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Tape recorders that normally record all of the air traffic monitoring stations on the operations floor at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) fail to record the positions of the two NEADS employees who are responsible for controlling the fighter jets launched from Otis Air National Guard Base in response to the hijacked Flight 11 (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 10/28/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 459; Shenon 2008, pp. 203-204)
No Recordings of Two Radio Channels - The 9/11 Commission Report will state that “there are no NEADS recordings available of the NEADS senior weapons director and weapons director technician position responsible for controlling the Otis [Air National Guard Base] scramble.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 459) According to an e-mail sent during the Commission’s investigation by Miles Kara, one of the Commission’s staff members, the two NEADS employees whose positions are not recorded are Steve Hedrick and Brad Gardner. Kara will write: “Since we have zero evidence of the voices of Hedrick and Gardner [on the recordings of the NEADS operations floor], the NORAD position that their channels were never recorded may be accurate.… We never hear them.” (9/11 Commission 5/25/2004) The 9/11 Commission will state, however, that it “found a single communication from the weapons director or his technician on the guard frequency at approximately 9:11, cautioning the Otis fighters, ‘remain at current position [holding pattern] until FAA requests assistance’” (see 9:09 a.m.-9:13 a.m. September 11, 2001).
Positions Not Recorded Due to 'Technical Issue' - The 9/11 Commission will say there are no recordings of the two positions because of “a technical issue,” although it will give no details of what that issue might be. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 459) There are four Dictaphone multi-channel reel-to-reel tape recorders in a corner of the NEADS operations floor, which should be recording every radio channel. (Bronner 8/1/2006) These tape recorders are run by General Dynamics. Richard Crane is the technical representative of General Dynamics at NEADS who is responsible for the recordings on this day. (9/11 Commission 10/28/2003 ; 9/11 Commission 10/28/2003 )
Having taken off after returning from a training mission, a pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) flies two loops up the Potomac River, reversing course near Georgetown and the Pentagon, but is unable to locate a suspicious approaching aircraft, and heads back to base less than 10 minutes after launching. (Scott 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ; Spencer 2008, pp. 219-221)
No Rules of Engagement - Major Billy Hutchison, a pilot with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the DCANG, had landed back at Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles from Washington, but was ordered to take off again immediately (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Scott 9/9/2002) His plane has no missiles, and only training ammunition, and he has been given no specific rules of engagement other than being told to identify an aircraft that is coming down the river. (Vogel 4/8/2002; 9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ; Vogel 2007, pp. 446) Because the DCANG is not in the communication and command loops of NORAD or its Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), Hutchison is unaware that three fighter jets NEADS ordered into the air from Langley Air Force Base (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) are also flying over Washington, albeit at a much higher altitude than he is. (Vogel 4/8/2002; Scott 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission 2/27/2004)
Controller Directs Hutchison - Hutchison calls the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. He says, “Bully 1 [his call sign] is looking for a contact.” Victor Padgett, the operations supervisor at the TRACON, replies, “We have an intercept for you northwest of here and coming down the Potomac.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 219) Hutchison knows he is meant to be searching for a civilian aircraft, and will later recall that he is told it is coming from Pennsylvania. (9/11 Commission 2/27/2004) In order to conserve fuel and gain airspeed, he flies low over the White House and Georgetown, reportedly staying between 500 and 1,000 feet above ground level. (Scott 9/9/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 219) After Padgett gives him details of the approaching aircraft’s location, Hutchison spots it on his jet’s radar screen, but it quickly disappears. The aircraft reappears a minute later, but then both Hutchison and Padgett lose sight of it.
Aircraft Claimed to Be Flight 93 - Some accounts will suggest the approaching aircraft is thought to be Flight 93 (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001), even though that plane has already crashed (see (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Vogel 4/8/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 219-221) Hutchison will later recall that the TRACON at Reagan Airport is “frantic with what they seem to think are aircraft coming their way.… There is another aircraft, and it’s United Flight 93. They… apparently have been given information that it’s coming their way.” (Filson 2003, pp. 81) Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the DCANG, will recall, “[I]t wasn’t until later that they realized the plane [coming down the river] might be UAL 93.” (9/11 Commission 3/11/2004 ) However, John Farmer, John Azzarello, and Miles Kara, who are all staff members of the 9/11 Commission, subsequently rebut this claim. They will write: “[R]adar records of the day [of 9/11] indicate that Major Hutchison did not take off until more than a half-hour after United 93 had crashed near Shanksville, PA, and a good 20 minutes after the wreckage had been located. He could not have seen United 93 on his scope, and could not have intercepted it.” (Farmer, Azzarello, and Kara 9/13/2008)
Told to Investigate Other Aircraft - After the aircraft disappears off Hutchison’s radar screen, Dan Creedon, an air traffic controller at the TRACON at Reagan Airport, is concerned about planes and helicopters that are taking off and landing across Washington, and tells Hutchison, “We have more contacts!” Hutchison confirms that he will investigate the targets Creedon alerts him to, but he keeps losing them among the ground clutter on his radar screen. According to author Lynn Spencer, “The flights are too close to the surface and, from what he can see, appear to be mostly helicopters flying medevac from the Pentagon.”
Flies over the Pentagon - Hutchison, who’d noticed the burning Pentagon before he landed at Andrews Air Force Base (see (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001), then decides he should investigate it. He descends and flies a steep turn over the Pentagon. (Spencer 2008, pp. 234-235) He will later recall: “I circled at a couple of hundred feet at the most just to, one, investigate, and two, give the people on the ground some semblance of security of an American fighter coming by. And apparently it changed the mood for a lot of people when they saw that” (see (10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Running out of Fuel - By now, Hutchison is almost out of fuel. He will recall, “After that point, I’m emergency fuel, the lowest I’ve ever been in an F-16, and tell [the FAA’s] Washington Center I must leave, and they say I’m cleared to return to base and that two more aircraft are coming out of Andrews.” (Filson 2003, pp. 81-82) Hutchison will land at Andrews at 10:47 a.m. (see 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 2004; 9/11 Commission 2/17/2004)
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