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(Shortly After 9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Park Police Helicopter Given Air Traffic Control Responsibility for Washington Airspace

A US Park Police helicopter flying above the burning Pentagon.A US Park Police helicopter flying above the burning Pentagon. [Source: Mark D. Faram / US Navy]A US Park Police helicopter that recently arrived over the Pentagon is contacted by an air traffic controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport and given responsibility for controlling the airspace over Washington, DC, since the control tower at Reagan Airport is being evacuated. [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001; US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A-48 pdf file; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 21 pdf file] The Park Police Aviation Unit’s two helicopters arrived at the Pentagon within minutes of the attack there (see Shortly After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Rotor and Wing, 11/2001] While one of the helicopters landed to conduct medical evacuations, the other, which has the call sign “Eagle I,” circled overhead. [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 20-21 pdf file]
Airport Tower Being Evacuated - Eagle I has made three or four orbits around the Pentagon when a controller in the Reagan Airport tower radios its pilot, Sergeant Ronald Galey. The controller says the tower is currently evacuating. [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001; National Park Service, 1/17/2002] According to some accounts, the tower is being evacuated due to reports of more hijacked aircraft heading in its direction (see (9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [NBC 4, 9/11/2003; Spencer, 2008, pp. 215-216] But according to other accounts, the controller tells Galey the tower is evacuating because it is being affected by smoke that is drifting across from the burning Pentagon. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A-48 pdf file; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 21 pdf file; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 162] Galey will recall the controller saying: “Eagle I, we can’t see anything outside the tower. [The smoke is] getting in our ventilation system. We’re abandoning the tower.” Therefore, the controller gives Galey control of the airspace for the entire Washington area, telling him, “You’ve got the airspace.” [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 21 pdf file]
Pilot Alarmed at Being Given Control of Airspace - The control tower at Reagan Airport is “normally the ‘nerve center’ for directing any response to this type of incident,” according to a National Park Service news article. [National Park Service, 9/21/2002] Galey is initially alarmed. He will recall thinking, “Exactly what I need right now is I’ve got control of the airspace.” [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001] However, he is unaware that the FAA has ordered that all airborne aircraft must land at the nearest airport (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001), which will make his task easier. [US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 21 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29]
NORAD Advises Pilot on Controlling Airspace - The controller gives Galey the radio frequency for NORAD, and tells him to contact NORAD. [National Park Service, 1/17/2002; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 21-22 pdf file] The person Galey then talks to at NORAD informs him: “Look, you have no [air] traffic in DC, except for the traffic that you’re calling. The aircraft that you’re calling in, we’re going to allow to come in. Other than that, there should be no one besides the military, and we’ll call you out the military traffic.” Galey will later reflect: “So that helped tremendously. That function alone was not very taxing.” [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001] The person at NORAD also tells Galey there is “an unauthorized aircraft inbound from the Pennsylvania area, with the estimated time of arrival approximately 20 minutes into DC.” Galey will recall that he and the rest of his crew discuss what they should do, and decide that “we’d take our chances and stay there [at the Pentagon], and do what we came there to do.” [National Park Service, 1/17/2002]
Airspace Control Passed on to Metropolitan Police Helicopter - Eagle I becomes “the air traffic control function for the area, flying a slow racetrack pattern over the site and clearing aircraft in and out,” according to Lieutenant Philip Cholak, the Park Police Aviation Unit commander. [Aviation International News, 10/1/2001] But after a time Galey asks his paramedic to request that a Metropolitan Police helicopter be launched to take over the command and control of the Washington airspace. He tells the paramedic: “You know we’re going to have to do a medevac mission here. We’re going to have to relinquish the command/control function to somebody else.” A Metropolitan Police helicopter subsequently arrives and relieves Eagle I of its command and control function. [US Naval Historical Center, 11/20/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 22 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, United States Park Police, Philip W. Cholak, Ronald A. Galey, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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