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Pilots and officers with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) are notified of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, but mistakenly assume this must have been an accident and continue with a meeting they are holding. (Rasmussen 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ; Spencer 2008, pp. 122) The 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which includes the 121st Fighter Squadron, is based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, 10 miles southeast of Washington. (District of Columbia Air National Guard 7/24/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org) 8/21/2005; GlobalSecurity (.org) 1/21/2006)
Pilots and Flight Managers in Meeting - Some DCANG officers are currently in a conference room at their unit at Andrews, conducting the weekly scheduling meeting, where plans for the upcoming week are discussed. According to Captain Brandon Rasmussen, a pilot who is also the chief of scheduling with the unit, about five or six people are in the meeting. (Rasmussen 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ) As well as Rasmussen, those present include Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the 113th Wing; pilots Marc Sasseville and Daniel Caine; and a new officer, Mark Valentine.
Officers Think Crash Is an Accident - An intelligence officer interrupts the meeting and says a plane has just flown into the WTC. However, the meeting participants assume the crash is an accident involving a small aircraft. (9/11 Commission 3/8/2004 ; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ; Spencer 2008, pp. 122) Rasmussen will later recall: “[A]ll of us in the meeting kind of looked at each other and looked outside the window, it was clear blue skies. It doesn’t get any more flying weather than that. So we thought, ‘What kind of a moron can’t see those big buildings right in front of them?’ We all figured it was just some light civil aircraft… little Cessnas, Piper Cubs, or whatever, someone doing some sightseeing flying up and down the Hudson and just not paying attention where he was going.” Therefore, “we continued on with the meeting, thinking we’d catch the news clips later on in the day.” The scheduling meeting will continue until its participants learn of the second plane hitting the WTC and realize this is a terrorist attack (see (9:04 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Rasmussen 9/18/2003; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ; Spencer 2008, pp. 122-123)
Some at Base Suspicious about Crash - However, according to the Washington Post, at least some individuals with the DC Air National Guard are “immediately suspicious” upon hearing of the first crash. Pilot Heather Penney Garcia will recall having wondered, “How do you make a mistake like that?” (Penney Garcia is at the 121st Fighter Squadron headquarters at Andrews, though whether she is attending the scheduling meeting is unstated.)
Only Four DCANG Pilots Available - Members of the 121st Fighter Squadron have just returned from “Red Flag,” a major training exercise in Nevada (see Late August-September 8, 2001). Most of the squadron’s pilots, who fly commercial planes in their civilian lives and are involved with the unit on only a part-time basis, are consequently away from the base on this day, either back at their airline jobs or on leave, according to different accounts. (Vogel 4/8/2002; 9/11 Commission 2/27/2004; Spencer 2008, pp. 156) Of the seven pilots the squadron has available at the base today, three have just taken off for a training mission over North Carolina (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001), meaning only four available pilots are left at the base. (9/11 Commission 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 3/8/2004 ; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 )
DCANG Not Part of NORAD Air Defense Force - The DC Air National Guard flies the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter, and its mission includes providing “capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency.” (DC Military (.com) 6/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org) 8/21/2005) Unlike other Air National Guard units, it reports to the president, instead of a state governor. It works closely with Secret Service agents who are across the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, in the Air Force One hangar. (Vogel 4/8/2002; Vogel 2007, pp. 445) According to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, the 121st Fighter Squadron is “not standing alert on Sept. 11” because the DC Air National Guard is “not assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command air defense force.” (Scott 9/9/2002)
Pilots with the District of Columbia Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, have to take time to reprogram the data disks they will need once airborne, apparently because these disks still contain the data from a training exercise their unit has just returned from. The pilots belong to the 121st Fighter Squadron. (Spencer 2008, pp. 236-237) This is part of the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which is based at Andrews. (District of Columbia Air National Guard 7/24/2001; GlobalSecurity (.org) 8/21/2005) According to author Lynn Spencer, pilots with the squadron who are preparing to take off in response to the attacks grab their gear and upload “flight data” onto computer disks. These disks “contain all the navigational waypoints, maps, and frequencies that they will need once airborne.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 236) The pilots presumably begin uploading the data after learning of the second crash in New York, and realizing this is a terrorist attack (see (9:04 a.m.) September 11, 2001). They apparently need to take the time to upload the data as a consequence of their unit’s recent involvement in a major training exercise: Three days earlier, members of the 121st Fighter Squadron returned from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where they had spent the previous two weeks participating in the “Red Flag” exercise (see Late August-September 8, 2001). (Vogel 4/8/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 122-123, 156) Spencer will describe one of the squadron’s pilots, Heather Penney Garcia, staying busy this morning, “reprogramming flight data disks, which still contain all the Nellis data from the Red Flag training exercise they just returned from,” before taking off at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Filson 2003, pp. 82; Spencer 2008, pp. 237-238)
Four pilots with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, finally receive authorization to get airborne in their fighter jets, and are given instructions on their mission. The pilots are Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, Lieutenant Heather Penney Garcia, Captain Brandon Rasmussen, and Major Daniel Caine.
Pilot Waiting 'for Somebody to Task Me with Something' - Rasmussen will later recall that, although he and his colleagues at the unit had been aware of the attacks in New York, it is only after the Pentagon is hit (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001) that “we knew that we were going to be sticking around home and being quite busy.” And until the pilots are authorized to take off, he is “just kind of standing back, waiting for somebody to task me with something.” He will recall, “I was just waiting at the ops desk for someone to say, ‘Okay, we’ve been cleared to take off and go.’”
Sasseville Briefs Other Pilots - Rasmussen says that, after Sasseville and Caine receive authorization from their wing commander to get airborne and to use missiles, Sasseville, who is the acting operations group commander, looks at Penney Garcia and says, “You’re flying with me, and [Caine] you’re flying with [Rasmussen], do suit up and get out there as quick as possible.” According to another account, Sasseville gives his three fellow pilots a short briefing, telling them: “I have no idea what’s going on, but we’re flying. Here’s our frequency. We’ll split up the area as we have to. Just defend as required. We’ll talk about the rest in the air.” (Scott 9/9/2002; Filson 2003, pp. 82-84; Rasmussen 9/18/2003) Sasseville will recall, “There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to talk about, because we didn’t know what was going on.” (Vogel 2007, pp. 446)
Pilots Prepare to Fly - According to Rasmussen: “We were relieved to actually be given permission to go up and do something instead of feeling totally helpless. I mean we are fighter pilots, just like guard dogs chomping at the bit ready to go.” The four pilots run down the hallway and throw on their gear, grabbing their helmets, g-suits, and parachute harnesses, before heading to the operations desk to get their aircraft assignments. (Scott 9/9/2002; Rasmussen 9/18/2003)
Commander Gives Instructions - According to author Leslie Filson, before Sasseville and Penney Garcia head to their jets, Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, gives them instructions, regarding their mission. As Wherley will later recall, “My translation of the rules [of engagement] to [Sasseville] was, ‘You have weapons free flight-lead control.’” (Filson 2003, pp. 82) “Weapons free” means the decision whether to shoot at a hostile aircraft rests with the lead pilot. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 44) Wherley says, “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?” and both pilots respond, “Yes.” Wherley then tells them to be careful. “It was important for them to understand that this was weapons free,” he will recall. (Filson 2003, pp. 82) However, Sasseville will tell the 9/11 Commission that he does not remember receiving the rules of engagement he is supposed to follow until later on, after he has taken off. (9/11 Commission 3/8/2004 )
Jets Don't Launch until 10:42 and After - The exact times when the four pilots are authorized to get airborne and receive their mission instructions are unclear. But Sasseville and Penney Garcia will take off from Andrews at 10:42 a.m., with their planes armed only with guns, and no missiles (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001). Rasmussen and Caine take off at 11:11 a.m., by which time their jets have been armed with missiles (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Filson 2003, pp. 82-84; 9/11 Commission 2004)
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. (Kessler and Phillips 9/12/2001; Bumiller and Wald 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.” (Vogel 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.” (Scott 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)
Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, wants his fighter jets to intercept a suspicious aircraft coming down the Potomac River toward the capital, which is apparently thought to be Flight 93, although that plane has already crashed (see (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Vogel 4/8/2002; Filson 2003, pp. 79-81; 9/11 Commission 8/28/2003)
Numerous Suspicious Aircraft - According to the Washington Post, the DCANG has learned there are “about a half-dozen suspicious aircraft in the air across the country, among them hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, on a path toward Washington.” Wherley will add: “Nobody knew it had crashed. We just knew there was an airplane out there that could be coming to Washington. We knew the threat was real.”
Fighters Launched due to False Report - The first three DCANG fighters to take off in response to the attacks are ordered to go after this alleged inbound aircraft. (Vogel 4/8/2002) Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the chief of safety for the DC Air National Guard, will later recall: “We had something coming down the Potomac at low altitude. Brigadier General Wherley is standing here, and we’ve got the tower with the Secret Service agent, and they want us to launch anything we’ve got. And the general said, ‘Do it.’” (Filson 2003, pp. 81) DCANG pilot Billy Hutchison, who takes off at 10:38 a.m. (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001), will describe, “There was an aircraft coming down the Potomac that they needed me in the air for” that had to “be prevented from reaching the DC area.” He is told this aircraft is “coming from Pennsylvania.” (9/11 Commission 2/27/2004) And pilot Marc Sasseville, who, along with Heather Penney Garcia, takes off at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001), later says: “We all realized we were looking for an airliner—a big airplane. That was Flight 93; the track looked like it was headed toward DC at that time.” (Scott 9/9/2002; Vogel 2007, pp. 446)
Incorrect Report Comes from Secret Service - According to Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the DCANG, his understanding is that “the information about the plane coming down the river” came from the Secret Service’s White House Joint Operations Center. (9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ) FAA personnel are also receiving similar information from the Secret Service. At 10:32, an FAA employee tells John White, a manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, “Secret Service is reporting one unknown eight miles out, flying inbound.” Two minutes later, this employee says they are “[t]rying to tell [the] Secret Service about [Flight] 93,” because the Secret Service is “a little bit behind, still getting reports.” They then tell White, “Secret Service is saying the aircraft they are talking is coming up the Potomac right now.” (9/11 Commission 11/4/2003) Fire and rescue workers are evacuated away from the Pentagon site around this time, in response to a report from the FBI of a hijacked aircraft flying toward Washington (see (10:15 a.m.-10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). This may be the same alleged plane that the DCANG and FAA learn of. (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A30 ; Eversburg 11/2002)
Aircraft Supposedly a Helicopter - The incoming aircraft is apparently a false alarm. (9/11 Commission 8/28/2003) After searching for it, Hutchison will be instructed to fly back toward Washington because, he will say, “the plane had been lost.” (9/11 Commission 2/27/2004) According to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, “FAA tapes and transcripts” reveal the aircraft to be “an Army National Guard helicopter based out of Davison Field, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which had become isolated in Maryland as events unfolded and which wanted to return to its home field.” (9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 )
Secret Service Thinks Plane Crashed at Camp David - However, at 10:36, the FAA employee relays that the “Secret Service is saying they believe United 93 hit Camp David.” Seconds later, they add that the Secret Service is “confirming that UA 93 did go into Camp David.” (9/11 Commission 11/4/2003) Even President Bush is given an incorrect report of a plane going down near Camp David around this time (see (10:37 a.m.-11:09 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 108) So this erroneous information may be what leads to Hutchison being informed that the aircraft he was sent after has been lost. (9/11 Commission 2/27/2004)
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). (Scott 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. (Scott 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)
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.” (Scott 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. (Scott 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. (Scott 9/9/2002)
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