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Profile: Andrews Air Force Base
Andrews Air Force Base was a participant or observer in the following events:
Many aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, which is just a few miles outside Washington, DC, are taking part in training exercises. James Ampey, an FAA air traffic controller who is currently on duty in the control tower at the base, will later recall that there are “an unusually high number of aircraft taking off and landing at Andrews [this] morning, because previously scheduled military exercises [are] underway.” [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ] It is unclear what specific exercises these aircraft are participating in, and the exact time period Ampey is referring to.
Militarized 747 Involved in 'Global Guardian' Exercise - According to journalist and author Dan Verton, around the time of the Pentagon attack, “civilian and military officials [are] boarding a militarized version of a Boeing 747, known as the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), at an airfield outside of the nation’s capital. They [are] preparing to conduct a previously scheduled Defense Department exercise” (see (9:27 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Verton, 2003, pp. 143-144] This airfield is Andrews Air Force Base and the exercise being referred to is the US Strategic Command’s annual exercise, Global Guardian, for which three E-4Bs are launched (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001 and Before 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Omaha World-Herald, 2/27/2002; Flying K, 9/7/2012 ] Whether other aircraft that are taking off or landing at Andrews are participating in Global Guardian is unknown.
NORAD Exercise, 'Vigilant Guardian' - Another major exercise taking place this morning is called Vigilant Guardian. All of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is participating in it (see (6:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Newhouse News Service, 1/25/2002; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/2002] However, Andrews is not one of NORAD’s seven “alert” sites around the US. [Airman, 12/1999] And the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, which is based at Andrews, is not part of the NORAD air defense force. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 76] Furthermore, members of the 113th Wing have just returned from a major training exercise in Nevada (see Late August-September 8, 2001), and so, with only a few pilots and planes available, today is a “light flying day” for their unit. [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] Presumably the 113th Wing is therefore not currently participating in Vigilant Guardian or any other major exercises.
Numerous Units at Andrews - There are, however, many units at Andrews that may be participating in exercises. Among more than 60 separate organizations located at the base are units from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard. [DC Military (.com), 6/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006] These units include Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321 (VMFA-321), which flies the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet, and Naval Air Facility, Washington, DC, which has numerous aircraft available, including the F/A-18 Hornet. [DC Military (.com), 2/9/2001; DC Military (.com), 6/2001]
Andrews Units Respond to Attacks - DC Air National Guard fighters will later take off from Andrews to protect Washington in response to the morning’s attacks (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001, 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001, and 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] And a member of VMFA-321 calls NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) at around 9:50 a.m. to offer his unit’s assistance in response to the attacks (see (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 188]
Andrews Air Traffic Control Tower. [Source: FAA]The Secret Service tells FAA headquarters that it wants fighter jets launched over Washington, DC, and this message is then relayed to the air traffic control tower at Andrews Air Force Base, which is 10 miles from Washington. The District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews is notified, but no jets will take off from the base until 10:38 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 8/28/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44, 465] The request for fighter jets is apparently made by Secret Service agent Nelson Garabito, who is responsible for coordinating the president’s movements, during a phone call with his counterpart at FAA headquarters in Washington, Terry Van Steenbergen. This call began shortly after the second tower was hit at 9:03 a.m. (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003; 9/11 Commission, 3/30/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 464]
FAA Headquarters Calls Andrews Tower - According to the 9/11 Commission, “The FAA tower” at Andrews is then “contacted by personnel at FAA headquarters” who are “on an open line with senior agents from the president’s detail,” and is informed that the Secret Service wants fighters airborne. Karen Pontius at FAA headquarters tells Steve Marra, an air traffic controller at the Andrews control tower, “to launch F-16s to cap the airspace over Washington.”
Message Passed to DCANG - Marra then relays Pontius’s message to the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which is based at Andrews. [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 465] Marra apparently passes the message to Major Daniel Caine, the 113th Wing’s supervisor of flying, when Caine phones the control tower (see (Between 9:05 a.m. and 9:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Caine will later recall that the tower controller (i.e. Marra) tells him “that they just received the scramble order.” But Caine will also tell the 9/11 Commission that the Andrews tower “would not have been in the loop for any Secret Service orders to scramble aircraft.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 76; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 ] Despite receiving this message from the Secret Service, the DCANG will not launch its first fighter jet until 10:38 a.m. (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44]
The air traffic control tower at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC, broadcasts regular warnings over radio that any aircraft entering the restricted airspace around the capital will be shot down, even though, according to the 9/11 Commission, the president does not authorize the shooting down of threatening aircraft until 10:18 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41] The Andrews control tower begins broadcasting warning messages over the Air Traffic Information System (ATIS) at 10:05 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] The ATIS is an automatic information system over which “[p]re-recorded airfield advisory information is automatically transmitted at timed intervals over the airways on a specific frequency.” [US Air Force, 10/1/1999 ]
Planes Told They Could Be 'Shot Down' - A 9/11 Commission document summarizing key transmissions from the Andrews tower will show that warning messages are broadcast about once or twice every 10 minutes. The messages, which are all quite similar, include: “No fly notice. Remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down,” and, “Any aircraft monitoring Andrews Approach Control frequency: remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down.” [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] (Class B airspace is restricted airspace in which no one is supposed to fly without a working transponder and permission from an air traffic controller. The airspace around much of Washington is designated Class B airspace. [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/29/2001] )
Fighter Pilots Hear Warning - At least one of the warning messages is heard by District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) fighter pilots who launch from Andrews Air Force Base at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001) and by pilots launched from Langley Air Force Base by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) earlier on (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). DCANG pilots Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney Garcia are flying at low altitude over Washington, while the three Langley pilots are above them at around 20,000 feet. Although they are on different radio frequencies, both sets of pilots hear a message over a shared channel: “Attention all aircraft monitoring Andrews tower frequency. Andrews and Class Bravo airspace is closed. No general aviation aircraft are permitted to enter Class Bravo airspace. Any infractions will be shot down.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Officers Hear Warning - The warning messages are also heard by DCANG officers at Andrews. After hearing that violators of the Washington airspace will be shot down, Brigadier General David Wherley thinks to himself, “I guess that will be us doing the shooting.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Apparently referring to the warnings from the Andrews tower, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson will later recall: “We kind of winced at that, because there are plenty of hard reasons to not shoot somebody down. We were really in an ID posture—and trying to really be careful.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]
Shootdown Not Authorized until 10:18 - Although the first of the warnings is broadcast at 10:05 a.m., President Bush only gives authorization for hostile aircraft to be shot down at 10:18 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, in a phone call with Vice President Dick Cheney (see 10:18 a.m.-10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001). Furthermore, NEADS only learns that NORAD has been given clearance to shoot down threatening aircraft at 10:31 a.m. (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission document of Andrews tower transmissions will show that the warnings are broadcast until at least 11:05 a.m., although presumably they continue after that. [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41-42]
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]
Heather Penney Garcia. [Source: Johnathon Orrell]Two F-16 fighter jets belonging to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) take off from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, but they have no missiles and only training bullets for their guns. The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville and Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia. [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
Possibly Given Shootdown Authorization - Before they headed to their jets, Sasseville and Penney Garcia were given a short briefing by Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. Wherley will later recall telling Sasseville that he has “weapons free flight-lead control,” meaning he is responsible for deciding whether to fire on hostile aircraft (see (Between 9:40 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] But Sasseville will say he does not recall receiving any such rules of engagement until after he has taken off. [9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 ]
Jets Only Have Training Ammunition - The two pilots run out to their jets and climb into the cockpits. But their F-16s are armed only with “hot” guns and 511 rounds of non-explosive training practice (TP) ammunition. According to Sasseville: “They had two airplanes ready to go, and were putting missiles on numbers three and four. Maintenance wanted us to take the ones with missiles, but we didn’t have time to wait on those.”
Rookie Pilot 'Never Scrambled Before' - Penney Garcia, who is a rookie pilot, will later say: “I’d never scrambled before, I’d never done this. I was screaming to the maintainers to pull the chocks, and the guys were pulling the pins to arm the guns. We were going without INS [inertial navigation system].” Sasseville and Penney Garcia are airborne about six minutes after reaching their jets. They are unaware that fighters launched from Langley Air Force Base are also flying over Washington, at around 20,000 feet (see (Between 9:49 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Told to Look for Hijacked Plane - Over their radios, Sasseville and Penney Garcia receive instructions from their squadron to look for a hijacked aircraft approaching from the northwest and heading toward Georgetown (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). But, Sasseville will later recall, “We didn’t know what we were looking for—how high he was coming, or low, or where he was going.” [Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] He will say, “I don’t have the whole picture, but have word from Washington National Approach that something is coming.”
Pilot 'Making Things Up on the Fly' - The two jets will fly over Washington at low altitudes, around 5,000 or 6,000 feet. Sasseville will later say, “I didn’t want to get too low for a good radar angle, and not too high, so we could get somewhere fast.” He will admit that he is “making things up on the fly,” as he has no precedent to draw upon. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 82] Another DCANG pilot, Billy Hutchison, launched from Andrews four minutes before Sasseville and Penney Garcia take off, but he is airborne for less than 10 minutes (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). The next DCANG jets to take off, which will be armed with missiles, launch at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
The first fighter jet that launched from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, in response to the morning’s attacks lands at its base less than 10 minutes after taking off. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] The F-16, which is piloted by Major Billy Hutchison, was ordered to take off immediately after arriving back at Andrews from a training mission in North Carolina (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Hutchison has made two loops up the Potomac River, and flown over the burning Pentagon (see 10:39 a.m.-10:45 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 235] His aircraft had only 2,800 pounds of fuel—equivalent to one-eighth of a tank in a car—remaining when he took off, and he’d subsequently noticed his fuel gauge pegged at the lowest level it can indicate, 400 pounds. He announced to the air traffic controller he was communicating with, “I’ve got to go.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; Spencer, 2008, pp. 248] Hutchison will later recall that his plane is “on vapors” when he lands. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] By now, two more F-16s have taken off from Andrews (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 82; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Hutchison’s jet is refueled and loaded with weapons, and he will then take off again to defend Washington. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 249]
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