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Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, the president’s plane, receives no contact from any US government agency, such as the CIA or the FBI, about the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, although numerous agencies call the plane immediately after the second crash. Air Force One is currently at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Florida, where it has been since the previous evening (see September 10, 2001). Tillman boarded the plane at around 8:15 a.m. this morning, and he has been preparing to take off at 10:45 a.m. and take President Bush back to Washington, DC.
Pilot Sees the Coverage of the First Crash but Thinks It Is an Accident - While he is walking around the plane and checking all the rooms, Tillman is called upstairs by the plane’s radio operator. Upstairs, the radio operator shows him the coverage of the first crash at the WTC on television and says: “I don’t know what’s going on; neither does the media. But it doesn’t look like it’s anything important; it looks like it’s an aircraft accident.” Air Force One, according to Tillman, has 42 phone lines that specifically connect to government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency. But, Tillman will later recall: “None of those phones were going off. Everybody thought this was just an aircraft accident.” He will say that the plane’s crew receives “no information from any command and control authority” at this time. Tillman believes that, in light of what has happened, Bush will want to visit New York. Everyone on the plane is therefore told to be ready to go. He tells the radio operator simply to keep monitoring what is happening in New York and then heads downstairs to continue checking the rooms on Air Force One.
All the Phones Start Ringing after the Second Attack - After the second plane hits the WTC at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), Tillman is again called upstairs. The radio operator alerts him to the television coverage of what has happened. “We now have an understanding that it’s a deliberate attack on the [Twin] Towers,” Tillman will say. “All the information we had was from the news media at this point,” he will comment. But whereas no government agencies previously called Air Force One, suddenly, Tillman will recall: “All the phone lines are coming alive. Every agency in the world wants to know what our status is [and] if we’re ready to go.” “We were hooked into the PEOC [the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a bunker below the White House] and the JOC [Joint Operations Center] for the Secret Service,” he will say, adding, “They’re all in the link now.” In response to the second attack, security around Air Force One will be increased (see (9:04 a.m.-9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Tillman 9/11/2011; Tillman 2/29/2012 ; Graff 9/9/2016) The plane will take off from the Sarasota airport with Bush on board at 9:54 a.m. (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39)
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, a military aide who is accompanying President Bush on his visit to Florida, promptly arranges for Air Force One to leave Sarasota after he learns that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. Gould, one of the president’s five military aides, is currently off duty for a few hours and at the resort on Longboat Key where Bush spent the previous night (see September 10, 2001), while another military aide, Major Paul Montanus, is with Bush at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. Gould was alerted to the first crash at the WTC but thought it was an accident (see Shortly After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). He is talking on the phone with his wife and watching the coverage of the crash on television when a second plane, Flight 175, hits the WTC at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Realizing this must be a deliberate act, Gould abruptly ends the call with his wife. “At that point I know something has happened,” he will later recall. “It’s bigger than an accident. It’s an attack of some sort. I don’t think I thought through what kind of attack it was, but I knew it was something concerted.” Gould has tactical control of all the military assets that support the president, including presidential aircraft, and he has the ability to move assets on behalf of the president. He therefore calls Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, immediately and tells him to get the president’s plane and its crew ready to depart as soon as possible. He then heads to the Sarasota airport, getting there at around 9:30 a.m. After the president’s motorcade arrives at the airport at 9:43 a.m. (see (9:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Gould meets Montanus under the nose of Air Force One. Following strict protocol, Montanus gives Gould the “nuclear football”—a briefcase carried by the president’s military aide that holds the codes and plans necessary for the president to initiate a nuclear attack. Gould will be on Air Force One with the president when the plane takes off (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001), but Montanus will stay behind in Sarasota, as is procedure. (Scully 9/11/2011; Wallace 9/11/2011)
Security is increased around Air Force One, the president’s plane, in response to the second attack on the World Trade Center and the pilot is informed that the aircraft may be targeted by terrorists while it is on the ground. Air Force One is currently at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Florida, where it has been since the previous evening (see September 10, 2001). Only the standard level of security has been provided, with cones marking a security zone around the plane. Will Chandler, the chief of security, has been standing inside these cones and guarding the aircraft. According to Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, prior to the attacks on the WTC, “there was no intel, there was nothing that said we’re about to be attacked.” But Tillman will later recall that after he learns of the second plane crash in New York and realizes it is a deliberate attack, he and the rest of the plane’s crew “start pulling out all the plans that we know we have to execute to keep the president safe and ensure the continuity of government.” (Tillman 9/11/2011; Tillman 2/29/2012 )
Personnel Protecting Air Force One Increase Security - The level of security around Air Force One is increased after the second attack on the WTC occurs. Staff Sergeant William Buzinski, whose job is to protect the plane, was told about the first crash at the WTC by a member of the Secret Service. After the second crash occurs, Buzinski sees the same agent running across the tarmac toward him. The agent tells him, “Another plane hit the towers.” Buzinski realizes right away that the incident must have been an act of terrorism. In response to the news, he will recall, “We started to increase security around the plane—made it a tighter bubble.” (Graff 9/9/2016)
Pilot Says Air Force One Is 'Ready to Go' - Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, a military aide who is accompanying President Bush on his visit to Florida, calls Tillman and instructs him to get Air Force One and its crew ready to leave immediately (see (9:04 a.m.-9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Wallace 9/11/2011) Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, and Edward Marinzel, the head of the president’s Secret Service detail, who are with Bush at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, also call Tillman. Tillman will recall that they ask him: “What is our status? If [Bush and his entourage] can come to us within 10 minutes, can we get going?” Tillman replies: “Yes, absolutely. We are ready to go.”
Pilot Is Told the Plane Is a 'Sitting Duck' - Tillman is informed that “about nine planes” have been hijacked and that “one is in the Florida area.” Rosenker tells him: “Assume that [Air Force One is] a target on the ramp in Sarasota. It’s a large 747. [It is] sitting wide open. [A] sitting duck.” Tillman will say that his intention, therefore, is “to move that aircraft. Get it out of the way, and come back and grab the president when he’s ready to go.” He cannot do this, however, because Bush wants to “come rushing back to us and head to Washington, DC.” Secret Service agents with the president instruct Tillman: “We are coming at you as fast as we can come at you. Do not—repeat—do not move.”
People Are Moved Away from Air Force One - “We started getting reports of unidentified people all around the airport,” Tillman will recall, and there is a “possibility that we were subject to the plan to go ahead and assassinate the president.” The crew of Air Force One has “no idea what was going on” and is receiving “a lot of misinformation” while waiting for the president to arrive at the airport. To increase security, people are pushed away from Air Force One. This, according to Tillman, is so that “whoever was near that aircraft had a good reason to be there.” (Tillman 9/11/2011; Tillman 2/29/2012 )
Military Presence Is Increased at the Airport - White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who has gone to the Booker Elementary School with Bush, notices the increased security around Air Force One when the president’s motorcade arrives at the Sarasota airport (see (9:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001). There is always “an incredible security presence” around the plane, he will comment. But now he sees “the redoubling of that.” There is “more of a military presence at the airport, as opposed to just a security [made up] of local police officers or anything like that.” (Bartlett 8/12/2002) Bartlett sees “a lot of military uniforms” and notices “the perimeters [around Air Force One] increasing.” Furthermore, he will recall, “[T]he scrutiny for entering the perimeter was much tougher than you could ever imagine.” (Bartlett 8/12/2002) Mike Morell, the president’s CIA briefer, will describe, “When we got back to the plane, it was ringed by security and Secret Service [agents] with automatic weapons.” “I’d never seen anything like that before,” he will comment. (Graff 9/9/2016)
Sheriff in a Helicopter Watches Over the Airport - Meanwhile, a helicopter arrives to keep watch over the airport. Sergeant Kevin Kenney of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office had been scheduled to fly the Sheriff’s Office helicopter to cover Bush’s motorcade as it traveled to the Booker Elementary School this morning, but was unable to do so because of heavy fog. However, after the second attack on the WTC, a member of Bush’s Secret Service detail instructs him to launch the helicopter and get to the Sarasota airport as soon as possible. He arrives there around the time Bush’s motorcade reaches the airport. The Secret Service then instructs Kenney to fly around the airport perimeter and be on the lookout for suspicious vehicles or groups of people. He notices “numerous civilian vehicles… already responding to the vicinity of the airport and gathering along the roadways in the proximity.” He relays information to Bush’s Secret Service detail and local agencies that are dispatching patrol units to the area. Kenney continues his surveillance of the airport for the 10 minutes or so it takes to get Bush and the other passengers onto Air Force One. (Kenney 9/2011; Hackney 9/8/2011) Additionally, reporters and other individuals who are traveling with the president are subjected to a strict security check while they are boarding the plane (see (9:45 a.m.-9:53 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 99)
President Bush and his entourage arrive at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, where Air Force One is waiting, and Bush hurriedly gets onto his plane. (BBC 9/1/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) Bush left the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, at around 9:35 a.m. to be driven to Air Force One (see (9:34 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Langley 12/16/2001; Bloomberg 6/17/2004)
Limousine Stops Right by Air Force One - His limousine now speeds past the airport’s main entrance, goes north, and veers down a tiny road leading to the airport, ignoring a sign that states, “No Airport Access.” It then passes through a small, unmarked gate in a chain-link fence and races across the tarmac toward Air Force One. It swings around the plane’s tail and stops behind the left wing. (Sammon 2002, pp. 98-99) The motorcade arrives at the airport between 9:42 a.m. and 9:45 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission Report. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) According to journalist and author Bill Sammon, Bush’s limousine reaches the airport at 9:43 a.m. (Sammon 2002, pp. 99; Sammon 10/8/2002)
Plane's Engines Are Already Running - Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, started two of the plane’s four engines while Bush was on his way to the airport. White House chief of staff Andrew Card will later comment that he is “struck that the engines on Air Force One [are] running” when the motorcade reaches the airport, since this is “normally a protocol no-no.” (Tillman 9/11/2011; Graff 9/9/2016) “Usually you don’t start the engine until the president is already on the plane,” he will say. (BBC 9/9/2011)
President Usually Takes His Time Saying Goodbye - Normally, when his motorcade arrives at Air Force One, the president “emerges from the limo, waves to the crowd behind barricades, thanks hosts who have accompanied him, and shakes hands with the airport personnel and guests who’ve come to see him off,” Karl Rove, Bush’s senior adviser, will write. The president then “walks alone up the steps to Air Force One at a leisurely pace, stopping to wave again to the people on the tarmac.” The other people in the motorcade usually only start to get on board once he is on the plane. (Rove 2010, pp. 252)
Bush Hurries up the Stairs onto Air Force One - Today, though, the Secret Service wants to get the president onto Air Force One as quickly as possible. (Graff 9/9/2016) Bush therefore walks briskly up the long mobile staircase behind the left wing. (Sammon 2002, pp. 99; Walsh 2003, pp. 207) He is “just trucking up the stairs” without his usual “Texas swagger,” Tillman will describe. (Graff 9/9/2016) He does find time, however, to pause at the doorway to wave to photographers before entering the plane. (Martin 7/4/2004) Once he is on board, he goes to his private cabin near the front of the aircraft. A Secret Service agent tells him, “Mr. President, we need you to get seated as soon as possible.” Bush then straps himself in, ready for takeoff. (Woodward 2002, pp. 16)
Chief of Staff Is Frustrated by the Passengers Delaying Takeoff - Meanwhile, everyone who is traveling on Air Force One apart from Bush and his senior staff boards the plane through its back stairs. But before doing so they are subjected to a strict security check (see (9:45 a.m.-9:53 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 99; Graff 9/9/2016) Card becomes frustrated that takeoff is being delayed due to the time it takes to get so many passengers onto the plane. (Card 8/16/2002; Adair and Hegarty 9/8/2002) Air Force One will take off unusually quickly once all the passengers are on board. (Keil 9/2004; Graff 9/9/2016) It usually takes another 15 minutes after everyone has boarded for the passengers to get seated, the doors to be closed, and the engines to power up, according to Rove. (Rove 2010, pp. 252) But today Air Force One will take off about 10 minutes after Bush’s motorcade reaches the airport, at around 9:55 a.m. (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Balz and Woodward 1/27/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39)
Secret Service agents subject reporters and other individuals who are traveling with President Bush to a strict security check as they are getting onto Air Force One. Bush’s motorcade has now arrived at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Florida, where Air Force One is waiting (see (9:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 99; Keil 9/2004) The plane’s crew members have been told there is a “great potential that we are going to be under attack sitting on the ramp” at the airport, according to Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot. They have also been told there are “unidentified people all around the airport,” and that there is a “possibility that we were subject to the plan to go ahead and assassinate the president” (see (9:04 a.m.-9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Tillman 9/11/2011) Reporters who are heading for the rear entrance to Air Force One are stopped by Secret Service agents and ordered to drop whatever they are carrying for a security sweep. (Sammon 2002, pp. 99) One reporter, White House correspondent Richard Keil, will later recall seeing “a dozen additional Secret Service agents” at the airport, “each with bomb-sniffing dogs.” “We usually have our bags inspected only once in the morning, as long as we remain inside the secure ‘bubble’ in which the president travels,” Keil will write. But now, “everyone’s bag had to be re-swept.” (Keil 9/2004) Even staffers who are wearing special lapel pins showing they are White House employees have their belongings checked by the bomb-sniffing dogs. (Sammon 2002, pp. 99) Passengers also have to confirm who they are before being allowed onto the plane. “There was a lot of attention to our credentials, who we were,” Sandy Kress, Bush’s senior education adviser, will comment, adding: “We had to show ID and our badge, not just the badge. And this even though the crew knew most of us.” (Graff 9/9/2016) Meanwhile, a military aide standing at the foot of the rear entrance to the plane snaps: “If you’re not essential, you’re not getting on the airplane! We gotta hurry up and get out of here.” (Sammon 2002, pp. 99) Tillman will recall that Secret Service agents and the plane’s own security staffers are “double, triple-checking the manifest,” and the bomb-sniffing dogs “search everything” that comes onto Air Force One. “We didn’t want to take any chances,” he will comment. (Tillman 9/11/2011; Tillman 2/29/2012 ) The mood, according to journalist and author Bill Sammon, is “extraordinarily tense.” (Sammon 2002, pp. 99)
Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, is warned about an unidentified man, possibly carrying a gun, who is standing at the end of the runway at the airport in Sarasota, Florida, as he is preparing to take off with President Bush on the plane. (Shawn 9/6/2011; Tillman 2/29/2012 ) Bush arrived at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport after being driven away from the Emma E. Booker Elementary School and is now on Air Force One (see (9:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 98-99; Martin 7/4/2004) While the plane’s crew members were waiting for him to arrive, they were told there was “great potential that we are going to be under attack sitting on the ramp” and they received “reports of unidentified people all around the airport,” according to Tillman (see (9:04 a.m.-9:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Tillman 9/11/2011)
Secret Service Alerts Pilot to Man Carrying a 'Long Gun' - Now, as Air Force One is taxiing out for takeoff, Tillman receives a warning from the Secret Service about an unidentified man who is standing by the fence at the end of the runway and carrying some type of device. The Secret Service “didn’t know what the gentleman had, but he had something in his hand; they thought it might have been a long gun,” Tillman will later recall. (Shawn 9/6/2011) “It is almost impossible to defend against a long gun if he’s going to shoot me on the ground,” Tillman will note. He is told that “shooters have [the unidentified man] in sight” and “will take him down if he moves.” He is instructed, “[P]lease, do not taxi by him and take off,” even though the direction of the prevailing wind would normally lead to the plane going by the man while taking off. (Tillman 2/29/2012 ) Tillman therefore has to launch in the opposite direction, with a tail wind, in order to stay away from the man. (McMillin 11/13/2012)
Plane Takes Off 'Like a Rocket' - Air Force One will take off at about 9:54 a.m. (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) Tillman will climb the plane steeply. This, he will say, is “what we needed to do to make sure that [the man] didn’t have a correct line of sight to fire at the aircraft.” (Peter Schnall 1/25/2009) “I start hauling down the runway,” he will describe. “Pull back, went up at about 8,000 feet per minute, and just put the plane on its tail, rolled it off towards the Gulf of Mexico, because I didn’t want the shooter to get us.” (Tillman 2/29/2012 ) White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who is on Air Force One, will note that the plane takes off “like a rocket.” He will recall that “for a good 10 minutes, the plane was going almost straight up.” (Bartlett 8/12/2002) White House adviser Karl Rove, who is also on Air Force One, will comment that he has not previously “been in a jet at such a steep incline.” He will also say the Secret Service is “concerned about the possibility of terrorists with shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles” and it therefore wants the plane “out of range quickly.” (Rove 2010, pp. 252-253)
Suspicious Man Found to Be Not a Threat - The fear over the unidentified man at the end of the runway will turn out to be unfounded. The man, according to Tillman, is just someone who has come to the airport with his children to see Air Force One leaving Sarasota, and the device he is carrying is just a video camera. (Tillman 2/29/2012 ; McMillin 11/13/2012)
A discussion takes place on Air Force One between Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, Edward Marinzel, the head of President Bush’s Secret Service detail, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, Bush’s military aide, and Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot, about where the president’s plane should go. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) Air Force One’s original flight plan had Washington, DC, as the destination. (White House 8/29/2002) And Bush has been anxious to return to Washington, to lead the government’s response to the terrorist attacks. (Card 8/12/2002; Card 8/16/2002; Bush 2010, pp. 130) But when it took off from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Florida (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001), Air Force One had no fixed destination. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the objective had been “to get up in the air—as fast and as high as possible—and then decide where to go.”
Washington Considered 'Too Unstable for the President to Return' - Now, in the discussion, it is decided that the plane should head somewhere other than Washington. Marinzel says he feels “strongly that the situation in Washington [is] too unstable for the president to return there” and Card agrees with him, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. (Card 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, who is also on Air Force One, will recall that the decision to head to a destination other than Washington is “made based on the fact that the Pentagon had been hit, Washington was now clearly a target. There were a host of reports coming in that we could not tell [if they] were factual or not.” There is therefore “a consensus type of a decision made that perhaps we should look at an alternative site, clear the fog, and then make the final decision on where we would be going.” (It is unclear, however, whether Rosenker participates in the meeting between Card, Marinzel, Gould, and Tillman.) (White House 8/29/2002)
President Reluctantly Accepts Decision - The time when the discussion of Air Force One’s destination takes place is unclear. Apparently describing this meeting, Card will say it takes place “up in the bedroom compartment” of the plane during the first “maybe five or 10 minutes of the flight,” meaning between around 9:55 a.m. and 10:05 a.m. (Card 8/16/2002) But according to the 9/11 Commission Report, it takes place at about 9:45 a.m. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 39) After the meeting, Bush will reluctantly accept the advice he is given, to head for a destination other than Washington, and at around 10:10 a.m. Air Force One will change course and fly west (see (10:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 315; Bush 2010, pp. 130)
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, a military aide who is accompanying President Bush on his visit to Florida, makes a call requesting a fighter escort and other assets to support Air Force One as it flies away from Sarasota. Gould, who has tactical control of all the military assets that support the president, including presidential aircraft, was with Bush on Air Force One when the plane took off from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (see 9:54 a.m. September 11, 2001). He has talked with Colonel Mark Tillman, Air Force One’s pilot, about the plane’s ability to evade other aircraft. “At this point we don’t know the scope of this attack and what’s in front of us,” Gould will later recall. Gould will say that because he “thought there was a threat,” he makes a phone call and asks for three things: fighter jets to escort Air Force One, a refueling plane, and an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System plane) to provide the ability to “see” around the president’s plane.
Request Relayed over Conference Call - Gould will say, in 2011, that he calls the Pentagon to make this request. (Scully 9/11/2011; Wallace 9/11/2011) However, other evidence indicates that he contacts the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House with the request, and the request is then passed on to the Pentagon over the air threat conference call. A transcript of the air threat conference call shows that at 10:14 a.m., Colonel Michael Irwin, the director of operations for the White House Military Office, who is in the PEOC, says he has “just talked to [the] mil aide” on Air Force One, and then adds: “We’d like AWACS over Louisiana. We’d like fighter escort.” (US Department of Defense 9/11/2001 )
Fighters and AWACS Later Accompany Air Force One - An AWACS on a training mission off the coast of Florida is directed toward Air Force One and will accompany it all the way to Washington, DC (see Before 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Code One Magazine 1/2002) Fighters will also arrive to escort the president’s plane. However, it will be over an hour before they reach it (see (11:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Keen and Carney 9/11/2001) It is unclear if and when a refueling plane reaches Air Force One.
Vice President Dick Cheney phones President Bush and tells him the White House has received a credible threat against Air Force One. (Sammon 2002, pp. 106-107; Woodward 2002, pp. 18; Kohn 9/11/2002) The White House has just received an anonymous phone call in which the caller said the president’s plane would be the next terrorist target (see (10:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Woodward 2002, pp. 18; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 554) The caller referred to the plane as “Angel,” which is the Secret Service’s code name for Air Force One. (Fleischer 2005, pp. 141-142) Details of the call were passed on to government officials, including Cheney, in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House. (Cheney 11/19/2001; Thomas 12/30/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 554)
Cheney Tells Bush about a 'Credible' Threat - Cheney now tells Bush: “We’re getting reports of a threat against you. It appears credible,” Major Robert Darling of the White House Military Office, who is with Cheney in the PEOC, will later recall. Cheney says, “We’re scrambling fighter escorts and the Secret Service is taking internal precautions on board Air Force One.” (Darling 2010, pp. 61) Bush turns to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gould, his military aide, and passes on the news, saying, “A call came into the White House switchboard saying, ‘Angel is next.’” Bush then continues talking with Cheney and says, “We’re at war, Dick, and we’re going to find out who did this and we’re going to kick their ass.” (Sammon 2002, pp. 107; Fleischer 2005, pp. 141-142)
Pilot Is Told of the Threat and Asks for a Guard at the Cockpit Door - Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, is told about the threat. (Kohn 9/11/2002) Noting that “Angel” is “a classified call sign of Air Force One,” Tillman will comment that “the only people that knew that call sign was us, [the] Secret Service, and the staff.” Therefore, he will say, “for somebody [to] call into the White House and say that Angel was next, that was just incredible.” (Tillman 2/29/2012 ) “It was serious before that, but now… no longer is it a time to get the president home,” Tillman will comment. “We actually have to consider everything we say. Everything we do could be intercepted and we have to make sure that no one knows what our position is.” Tillman asks to have an armed guard at his cockpit door. Will Chandler, the chief of security, is therefore summoned to the front of the plane and stands watch at the base of the stairs leading to the cockpit. No one is then allowed up these stairs. Secret Service agents double-check the identity of everyone on the plane, while the crew reviews the emergency evacuation plan. (Kohn 9/11/2002; Graff 9/9/2016)
Threat Influences the Decision to Fly to Nebraska - White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who is on Air Force One with Bush, will say the threat against the president’s plane is what leads to the decision to take Bush to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska (see 2:50 p.m. September 11, 2001) and is also one of the reasons why Bush does not head back to Washington, DC, right away. (White House 9/12/2001) However, during the afternoon, the Secret Service will determine that the reported threat was unfounded. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 554) Shortly after Bush learns about the threat, Tillman will be informed that an aircraft that may have been hijacked is heading toward Air Force One (see (10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Kohn 9/11/2002; Knoller 1/17/2009) White House chief of staff Andrew Card will say he in fact learned a threat had been made against Air Force One almost an hour earlier, while he was being driven with Bush to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (see (Between 9:35 a.m. and 9:43 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Card 8/12/2002; Card 8/16/2002; Card 8/16/2002)
The FAA’s Jacksonville Center informs the pilot of Air Force One that an unidentified aircraft is heading toward his plane, and this aircraft is out of radio contact, has its transponder off, and might be another hijacking. Air Force One is currently flying toward Gainesville in northern Florida. (Kohn 9/11/2002; Knoller 1/17/2009; Peter Schnall 1/25/2009) Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, has just been informed that President Bush, who is on the plane, has been called by Vice President Dick Cheney, and Cheney told the president that an anonymous threat has been phoned into the White House, stating that Air Force One is the next target (see (10:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 106-107; Kohn 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 554)
Suspicious Plane Descending toward Air Force One - Tillman is now notified of the suspicious aircraft by the Jacksonville Center. He will later recall that the Jacksonville Center air traffic controller says there is “an aircraft coming at us, descending… and… its transponder was not on, and they had no idea who it was. It could have been another hijacked airliner. They weren’t sure.” The controller tells Tillman the aircraft is “behind you 10 miles, descending at least, flight level 3-5-0, looks to be holding there.” He adds: “Apparently we’ve lost radio contact with them. Are you aware of them?” Tillman replies, “Affirmative.” (Peter Schnall 1/25/2009) The FAA reports this suspicious aircraft over the Pentagon’s air threat conference call at 10:39 a.m., saying the Jacksonville Center “is not working the aircraft. He’s not under [air traffic control] control.” (US Department of Defense 9/11/2001 ) Major Robert Darling of the White House Military Office, who is in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House, will later recall that around this time, those in the PEOC receive word “of an unaccounted-for airliner last seen in the Atlanta, Georgia, area headed southeast toward Florida.” It is unclear if this is the aircraft that Tillman is warned about. (Darling 2010, pp. 61)
Pilot Tells Others on Air Force One of Suspect Plane - Tillman informs others onboard Air Force One of the suspicious plane. Mark Rosenker, the director of the White House Military Office, will recall that Tillman “indicated to us that something was coming at us, it was not squawking [i.e. its transponder was off], it was not turning, and we had a feeling that we were going to be able to get away from it. But for a moment you ask the question, ‘What could it be?’” A CBS interviewer will point out to Rosenker that since this “unidentified aircraft… had its transponder off and wasn’t communicating,” it is apparently following “the MO [modus operandi] of all the other aircraft that attacked that day,” and suggest, “That must have made everybody a little nervous.” Rosenker will reply, “Well, it did.” However, he will add, “[W]e are clearly on probably the finest airplane in the world, so we were comforted by knowing that we had the ability to out-run and out-climb anything that was going to get near us.” (White House 8/29/2002)
Air Force One Heads toward Gulf of Mexico for Safety - Tillman turns Air Force One and heads out to the Gulf of Mexico. He will recall: “We weren’t sure who was hijacked and who wasn’t, so I went out into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s basically fighters all over the Gulf that have the capability to make sure that no one comes into the Gulf, penetrates the United States. So I knew I’d be safe out into the Gulf of Mexico.” He will say he heads to the Gulf “to regroup and figure out where we could bring the president to keep him safe.”
Suspicious Plane a False Alarm - The concern about the suspicious aircraft turns out to be a false alarm. According to Tillman, “In reality, just his transponder was off [and] he hadn’t checked in with the controller right afterwards.” (Knoller 1/17/2009; Peter Schnall 1/25/2009)
Officials at Barksdale Air Force Base, near Shreveport, Louisiana, are informed that a large plane will be arriving unexpectedly at their base and will require security within the next 30 minutes, and they quickly deduce that the aircraft is Air Force One, the president’s plane, and start preparing for its arrival. (Associated Press 10/2/2001; Freeman 10/2006 )
Officers Given List of Requirements for Air Force One - Colonel Anthony Imondi and Colonel Curtis Bedke of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale take a call from Air Force One in which they are given a list of requirements requested by the plane’s crew. These requirements include supplies intended to last for at least a day or two, as the president is currently uncertain of his final destination or how long he may need to remain airborne. On the list are, among other things, 150,000 pounds of fuel, 75 box lunches, 10 gallons of orange juice, bagels, muffins, and 25 pounds of bananas.
Commander Deduces Plane Is Air Force One - When Lieutenant General Thomas Keck, the commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale, learns of the request, he asks his staff, “Who the heck is this?” His personnel say they don’t know, as the plane would not identify itself except to say there were distinguished visitors on board and it was “Code Alpha,” which means top priority. The pilot of Air Force One, Colonel Mark Tillman, then informs the base that the distinguished visitors are four congressmen. However, Keck suspects the plane is more important and soon works out that it must be Air Force One, carrying the president. He then has just 20 minutes to prepare for the president’s arrival at Barksdale.
Base Prepares for Plane's Arrival - Keck orders his staff to prepare for receiving a large, inbound aircraft, although he and his colleagues try to keep the plane’s identity secret as much as possible. The order goes out for the requested supplies to be gathered from the dining facility on the base, the commissary, or from off-base stores. The base’s security forces, and fuels and maintenance personnel, are instructed to stand by to service the plane. Keck tells the base’s military police unit that the incoming plane will need a full-on security detail as soon as it stops on the runway. (2d Bomb Wing 6/30/2002 ; Freeman 10/2006 )
Officer Told Air Force One Landing at Nearby Airport - Captain Russell Stilling, an operations officer with the 2nd Security Forces Squadron at the base, is initially told only that an “unidentified aircraft” is inbound. Four minutes later he is called by the Secret Service, which tells him the aircraft is in fact Air Force One, but says the plane will be arriving at Shreveport Regional Airport, not Barksdale Air Base, and asks him to assign extra security police. Stilling only realizes Air Force One is landing at Barksdale while he is still on the phone with the Secret Service and he glances at a camera focused on the base’s runways, which is showing the plane coming in to land. (Villafuerte 9/8/2002) Air Force One will land at Barksdale Air Force Base at 11:45 a.m. (see 11:45 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Gibbs 9/14/2001)
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.” (Tillman 7/19/2012; McMillin 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.” (Tillman 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.” (Tillman 7/19/2012; KFDI 12/11/2012) The pilot says his estimated time of arrival with Air Force One is in three minutes. (Tillman 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; Cenciotti 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. (Tillman 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). (Keen and Carney 9/11/2001; Brook 9/7/2011)
President Bush, his entourage, and reporters accompanying them on board Air Force One notice fighter jets escorting their plane for the first time. Air Force One is currently flying westward over Mississippi, toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. (Keen and Carney 9/11/2001; Sammon 2002, pp. 109; Kohn 9/11/2002) The White House requested a fighter escort for it (see 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001) and the Secret Service asked Major General Larry Arnold, the commanding general of NORAD’s Continental US Region, to provide that escort. (Code One Magazine 1/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 38; Spencer 2008, pp. 255)
Passengers Notice Fighters - Now, air traffic control radios Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, and notifies him, “[Y]ou’ve got two F-16s at about your—say, your 10 o’clock position.” (Kohn 9/11/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 255) Reporters on board notice a fighter flying alongside the plane’s right wing, and then spot another one alongside its left wing. (Keen and Carney 9/11/2001) According to a photographer on the plane, these jets are “so close that we could see the pilot’s head.” (BBC 9/1/2002) Bush also notices the fighters. (Sammon 2002, pp. 109) White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett will later recall: “The staff, and the president and us, were filed out along the outside hallway of his presidential cabin there and looking out the windows. And the president gives them a signal of salute, and the pilot kind of tips his wing, and fades off and backs into formation.” (Kohn 9/11/2002)
Fighters Maybe Arrived Earlier, but Remained out of Sight - According to most accounts, the jets alongside Air Force One belong to the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard. (Kohn 9/11/2002; Filson 2003, pp. 87; Martin 7/4/2004; Rosenfeld and Gross 2007, pp. 40; Spencer 2008, pp. 255) But a few accounts will indicate they belong to a unit of the Florida Air National Guard in Jacksonville (see (10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (US Department of Defense 9/2001; Langley 12/16/2001) Four 147th Fighter Wing jets have been directed toward the president’s plane to accompany it (see (After 9:56 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Filson 2003, pp. 87; Rosenfeld and Gross 2007, pp. 40) But according to Sarasota Magazine, Air Force One is “currently being escorted by six jet fighters.” (Plunket 11/2001) Fifteen minutes earlier, at 11:14 a.m., an official, whose identity is unstated but who is not a member of the White House staff, told the reporters on Air Force One that the plane already had plenty of military escort, but the fighters were not visible at that time, presumably meaning they were escorting the plane from a distance. (Keen and Carney 9/11/2001)
Jets Protecting '80-Mile Bubble' around Air Force One - The two jets seen by the passengers on Air Force One are reportedly being flown by pilots Shane Brotherton and Randy Roberts of the 147th Fighter Wing. Roberts will later recall, “We were trying to keep an 80-mile bubble… around Air Force One, and we’d investigate anything that was within 80 miles.” (Kohn 9/11/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 255) The 147th Fighter Wing jets will accompany Air Force One to Barksdale Air Force Base, then on to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and finally to Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC. (Filson 2003, pp. 87-88; Cousins 7/9/2005)
Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, is informed that an unidentified aircraft is heading toward his plane, and one of the fighter jets that is escorting Air Force One then goes and intercepts this suspicious aircraft. (Tillman 7/19/2012; KFDI 12/11/2012) Air Force One is flying toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and has now been joined by two F-16 fighters belonging to the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard (see (11:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Rosenfeld and Gross 2007, pp. 40; Cenciotti 9/9/2011)
Pilot Says Aircraft Will Be Shot Down if It Is Hostile - The pilot of one of the fighters calls Tillman and tells him, “There’s a guy coming off New Orleans, looks like New Orleans, and he’s coming off and he’s climbing right at us, he’s coming right up at us.” He says he has instructed the pilot of the other fighter to head out to locate and identify the aircraft, and, he says, if the aircraft is “not a friendly, he’s gonna go ahead and splash him.” Tillman asks the pilot, “Who has got shootdown authority here?” and is told, “You have shootdown authority.” He then phones the president’s office, downstairs on Air Force One, and says to the person who answers, “Let the president know: the fighters on the wing say that I have shootdown authority.” Tillman then hears “a little chuckle in the background,” which, he will later say, is the “president and everybody laughing ‘cause Tillman thinks he has shootdown authority.”
Aircraft Is Just a Learjet Flown by a Civilian - The suspicious aircraft is intercepted by the fighter that went to locate and identify it. It turns out to be a Learjet piloted by a civilian, according to Tillman, which has just taken off from Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. “My angle coming in [toward Barksdale Air Force Base] was coming right over New Orleans and he’s taking off, coming right at me,” Tillman will say. (Tillman 2/29/2012 ; Tillman 7/19/2012; KFDI 12/11/2012) If this is correct, it is unclear why the aircraft was permitted to take off, since the FAA ordered a nationwide ground stop at around 9:26 a.m., which was supposed to prevent any aircraft taking off across the US (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 25) “It’s the only guy in the country that didn’t get the word we’re not flying today,” Tillman will comment. Finally, according to Tillman, the FAA’s Houston Center gets the Learjet back on the ground. (KFDI 12/11/2012) Air Force One then heads on to Barksdale Air Force Base, where it will land at 11:45 a.m. (see 11:45 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Kohn 9/11/2002)
Fighter pilots who have been escorting Air Force One as it transports President Bush across the US are not informed that the president’s plane is departing Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and have to try and catch up with it after they hear it taking off. The pilots belong to the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard. Four F-16s from the wing have been escorting Air Force One since before it landed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana (see (11:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Pilots Told They Would Be Called When Air Force One Is Leaving - After Air Force One landed at Offutt Air Force Base (see 2:50 p.m. September 11, 2001), the F-16s landed there as well. The fighter pilots then met with Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One. Tillman asked them about the capabilities of the F-16. He also took down their cell phone numbers and said he would call them when Air Force One would be leaving the base. However, he was unable to tell them where Air Force One would be going next, so the fighter pilots could not file a flight plan. The fighter pilots then headed off to get a snack and a drink.
Air Force One Takes Off, Pilots Not Informed - However, they are not informed when Air Force One, with Bush on board, takes off from Offutt (see (4:33 p.m.) September 11, 2001). One of the fighter pilots, Major Shane Brotherton, will later recall: “We were eating our snacks and heard jet noise. It was Air Force One and they’d never called us. We got to the jets and he’s taxiing fast and never stopped. Now we’re taxiing fast and we blast off.” By the time the fighters are airborne, Air Force One is 100 miles ahead of them. Some Iowa Air National Guard fighters from Sioux City are also now airborne to protect the president’s plane, but the 147th Fighter Wing jets continue to follow it. Brotherton will recall: “All across the country we were playing catch up, because [Air Force One] was moving. And we didn’t catch up until we were nearing Washington.” (Filson 2003, pp. 87-88)
Air Force One, with President Bush on board, takes off from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and heads for Washington, DC. (CNN 9/12/2001; Sammon 2002, pp. 123; Draper 2007, pp. 143) The president’s plane landed at Offutt at 2:50 p.m. While he was at the base, Bush conducted a meeting of the National Security Council in a secure video teleconference (see (3:15 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (Bamford 2004, pp. 89, 91; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 326) Against objections from the Secret Service, he has announced that he will be returning to Washington (see (4:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (Woodward 2002, pp. 28; Sammon 10/8/2002; Bush 2010, pp. 135)
Bush Thanks Personnel at Offutt - Bush waved to personnel at the base as he was making his way out to his plane. “We were working at our desks and all of a sudden, there was the president striding down the hallway,” Julie Ziegenhorn, a public affairs officer, will later describe, adding, “He walked right out the front door, waving to us.” He shouted to the personnel, “Thanks for all you’re doing!”
Pilot Was Surprised that Bush Is Leaving - Colonel Mark Tillman, the pilot of Air Force One, was incredulous when he was told the president was getting ready to leave, since he’d expected Bush to stay at Offutt for a much longer time. He had been in an office at the base when a young airman ran up to him and said, “It looks like the president is heading back to the plane.” He dismissed the airman, saying, “It probably wasn’t the guy,” but the airman replied, “No, I’m pretty sure I just saw him drive by.” Tillman then raced back to Air Force One and found the president waiting for him at the top of the stairs by the cockpit. Bush told him: “Tillman, we got to get back home. Let’s get back home.”
Reporters Are Allowed to Say What Bush Is Doing - Reporters who have been traveling with Bush are finally permitted to describe the president’s movements on the record. “I called my bureau and told them that the president was heading back to Washington and would address the nation from the Oval Office,” Ann Compton of ABC Radio will recall. (Tillman 2/29/2012 ; Graff 9/9/2016)
Bush Tells His Wife, 'See You at the White House' - As Air Force One is taking off, Bush calls his wife, Laura, who is at the Secret Service headquarters in Washington (see (10:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001), to let her know he is returning to the capital. He tells her: “I’m coming home. See you at the White House. I love you. Go on home.” After talking to her, he feels comfortable enough to make a joke. “If I’m in the White House and there’s a plane coming my way, all I can say is I hope I read my Bible that day,” he says to his aides. (Sammon 2002, pp. 123; Woodward 2002, pp. 17, 28; Sammon 10/8/2002)
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