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Profile: Norfolk Terminal Radar Approach Control
Norfolk Terminal Radar Approach Control was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Norfolk Tower TRACON. [Source: Federal Aviation Administration]The FAA’s Norfolk Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) is briefly in charge of the three F-16s launched from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), but it does not redirect them northward in line with the military’s orders, after the Langley air traffic control tower previously instructed them to fly east. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 96]
Jets Are Sent East instead of North - When NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) issued the scramble order (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001), it specified that the Langley jets be directed north toward Washington, DC. But as the jets were taking off, the Langley tower instructed them to go “090 for 60,” meaning they were to fly east for 60 miles (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 1/9/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 142-143]
TRACON Does Not Redirect the Jets - When aircraft take off from Langley Air Force Base, control of them is passed from the Langley tower to the Norfolk TRACON. [9/11 Commission, 10/6/2003 ] Controllers at the TRACON are permitted to change an aircraft’s flight plan, in the case of the Langley jets the “090 for 60” instruction. [9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003 ] A 9/11 Commission memorandum will state that the Langley jets are “not bound to the 60 mile distance and could have turned to the north at any time they were directed to or had orders to do so.” [9/11 Commission, 10/6/2003 ] However, although the TRACON is aware that NEADS ordered the jets to head north, it does not redirect them toward this heading instead of going east. [9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003 ] According to the 9/11 Commission, the reason is that “both the lead Langley pilot,” Major Dean Eckmann, “and the FAA’s Norfolk TRACON facility… assumed the flight plan instruction to go ‘090 for 60’ was newer guidance that superseded the original scramble order instructions” issued by NEADS. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 96]
Pilot Agrees to Follow the Tower's Directions - At 9:33 a.m., Norfolk TRACON controller Michael Strother asks Eckmann what direction he wants to head in. Strother says, “Quit 2-5, are you going directly to the Langley 090 at 60?” If Eckmann wanted to go somewhere other than what is specified in the flight plan, Strother has the authority to grant the request. But Eckmann replies, “Affirmative.” He says, “That’s our second clearance,” and, referring to the NEADS scramble order, adds, “We had an earlier clearance of a vector and an altitude.” The 9/11 Commission will summarize, “Put simply, the Langley pilots received flight direction guidance from both the scramble order and the Langley AFB departure flight plan, and continued on the latter heading for several minutes until a direction and geographic destination was provided.” [9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/9/2004; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 96]
Navy Facility Takes Over Control of the Jets - Norfolk TRACON subsequently passes control of the three F-16s on to “Giant Killer,” the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia (see 9:33 a.m. September 11, 2001). This is the Navy air traffic control agency that handles all over-water military operations. [New York Times, 2/10/1997; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 1/9/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 143] It will not be until around the time the Pentagon is hit that the Langley jets are redirected to their correct heading (see 9:36 a.m. September 11, 2001), after NEADS notices they are going in the wrong direction (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Spencer, 2008, pp. 149-151]
The Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia, takes control of the three F-16 fighter jets launched from Langley Air Force Base (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), even though, according to air traffic controllers at the facility, it should not be communicating with the fighters. [9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 1/9/2004] The Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, known as “Giant Killer,” is the Navy air traffic control agency that handles all over-water military operations. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 143; US Navy, 2/11/2016] The flight plan for the Langley F-16s puts the fighters into its airspace (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ] The facility consequently takes over control of the aircraft from the FAA’s Norfolk Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) (see 9:31 a.m.-9:33 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 1/9/2004]
Fighters Shouldn't Be Switched to the Facility's Frequency, Controller Will Say - However, according to Senior Chief Petty Officer Darren Clipper, an air traffic controller at the facility, the Norfolk TRACON “should not have switched the flight to Giant Killer frequency, plain and simple.” “Giant Killer should not have been talking to the fighters,” Clipper will state. He will tell the 9/11 Commission that Giant Killer is “not expected to be [one of the] participants in active air scrambles.” If NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) scrambles fighters, he will say, the “onus is on the fighters and NEADS to go where they want to go,” and “it is Giant Killer’s responsibility to stay out of the way.” Based on the scramble order for the Langley fighters (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001), Clipper will say, the FAA’s Washington Center and the Norfolk TRACON “should have made sure there was a clear path for the fighters to go direct” to the control of NEADS. [9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ]
Other Controllers Say the Facility Does Not Handle Scrambled Jets - Petty Officer Matthew Barcus, another controller at Giant Killer, will say a similar thing to what Clipper does. “Most of the time, Giant Killer does not talk to the scrambled aircraft,” he will tell the 9/11 Commission. He will say that a scrambled flight “is usually handed off to [NEADS] by Norfolk” TRACON or the FAA’s Washington Center. [9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ] And Lieutenant Commander Mary Klug, the operations officer at the facility, will tell the 9/11 Commission that Giant Killer does “not normally control scrambled aircraft.” [9/11 Commission, 12/3/2003 ] However, author Lynn Spencer will apparently contradict Clipper, Barcus, and Klug, writing, “Protocol dictates that Giant Killer direct the jets until they reach Washington Center’s airspace, where the FAA controllers take over.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 149]
Pilot Has Poor Experiences of Dealing with the Facility - Major Brad Derrig, the pilot of one of the fighters scrambled from Langley Air Force Base, will tell the 9/11 Commission that his experience with Giant Killer is that the facility is “not very good.” Sometimes, he will say, when Langley fighters have contacted Giant Killer, controllers at the facility “didn’t know who the air defense fighters were.” [9/11 Commission, 12/1/2003]
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