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Profile: Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center
Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center was a participant or observer in the following events:
Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, is informed that unidentified fast-moving aircraft are heading toward his plane, and he becomes concerned that these may be armed fighter jets flown by foreign nationals. While Air Force One is heading out over the Gulf of Mexico, Tillman receives a call from an air traffic controller at the FAA’s Houston Center who tells him, “Air Force One, you have fast movers coming up at your 7 o’clock,” which means they are behind and to the left of his plane. Tillman thinks these aircraft could be fighters that are coming to escort Air Force One. He suggests this to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, a military aide who is accompanying President Bush on the plane. But Gould says: “I haven’t’ asked for fighters yet. We haven’t had the chance to do it yet.” [Aero-News Network, 7/19/2012; Wichita Eagle, 11/13/2012; KFDI, 12/11/2012] (However, a transcript of the Pentagon’s air threat conference call will show that Gould in fact requested fighters to escort Air Force One at around 10:13 a.m. (see (10:13 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 ] )
Pilot Told about Foreigners Flying Training Missions in the Gulf - Tillman asks the Houston Center controller, “Who are they?” The controller replies: “We don’t know. They just popped up on radar.” [US Air Force, 2/29/2012 ] He says the suspicious aircraft have “come somewhere out of Texas, we think, or somewhere out of the Gulf.” Around this time, Gould tells Tillman that the Air Force has informed him there are “foreign nationals in the Gulf of Mexico” who are out training in American F-16 fighters that are “heavily armed.” Tillman asks the Houston Center controller how fast the suspicious aircraft are flying and is told, “They’re supersonic.”
Aircraft Are Fighters Sent to Escort Air Force One - But then Tillman is called over radio by the pilot of one of the unidentified aircraft, who says, “Air Force One, Cowry 4-5, flight of two, we are your cover.” [Aero-News Network, 7/19/2012; KFDI, 12/11/2012] The pilot says his estimated time of arrival with Air Force One is in three minutes. [US Air Force, 2/29/2012 ] The aircraft are in fact two F-16s belonging to the Texas Air National Guard that launched from Ellington Field, an airport about 15 miles south of Houston, in order to escort Air Force One (see (After 9:56 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [BBC, 9/1/2002; Aviationist, 9/9/2011] Tillman will later describe this communication as the “coolest radio call I’ve ever heard in my life.” The reason, he will say, is that even though he can tell the pilots are “Texans, and they had an accent, it was not a foreign accent. So I knew: good people.” [KFDI, 12/11/2012] The F-16s “joined up on us, fighter on each wing, and they protected us for the rest of the day,” Tillman will recall. [Aero-News Network, 7/19/2012] Passengers on Air Force One will first notice fighters escorting their plane at around 11:29 a.m. (see (11:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 9/11/2001; USA Today, 9/7/2011]
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