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Profile: New York Terminal Radar Approach Control
New York Terminal Radar Approach Control was a participant or observer in the following events:
A Boeing 707 belonging to an Argentine airline comes close to hitting the television mast atop the World Trade Center’s North Tower. The plane is flying in clouds at 1,500 feet, instead of at its assigned altitude of 3,000 feet, and descending toward Kennedy Airport. About four miles, or less than 90 seconds, from the WTC, the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in Hempstead, Long Island, becomes aware of the situation thanks to a new automated alarm system and is able to radio the pilot with the order to climb. The alarm system that sounds, called Minimum Safe Altitude Warning, has been in operation for about a year. When radar shows a plane at an altitude within 500 feet of the highest obstruction in a particular area and 30 seconds away, a buzzer sounds repeatedly at the TRACON. At the same time, the letters LA (for low altitude) flash on the radar scope next to the plane’s blip. [New York Times, 2/26/1981]
A Sikorsky S-76A helicopter flying over New York.
[Source: Sikorsky]A helicopter is tracked on radar apparently crashing into the World Trade Center, according to a report later given by a New York air traffic controller over an FAA teleconference.
Helicopter Is 'the Only Target that We Saw ... to Fly into the Trade Center' - At around 10:15 a.m., Tom White, an operations manager at the FAA’s New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), will tell those on the FAA teleconference that his facility tracked a Sikorsky helicopter that had taken off from the airport in Poughkeepsie, New York, and this helicopter appeared to fly into the WTC at 8:27 a.m. (see (10:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001). White will add that, after replaying radar information, it is concluded that the helicopter is “the only target that we saw in the vicinity of the Trade Center at 12:27 [Zulu time, or 8:27 a.m. Eastern time] to fly into the Trade Center.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission, 5/21/2004] (However, the first crash at the WTC will not occur until 8:46 a.m. (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 7] ) The “Poughkeepsie airport” the helicopter took off from is presumably Dutchess County Airport. Sikorsky reportedly bases a fleet of its S-76 helicopters at Dutchess County Airport, “dispatching them to the New York metro areas as needed.” [Site Selection, 5/2000; Aviation International News, 8/1/2003] Poughkeepsie is about 70 miles north of New York City. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/3/2008]
Helicopter 'Consistent with the Speed' of What Hits WTC - White will say the helicopter’s tail number is N7601S, that it departed the Poughkeepsie airport at 8:03 a.m., and that it then headed south at a speed of around 160 knots, or 184 miles per hour. He will add: “The tower [presumably the air traffic control tower at the Poughkeepsie airport] says the only thing they had southbound at that time was a Sikorsky helicopter, which is consistent with the speed that we followed it down.… They’re saying they replayed the radar and it’s consistent with the speed of what went into the [WTC] tower.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001] (However, an analysis by the US government will later estimate that Flight 11 hits the WTC at 494 miles per hour, or 429 knots, which is significantly faster than the helicopter was flying. [New York Times, 2/23/2002] )
Mistaken Information Later Corrected - It will apparently take until early afternoon for the suspicions about the Sikorsky helicopter hitting the WTC to be dismissed. An FAA chronology of this day’s events will state that at 1:00 p.m., the “Sikorsky helicopter” is “now believed not to have hit the WTC.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 1/2/2002] Another FAA chronology will state that at 1:04 p.m., it is reported that the Sikorsky helicopter “landed 20 minutes early, normal GE run at 12:28Z [i.e. 8:28 a.m. Eastern time] to WTC.” (It is unclear what is meant by “normal GE run.”) [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001]
The FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, establishes a teleconference with FAA facilities in the New York area. These facilities are the New York Center, the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control, and the Eastern Regional Office. The participants in the teleconference jointly decide to divert all air traffic that would otherwise enter the New York area, either to land or to overfly. Linda Schuessler, the deputy director of system operations at the Command Center, will later describe, “They [New York area air traffic control personnel] would continue to work what they’d been working, but we wouldn’t give them any more.” The teleconference participants’ decision does not affect takeoffs from the New York area. After the second World Trade Center tower is hit at 9:03 a.m., the Command Center will expand this teleconference to include FAA headquarters and other agencies (see 9:06 a.m. and After September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001]
The FAA’s New York Center contacts the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and asks for help in locating Flight 175. Different air traffic controllers scan different altitudes, and TRACON controllers only deal with low-flying planes. These controllers have remained uninformed about the fate of Flight 11 until about now. “We had 90 to 120 seconds; it wasn’t any 18 minutes,” one controller wil later recall, referring to the actual elapsed time between the two crashes. Another controller will say of Flights 11 and 175: “They dove into the airspace. By the time anybody saw anything, it was over.” [New York Times, 9/13/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]
Dutchess County Airport. [Source: Phillip Capper]Tom White, a New York air traffic controller, incorrectly reports over an FAA teleconference that the first aircraft to hit the World Trade Center appears to have been a Sikorsky helicopter. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 1/2/2002; 9/11 Commission, 5/21/2004] White is an operations manager at the FAA’s New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in Westbury, Long Island. [9/11 Commission, 12/15/2003 ] He says over the FAA teleconference that the Sikorsky helicopter had been heading south from Poughkeepsie, New York, and appeared to hit the WTC at 8:27 a.m. (see 8:27 a.m. September 11, 2001)—nearly 20 minutes before the first crash there actually took place (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001).
TRACON Previously Said Small Plane Hit the WTC - About 20 minutes earlier, someone from the TRACON—presumably White—suggested over the teleconference that the first aircraft to hit the WTC was a small twin-engine plane. At around 9:55 a.m. they said: “I think we’ve identified the location of a departure point for aircraft number one [presumably a reference to the plane that hit the North Tower]. At approximately 12:03 Zulu time [i.e. 8:03 a.m. Eastern time], aircraft number one appears to have departed Poughkeepsie airport and established a southerly heading at a speed of about 160 knots [i.e. 184 miles per hour]. The profile looks like it might be a light twin.” Asked if they had any more information, the TRACON employee replied: “I tried to get in touch with Poughkeepsie tower. However, the phone lines are overloaded and the circuits are busy.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001] The “Poughkeepsie airport” the helicopter took off from is presumably Dutchess County Airport. Sikorsky bases a fleet of its S-76 helicopters at Dutchess County Airport, which it dispatches to the New York metro areas as needed. [Site Selection, 5/2000; Aviation International News, 8/1/2003] Poughkeepsie is about 70 miles north of New York City. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/3/2008]
Radar Information Suggests Helicopter Hit WTC - White now gives an update over the FAA teleconference, and suggests the first aircraft to hit the WTC was in fact a helicopter. He says: “We tracked a Sikorsky helicopter… from Poughkeepsie to the Trade Center. It appeared to fly into the Trade Center at 12:27 [Zulu time, or 8:27 a.m. Eastern time]. That is preliminary information.” White then clarifies that this conclusion has been reached partly through replaying radar data. He says: “[T]he only target that we saw in the vicinity of the Trade Center at 12:27, to fly into the Trade Center, we, we played the radar and tracked it up through Westchester and Stewart. We had a departure off a Poughkeepsie at 12:03. The tower says the only thing they had southbound at that time was a Sikorsky helicopter, which is consistent with the speed that we followed it down.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001]
Long Delay before False Information Is Corrected - The New York TRACON’s reports about a helicopter or small plane hitting the WTC are subsequently confirmed to be mistaken. However it apparently takes several hours before the erroneous information is corrected. David LaCates, the deputy operations manager at the FAA’s New York Center, will tell the 9/11 Commission that “he did hear rumors that the aircraft that struck the WTC was in fact a small airplane from Poughkeepsie,” and he “believes this rumor persisted for over an hour.” [9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003 ] According to one FAA chronology of this day’s events, it is only at 1:00 p.m. that the “Sikorsky helicopter” is “now believed not to have hit the WTC.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 1/2/2002] Another FAA chronology will state that at 1:04 p.m. it is reported that the Sikorsky helicopter “landed 20 minutes early, normal GE run at 12:28Z [i.e. 8:28 a.m. Eastern time] to WTC.” (It is unclear what is meant by “normal GE run.”) [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001]
Two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, patrol the airspace over New York, first assisting and then later replacing another pair of F-15s that arrived over the city earlier on. [9/11 Commission, 10/14/2003 ; Cape Cod Times, 9/11/2006; Richard, 2010, pp. 25-26, 88] The two fighters belong to the 102nd Fighter Wing, and are piloted by Major Martin Richard and Major Robert Martyn. They took off from Otis Air Base at around 10:30 a.m. (see (Shortly After 10:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and have already intercepted a military cargo plane that was returning to the US from England (see (After 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [102nd Fighter Wing, 2001; Westover Patriot, 10/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 10/14/2003 ; Richard, 2010, pp. 18-20]
Fighters Directed toward New York - The fighters were flying southwest toward New York when their pilots received orders from NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), instructing them to “continue southwest and set up a combat air patrol over bull’s-eye.” “Bull’s-eye”—the reference point from which all positional reporting originates—had been set as the location of the now-collapsed World Trade Center towers. The fighters therefore continued toward the city.
FAA's New York Center Does Not Respond to Communication - Richard and Martyn tried checking in with the FAA’s New York Center, but received no reply. NEADS therefore instructed them to instead check in with the FAA’s New York Terminal Radar Approach Control. As they were flying to New York, NEADS also told the two pilots that their mission was “to intercept, divert, or, if unsuccessful in those, to call them for authorization to shoot down” aircraft. Richard will later comment, “That certainly got our attention.” [102nd Fighter Wing, 2001; Richard, 2010, pp. 24]
Fighters Join Two Aircraft Already over New York - Two fighters that took off from Otis Air Base at 8:46 a.m. in response to the hijacked Flight 11 (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001), piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Duffy and Major Daniel Nash, arrived over New York earlier in the morning (see 9:25 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:45 a.m.-10:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and established a combat air patrol over the city. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20, 24; Boston Globe, 9/11/2005] Richard and Martyn arrive, joining these two fighters over New York, at approximately 11:00 a.m., Nash will say. [9/11 Commission, 10/14/2003 ]
Fighters Set Up a 'Point Defense' around New York - Martyn then calls Duffy over the radio. Referring to his own fighter by its call sign, Martyn says, “Panta one is on station at 15,000 feet.” Duffy instructs him, “Panta one, orbit over bull’s-eye and stand by.” Richard will describe the tactic the four fighters then employ, writing: “Duff decided to set up a point defense around the city.… Ground Zero was our reference point and the targets in the area were called out in reference to it.… Since we were flying in a void of actionable information, we decided that the most effective way to win this battle was to let the enemy come to us.” [Richard, 2010, pp. 25-26] While Duffy and Nash fly about 10,000 feet above New York, Richard and Martyn fly at around 18,000 feet. [Filson, 10/2/2002]
Fighters Intercept and Identify Aircraft - Richard will recall that he and Martyn “darted around the city, chasing down airliners, helicopters, and anything else in the air,” making sure that “everything in the air was visually identified, intercepted, and guided to land at the closest airfield.” [Richard, 2010, pp. 36] They spend several hours identifying helicopters that have no flight plans and are heading for Ground Zero. Many of these helicopters belong to organizations that want to help, and are there to provide relief and aid. [102nd Fighter Wing, 2001; Richard, 2010, pp. 74] When necessary, the two fighters are able to refuel from a KC-135 tanker plane that is orbiting above them at 20,000 feet.
Fighters Replaced by Other Aircraft from Otis Air Base - After Duffy and Nash head back to Otis Air Base (see (2:15 p.m.) September 11, 2001), Richard and Martyn continue clearing the skies over New York and eastern New Jersey. Richard will describe the following few hours as “mostly boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.” [Richard, 2010, pp. 72, 74, 88] Richard and Martyn finally return to Otis Air Base at around 6:00 p.m. [102nd Fighter Wing, 2001] Another two F-15s belonging to the 102nd Fighter Wing take their place patrolling the airspace above New York. These fighters are flown by pilots that Richard will only refer to by their nicknames, “Psycho Davis” and “Doo Dah Ray.” These pilots participated, along with Richard, in a training mission over the Atlantic Ocean early this morning (see (9:00 a.m.-9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Richard, 2010, pp. 88]
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