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Crew members on an E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC) at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC, learn that the US is under attack, but some of them initially think what they are being told about is a simulated scenario in a training exercise they are participating in. (Kieschnick 9/7/2012 ) The E-4B is a highly modified Boeing 747 that is fitted with sophisticated communications equipment and can serve as a flying military command post during a national emergency. (Federation of American Scientists 4/23/2000; Gaffney 9/12/2001; Verton 2003, pp. 143) The E-4B on the ground at Andrews is currently involved in a major training exercise. “We were one of many commands practicing a global war-gaming and communication exercise called Global Guardian. My aircraft was one of three brought to full alert status for the exercise,” Mark McLaughlin will later recall. McLaughlin has, today, been assigned to Operations Team One as the Single Integrated Operational Plan adviser to the National Command Authority—the president and the secretary of defense. “My job was to be the expert on nuclear war plans and give all the VIP briefs,” he will say. (Kieschnick 9/7/2012 ) “Global Guardian,” which he refers to, is an annual exercise that tests the ability of the US Strategic Command (Stratcom) to fight a nuclear war (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Dejka 2/27/2002; Harris 9/2011)
Plane Is Tasked with Picking Up Former National Security Adviser - As well as its involvement in the exercise, the E-4B, according to McLaughlin, has a “secondary mission” today, which is to fly to Washington and pick up former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who has been “appointed by President Bush to analyze the nation’s nuclear arsenal and strategic plans.” While the plane was flying into Andrews Air Force Base, McLaughlin will recall, those on board “heard over one of the many communications nets that an airplane had crashed into a tower at the World Trade Center.” However, he will comment, “It never dawned on us at that moment that a terrorist attack was under way.”
Briefing Is Disrupted as Crew Members Learn about Attacks - McLaughlin learns that the nation is indeed under attack after his plane has landed at the base, and Scowcroft and his traveling party have boarded. While he is briefing the former national security adviser about nuclear weapons and the nation’s nuclear war-fighting plans, McLaughlin notices a commotion in the battle staff space, a compartment behind the briefing area that houses the operations team. The agitated behavior of the operations team members, according to McLaughlin, “is unheard of and not allowed when a VIP is on board, especially receiving a briefing.” McLaughlin’s assistant, who is working at the computer behind McLaughlin, then slips a note into McLaughlin’s hand. McLaughlin reads the note, which states simply: “Captain. Battle staff. Now.” He therefore tells Captain Joseph Gershon, the NAOC commanding officer, that his presence has been requested immediately in the battle staff area, and Gershon then heads there. Although McLaughlin realizes from the commotion going on that “something big [is] happening,” he continues the briefing.
Captain Interrupts Briefing and Says the Nation Is under Attack - During such high-level briefings, it is protocol that if you have to leave the room, you never return until the briefing is over. But Gershon returns and interrupts the briefing. He tells Scowcroft, “It appears that the country is under attack, sir.” According to McLaughlin, many of the people on the plane think at this time that what is being reported is a simulated scenario, as part of the exercise they are participating in. “Adding to the confusion was that we were in a global exercise and many of us thought it was part of the exercise injects,” he will comment. But he will say that “during the next few minutes, everyone began to fully comprehend that [the US was] under attack.” It also becomes “very apparent,” according to McLaughlin, “that our aircraft had to get airborne for safety reasons.” (Kieschnick 9/7/2012 )
Plane Heads to Base in Nebraska - The E-4B, which has the call sign “Word 31,” will take off from Andrews Air Force Base at around 9:27 a.m. (see (9:27 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Another E-4B, with the call sign “Venus 77,” will also take off from Andrews this morning, at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission 2/17/2004; Farmer 2009, pp. 206) McLaughlin’s plane will land later on at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, so Scowcroft and his staff can get off. (Kieschnick 9/7/2012 ) The original plan for today, according to the Omaha World-Herald, had been for the plane to take Scowcroft and his staff to Offutt to observe the Global Guardian exercise. (Dejka 2/27/2002) But after reaching the base, McLaughlin’s team’s mission will be to remain in the air, and so the E-4B will subsequently take off from Offutt and resume its airborne operations. (Kieschnick 9/7/2012 )
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