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Context of 'Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001: AWACS Planes on Training Missions in Florida and Near Washington, DC'

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Logo of the 552nd Air Control Wing.Logo of the 552nd Air Control Wing. [Source: US Air Force]An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane on a training mission in the Washington, DC, area is instructed to return to its base in Oklahoma, even though its advanced communications and surveillance capabilities would significantly benefit the military’s air defense efforts in response to the terrorist attacks. The AWACS belongs to the 552nd Air Control Wing, located at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. (US Air Force 4/1/2000; GlobalSecurity (.org) 4/16/2006; Spencer 2008, pp. 265) It has been flying a training mission somewhere near Washington (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Code One Magazine 1/2002)
AWACS Sent Back to Oklahoma - According to author Lynn Spencer, the AWACS is directed to return to Tinker Air Force Base “in the immediate confusion after the attacks.” The exact time the plane’s crew receives this order, and the identity of the person or organization that gives the order, are unstated. NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) will contact the AWACS later on, and instruct it to turn around and head to Washington, to provide radio and radar coverage over the capital (see (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 265-266)
AWACS Has Advanced Surveillance and Communication Capabilities - The AWACS, also called the E-3 Sentry, is a modified Boeing 707 that provides surveillance, command, control, and communications to military commanders. (Schmitt 9/23/1995; GlobalSecurity (.org) 4/16/2006; US Air Force 9/22/2015) According to a US Air Force manual, the plane’s “advanced surveillance radar provides long-range, low-level detection of aircraft targets over all types of terrain.” (US Air Force 4/1/2000) It can track friendly and enemy aircraft over a 300-mile radius. (Schmitt 9/23/1995) Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, will say that AWACS planes “give you the big picture in the sky. They’re able to identify what’s a friend, what’s a foe.” (White House 8/29/2002)
AWACS Would Help NEADS Contact Fighters - These planes are particularly important to NEADS. (9/11 Commission 10/30/2003 pdf file) Spencer will describe: “The NEADS radio transmitter, like all radio transmitters, operates by line of sight. This means that the radio signals, which travel in a straight line, require an unobstructed path between the transmitter and the [fighter] jets” that NEADS is trying to communicate with this morning. Due to the curvature of the earth and the distance between NEADS, in Rome, New York, and Washington, the fighters’ launched to protect the capital (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001) will be unable to pick up the NEADS signal on their radio receivers when they descend below 20,000 feet, after arriving over Washington (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). “What’s needed,” Spencer will write, “is an AWACS plane, which has the capability to provide both radar and radio coverage over a citywide area.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 265)

Major Brad Derrig.Major Brad Derrig. [Source: ABC]At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, the pilots of three F-16s receive the order to scramble (i.e. take off immediately). A Klaxon horn sounds and the status lights in the hangars change from yellow to green, notifying them of the order. (Longman 2002, pp. 65; Filson 2003, pp. 63; Spencer 2008, pp. 141) The fighter jets belong to the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing. The wing has a small detachment at Langley that serves as one of NORAD’s seven “alert” sites around the US, responsible for defending the nation against attack. (Spencer 2008, pp. 114) The jets are already at “battle stations,” with the pilots in the cockpits but the engines off (see (9:09 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Filson 2003, pp. 55; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 24; Spencer 2008, pp. 117-119) The scramble order has just been issued by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 16)
Third Pilot Launched - The unit at Langley keeps two F-16s on “alert”—armed, fueled, and ready to take off within minutes if called upon. (Hebert 2/2002; Kelly 12/5/2003; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 17) But NEADS has instructed it to launch as many aircraft as it can (see (Between 9:10 a.m. and 9:23 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and so the unit’s operations manager Captain Craig Borgstrom is also preparing to take off in a third jet. (Spencer 2008, pp. 118-119) Major Dean Eckmann calls the other two pilots, saying, “Quit check,” indicating a radio check. Major Brad Derrig responds, “Two.” Borgstrom replies: “Three. I’m going with you!” This is news to Derrig. According to author Lynn Spencer, Derrig is “stunned.… [N]ot much surprises him, but this does.” Borgstrom joining them as a pilot will mean that, in the middle of this unprecedented crisis, their unit will be left without a commanding officer. (Spencer 2008, pp. 142)
Only Two Jets Fully Armed - The two jets that are kept on alert are fully armed. As Eckmann will later recall, “We can carry M9 heat seekers, Sidewinders for the M7 Sparrow, plus we have an internal 20 mm Vulcan cannon, and we were pretty much armed with all that.” (BBC 9/1/2002) However, Borgstrom’s jet has guns only, and though the six-barrel 20 mm gun can fire 6,000 rounds per minute, it requires close range.
Pilot Unqualified to Lead Three Jets - As the three aircraft taxi out to the runway, Eckmann is concerned that he has not yet qualified as a mission commander—a “four-ship”—and is therefore not authorized to lead more than one fighter jet. He calls the other pilots, saying, “Hey, I’m only a two-ship!” But Derrig, who is a full-time instructor pilot for the Air National Guard, urges him not to worry. He responds: “Press! I’m an instructor,” giving his approval for the flight to operate as a “three-ship” under Eckmann’s lead. (Spencer 2008, pp. 142) The three jets will take off and be airborne by 9:30 a.m. (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 16)

A fighter and helicopter both fly directly above the Pentagon on 9/11 on the morning of 9/11. Exact time is unknown.A fighter and helicopter both fly directly above the Pentagon on 9/11 on the morning of 9/11. Exact time is unknown. [Source: Agence France-Presse]The three F-16s scrambled from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, at 9:30 a.m. finally reach Washington and the burning Pentagon. The 129 mile distance could theoretically have been covered by the fighters in six minutes, but they’ve taken a wide detour over the ocean (see 9:30 a.m.-9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). The exact time they arrive is unclear. An early timeline laid out to CNN by senior Defense Department officials will claim they arrive as early as 9:49 a.m., but the 9/11 Commission later claims they only establish “a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington” at “approximately 10:00 a.m.” (CBS News 9/14/2001; CNN 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 34)
Conflicting Press Accounts - Press accounts of when the first fighters reach Washington are highly contradictory. Early news accounts describe fighters arriving from Andrews Air Force Base, not Langley, “within minutes,” “a few moments,” or “just moments” after the Pentagon crash. (McAllister 9/11/2001; Wastell and Jacobson 9/16/2001; ABC News 9/11/2002) Other newspaper accounts inaccurately deny that fighters from Andrews are deployed (Weisman 9/16/2001) , and some deny Andrews even has fighters available. (Stone 9/16/2001) Defense officials will initially claim, “There were no military planes in the skies over Washington until 15 to 20 minutes after the Pentagon was hit”—in other words, 9:53 a.m. to 9:58 a.m. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 9/14/2001) But an ABC News report will suggest that by around 10:00 a.m., “Dozens of fighters are buzzing in the sky” over Washington. (ABC News 9/11/2002)
Fighter Jets Don't Arrive until Later? - In contrast, the New York Times reports: “In the White House Situation Room and at the Pentagon, the response seemed agonizingly slow. One military official recalls hearing words to the effect of, ‘Where are the planes?’” The Pentagon will insist it had air cover over its own building by 10 a.m. However, numerous witnesses on the ground, including a reporter for the New York Times who is headed toward the building, will say they did not see any fighters until around 10:40 a.m., or “closer to 11” (see (10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sanger and van Natta 9/16/2001; Creed and Newman 2008, pp. 130-131) According to some accounts, the plane that flies over the Pentagon at that time is Major Billy Hutchison’s F-16, launched from Andrews Air Force Base. (Filson 2003, pp. 81-82; Spencer 2008, pp. 235-236) NORAD will initially claim the Langley fighters were about 105 miles from the Pentagon when it was hit at 9:37, and the 9/11 Commission will later claim they were 150 miles away (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27)

An F/A-18A Hornet belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321.An F/A-18A Hornet belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321. [Source: Robert Carlson / Naval Aviation News]A US Marine with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321 (VMFA-321) calls a friend of his at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) to ask what his unit can do to assist the military response to the attacks. (Spencer 2008, pp. 188)
Former Marine Heads to NEADS - Trey Murphy is a former Marine who now works as a weapons controller at NEADS. He learned of the first crash in New York while still at home. After seeing the second crash on television, he realized it was a coordinated attack and hurried to work. When he arrived on the NEADS operations floor at around 9:45, the head of the weapons team, Major James Fox, informed him that fighter jets were coming up from Selfridge and Toledo; both sets of jets had been told to contact NEADS and would require instructions. (Spencer 2008, pp. 179-180)
Marine Calls Murphy - After Murphy reportedly checks in the F-16 pilots from Selfridge Air National Guard Base and gives them orders (see (9:56 a.m.-10:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001), his cell phone rings. On the other end is a friend of his from VMFA-321, a Marine Corps Reserve squadron at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland that flies the sophisticated F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet. Murphy’s friend says: “Dude, get us in the war. I’ve got wrench-turners on our planes uploading weapons.” He then asks, “What can we do?” Normally, Murphy would not issue orders to the Marine squadron. As author Lynn Spencer will explain, VMFA-321 trains “to deploy overseas and they respond only to the US Joint Forces Command, commonly known as JiffyCom, and based in Norfolk, Virginia.” However, with the day’s unprecedented circumstances, Murphy instructs, “Convince your higher-ups at JiffyCom to get you transferred over to us!” Minutes later, Murphy is called by a general from VMFA-321. By this time, his attention is devoted to dealing with the possibly hijacked aircraft, Delta 1989. But before hanging up, he exclaims: “General! Can’t talk! But we could use your airplanes.” (DC Military (.com) 6/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 188)

While President Bush is still in Sarasota, an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System plane) is flying a training mission off the coast of Florida. Referring to the AWACS plane, NORAD Commander Larry Arnold later says: “I had set up an arrangement with their wing commander at Tinker [Air Force Base, Oklahoma] some months earlier for us to divert their AWACS off a normal training mission to go into an exercise scenario simulating an attack on the United States. The AWACS crew initially thought we were going into one of those simulations.” Another AWACS is also flying a training mission, near Washington, DC, the morning of 9/11. (Code One Magazine 1/2002) When its pilot, Anthony Kuczynski, hears of the first WTC crash, he mistakenly believes he is involved in a planned military simulation. He says, “We sometimes do scenarios where we’re protecting the United States from bombers coming in from unknown areas.” (Forster 4/12/2002)

An E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.An E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. [Source: John K. McDowell / US Air Force]An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane that is on its way back to its base in Oklahoma is called by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) and instructed to head to Washington, DC, in order to provide radar and radio coverage, and help NEADS to communicate with fighter jets that are in the airspace over the capital.
Poor Communications over Washington - NEADS is having trouble communicating with fighters that have arrived over Washington (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (11:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and the radio reception is nonexistent when those aircraft go below 20,000 feet. As Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, will later recall, NORAD’s “picture over DC was pretty poor. And the communication was poor.” As a result, “the aircrews themselves” of the fighters over Washington “coordinated the refueling and the combat air patrols.”
NEADS Contacts AWACS Heading toward Oklahoma - NEADS weapons controller Trey Murphy therefore gets on the radio to an AWACS belonging to the 552nd Air Control Wing, based at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. (Code One Magazine 1/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 265-266) An AWACS is a modified Boeing 707 equipped with long-range radar and sophisticated communications equipment, which can track aircraft within a radius of several hundred miles. (Schmitt 9/23/1995; Asia Times 1/27/2000) The AWACS Murphy contacts had been flying a training mission earlier in the morning, somewhere near Washington (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001), but was directed to return to Tinker, supposedly as a result of the “immediate confusion after the attacks” (see (Between 9:05 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
AWACS Told to Head to Washington - Murphy instructs the pilot of the AWACS to turn around and head back toward Washington. He says: “Here’s the deal. We need you to cover the NCA [national capital area].” The pilot responds, “Roger that,” and asks, “Where do you want us?” Murphy replies: “No, no. You’re the one with the big jet with the rotor-dome on it. You tell me where you need to go to get me a surface to infinity look at that area.” As author Lynn Spencer will later describe, with Murphy’s request, “The problem of radar and radio coverage over DC has been solved.” After it arrives over the Washington area, according to Arnold, “The AWACS could talk to the Northeast [Air Defense] Sector and provide a better picture to them.” (Code One Magazine 1/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 265-266)

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