andrews, so he calls the SOF there. [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] By this time, Caine has left his post, as he intends to take off in a jet himself (see (Shortly After 9:39 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson has replaced him as SOF. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 184] Thompson says to Hutchison: “[W]e need you here now! You need to return to base ‘buster’!” The code word “buster” means Hutchison is to push his thrust lever into afterburner and fly as fast as his plane will go. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 217] Thompson does not tell Hutchison anything about the terrorist attacks. Hutchison’s only awareness of the morning’s crisis is what little he’d been told by the pilot of the refueling plane. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] But he has never heard the code word “buster” used before, and realizes something very bad is going on. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 217]
Hutchison Sees Burning Pentagon - Hutchison will later recall: “So we light afterburners and we are coming back at Mach as quick as we can get back.… As I get back, I cross the Potomac River on the south end of Maryland and Virginia, and I see a big column of smoke. It was so clear and there was no haze in the air.” He again talks over the radio with Thompson. Hutchison says: “It looks like there’s been an explosion near [Washington’s Reagan] National Airport. What’s going on?’” Thompson replies: “We know. Just keep coming.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 79] The first of the three F-16s returning from the training mission will land back at Andrews AFB at 10:14 a.m. (see 10:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). The other two land at 10:36 a.m., but Hutchison will be instructed to take off again immediately (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004]

Entity Tags: 121st Fighter Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Billy Hutchison, Phil Thompson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Billy Hutchison.Billy Hutchison. [Source: Family photo]The first fighter jet to launch from Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles southeast of Washington, takes off in response to the attacks. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006] The F-16 belongs to the 121st Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, and is piloted by Major Billy Hutchison. It is one of three F-16s that were flying on a training mission in North Carolina, over 200 miles from Andrews (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001), and which have finally been recalled to the base (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; American Forces Press Service, 5/12/2005] Although the three jets met with a refueling plane, they did not fill their tanks up completely. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] Hutchison’s aircraft is the only one of them with enough fuel remaining to take off again immediately, though he only has 2,800 pounds, which is equivalent to one-eighth of a tank in a car. His jet has no missiles, and only training ammunition.
Pilot Takes Off, Instructed to Protect Washington - Immediately after landing at Andrews at 10:36 a.m., Hutchison takes off again at the instruction of Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. He is instructed “to intercept an aircraft coming toward DC and prevent it from reaching DC,” he will later recall. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 79-81; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] According to author Lynn Spencer, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the supervisor of flying (SOF) at Andrews, tells Hutchison to “use whatever force is necessary to prevent [the aircraft] from getting to DC.” Thompson adds: “You are weapons free. Do you understand?” “Weapons free” means the decision to shoot at a target now rests solely with Hutchison. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 219] However, according to the 9/11 Commission, the “weapons free” instruction goes out to other pilots that launch from Andrews at 10:42 and after, but apparently not to Hutchison. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44] Thompson will tell Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine simply that he instructs Hutchison “to ‘do exactly what [air traffic control] asks you to do.’ Primarily, he was to go ID [identify] that unknown [aircraft] that everybody was so excited about” (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] Hutchison takes off “without afterburner to conserve fuel, go across the White House over the Georgetown area and continue northwest up the Potomac,” he will recall (see 10:39 a.m.-10:45 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 81]
Conflicting Timelines - Conflicting times will later be given for when Hutchison takes off from Andrews. The pilots with the 121st Fighter Squadron will admit that their own recollection of the morning’s timeline “is fuzzy.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] According to 113th Wing operations desk records, Hutchison takes off at 10:33 a.m. [Filson, 2003, pp. 81, 89] Based on an interview with David Wherley, the 9/11 Commission states he is airborne at 10:38 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44, 465] Recordings of air traffic controller transmissions confirm this time. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] But in her 2008 book Touching History, Lynn Spencer will claim Hutchison took off significantly earlier, some time after 9:50 but before Flight 93 crashed (which was just after 10:00 a.m.). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-220] (However, she will later amend her claim, saying instead, “Radio data indicates that Hutchison’s flight did not depart from Andrews… until just after 10:35.” [Lynn Spencer, 2008] ) Two more fighters will take off from Andrews at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001) and another two take off at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). Due to his plane’s limited fuel, Hutchison will only be airborne for about 10 minutes, and he lands back at Andrews at 10:47 a.m. (see 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/28/2003; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
One Jet Landed Already - The first of the three F-16s to return from the training mission over North Carolina landed at Andrews at 10:14 a.m., but did not take off again to defend Washington (see 10:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). The other F-16, piloted by Lou Campbell, landed with Hutchison’s jet at 10:36 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] The 113th Wing is not part of NORAD’s air sovereignty force and, according to the 1st Air Force’s book about 9/11, does not have an alert mission. [Filson, 2003, pp. 76] According to Phil Thompson, “We’ve never been an air defense unit,” but “We practice scrambles, we know how to do intercepts and other things.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]

Entity Tags: Andrews Air Force Base, Billy Hutchison, Lou Campbell, 121st Fighter Squadron, David Wherley, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Phil Thompson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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