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Profile: 119th Fighter Wing
119th Fighter Wing was a participant or observer in the following events:
The operations manager with the unit at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, that is involved in NORAD’s air defense mission is instructed to prepare to launch three F-16s from the base, even though the unit only keeps two such jets on “alert.” [Christian Science Monitor, 4/16/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 118]
NEADS Calls Langley - Captain Craig Borgstrom is the operations manager of a detachment at Langley from the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing. In the event of an order to scramble the unit’s two alert F-16s, he would serve as the supervisor of flying (SOF), responsible for informing the pilots about their mission. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 114, 116] The unit has just received the signal to put its alert jets on “battle stations,” with the pilots in the cockpits but the engines turned off (see (9:09 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Longman, 2002, pp. 64; Filson, 2003, pp. 55; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24] After briefing one of the two alert pilots, Borgstrom is called by the crew chief to answer a phone call from someone at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) who wants to speak to him. In an urgent voice, the caller asks Borgstrom, “How many airplanes can you get airborne?” Borgstrom answers, “I have two F-16s at battle stations right now,” but the caller snaps: “That’s not what I asked! How many total aircraft can you launch?” Although Borgstrom is not on alert duty, he is an F-16 pilot. He responds: “Well, the only other pilot here is me—I can fly. I can give you three!” The caller instructs him: “Suit up and go fly! We need all of you at battle stations!” [Longman, 2002, pp. 65; Christian Science Monitor, 4/16/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 118]
Third Pilot Means No Supervisor - According to author Lynn Spencer, this order “is almost unthinkable. If [Borgstrom] goes up, there will be no supervisor of flying. During a scramble, it is the SOF’s responsibility to monitor the jets—to work with local controllers to ensure priority handling and to make sure that the pilots are receiving lawful launch orders. The SOF stays in close communication with NEADS to get any and all information about the mission to pass on to his pilots, and assesses weather, airfield status, and spare alert aircraft status in case of an abort by one of the primary fighters. If Borgy flies, there not only will be no SOF, there will be no officer left at the detachment!”
Borgstrom Notifies Others, Checks with Commander - Borgstrom heads out to inform others of the instruction. He speaks to one of the alert pilots, Major Dean Eckmann, telling him, “They want us to launch all planes and all pilots if we get scrambled!” According to Spencer, this request “doesn’t make any sense to Eckmann,” and his initial response is ”What?” But “he’s a military officer and he’ll follow orders,” and points Borgstrom to the unit’s third F-16, which is not kept on alert and is therefore unarmed. Borgstrom instructs the crew chief to arm the fighter’s gun; this will be the only ammunition he has when he takes off. After fetching his harness and helmet, he places a phone call to the commander of the 119th Fighter Wing, at the wing’s home in Fargo, North Dakota. Borgstrom is uncomfortable with the unprecedented situation he is in and feels compelled to notify his immediate higher-ups. He tells the commander: “Sir, they’re launching all three of us. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s no ops supervision here at all!” The commander knows what has happened in New York from news reports, and so is aware of the situation. He tells Borgstrom: “Go! Our thoughts are with you. Godspeed.” Borgstrom then hangs up the phone and runs to his jet. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 118-119] The three Langley jets will receive a scramble order at 9:24 a.m. (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) and are 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]
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. [Air Force Magazine, 2/2002; Bergen Record, 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]
An unidentified fast-moving aircraft is noticed flying toward Air Force One as it is bringing President Bush back to Washington, DC, but the aircraft turns out to be just a Learjet, reportedly “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 88] Bush announced he would be returning to Washington while he was at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska (see (4:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001), and his plane left the base and headed for the capital shortly after 4:30 p.m. (see (4:33 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Sammon, 2002, pp. 123; Bush, 2010, pp. 135] As Air Force One is approaching Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, fighter jets belonging to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) and the 119th Fighter Wing are flying combat air patrols over the capital. They have been joined by a number of other fighters from across the northeast US.
Pilots Told They Will Be Escorting Air Force One - Among the pilots flying over Washington are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville and Lieutenant Heather Penney of the DCANG, who are flying their second mission of the day. Sasseville and Penney are instructed to contact an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane in their area and “expect special tasking.” When they make contact with the AWACS plane, its controller directs them to fly about 160 miles to the west and says they are going to “escort Air Force One.” Two of the 119th Fighter Wing’s jets offer to accompany Sasseville and Penney, and Sasseville accepts.
Unidentified Aircraft Seen Flying toward Air Force One - A short time later, an AWACS controller reports that a fast-moving unidentified aircraft is flying toward Air Force One. The aircraft is currently about 70 miles southwest of the president’s plane, but is on a “cutoff vector” to Air Force One. The controller reports that the suspicious plane is flying above 40,000 feet, whereas Air Force One is “in the 20,000 feet range.” All the same, Sasseville directs the 119th Fighter Wing’s jets to intercept the aircraft and they quickly do so.
Aircraft Is Not a Threat - The suspicious aircraft turns out to be just a Learjet “that hadn’t yet landed after aircraft nationwide had been ordered out of the air,” according to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 88] However, the FAA ordered that all airborne aircraft must land at the nearest airport many hours earlier, at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25] The plane is simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” according to author Leslie Filson. [Filson, 2003, pp. 88] “There was a Learjet vectored on Air Force One,” Sasseville will tell the 9/11 Commission, “but it was nothing.” [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] The two DCANG fighters and the two 119th Fighter Wing jets will subsequently accompany Air Force One as it flies into Andrews Air Force Base. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]
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