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Profile: Phil Thompson
Phil Thompson was a participant or observer in the following events:
The District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, receives a call from the Secret Service at its White House Joint Operations Center (JOC), requesting armed fighter jets over the capital.
JOC Calls DC Air National Guard - Major Daniel Caine is the supervisor of flying with the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard at Andrews, and is currently at the operations desk, where a Secret Service agent recently called him and asked if the DCANG could launch fighters. The agent then told Caine to stand by and said someone else would call (see (Shortly After 9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Now the phone rings, and Caine answers it. The caller, from the JOC, asks for armed fighter jets over Washington. Caine is unsure how the JOC has got the operations desk phone number. He will later speculate that it got it from Secret Service agent Kenneth Beauchamp, who he’d contacted earlier on (see (Between 9:05 a.m. and 9:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Caine Possibly Hears Cheney in Background - The name of the caller is unstated. However, Caine believes he can hear Vice President Dick Cheney’s voice in the background. He will tell author Lesley Filson: “I could hear plain as day the vice president talking in the background. That’s basically where we got the execute order. It was ‘VFR [visual flight rules] direct.’” He will later tell the 9/11 Commission that he “thought, but would not swear to it, that he heard the vice president’s voice in the background.”
Caine Learns of Pentagon Attack - Around this time, Caine learns that the Pentagon has been hit. Even though the Pentagon is just 10 miles from Andrews Air Force Base, he will later recall that he only learns of the attack from news reports, and “no other source.” The result of learning this, according to Caine, is that “the intensity level increased even more.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 76, 78; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 ; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ]
Commander Arrives, Takes over Call - At some point during Caine’s call with the JOC, apparently soon after the Pentagon attack, Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, finally arrives at the headquarters of the 121st Fighter Squadron, where Caine and his colleagues are (see (Shortly After 9:39 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (The 121st Fighter Squadron is part of the 113th Wing of the DCANG.) At this time, Caine has a phone to each ear. He passes the phone with the call from the JOC to Wherley, saying, “Boss… here, you take this one!” He passes the other to Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the chief of safety for the 113th Wing. Caine has decided he is going to fly, and so Thompson will be replacing him as the unit’s supervisor of flying. Caine then goes to join the other pilots that are suiting up, ready to take off in their jets. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 78-79; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 184] Caine will take off from Andrews at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 84; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004]
Three F-16 fighter jets that are on their way back from a training mission over North Carolina finally make contact with their supervisor of flying (SOF) and are instructed to return to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland as quickly as possible. [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] The jets belong to the 121st Fighter Squadron, part of the 113th Wing of the DC Air National Guard, which is based at Andrews AFB, 10 miles from Washington, DC. [District of Columbia Air National Guard, 7/24/2001; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; GlobalSecurity (.org), 8/21/2005; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006] They left Andrews at 8:36 for a routine training mission on a range about 200 miles away from there, in North Carolina (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/8/2004 ]
Supervisor Wants Jets Back Immediately - Major Daniel Caine, who is the SOF with their unit, had been concerned about the three F-16s since the time of the second crash in New York. He’d felt certain that airspace restrictions would be implemented around Washington, and realized he needed to get the jets back to base right away before the Washington airspace was closed. Because the jets were outside his radio range, he called a refueling plane they were scheduled to meet, and asked its pilot to tell them to return to Andrews. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 122-124]
Pilots Told to Return as Fast as Possible - Having met with the refueling plane (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), the lead pilot of the F-16s, Major Billy Hutchison, is now about half way back from the training mission and finally in radio range of Andrews, so he calls the SOF there. [Filson, 2003, pp. 79; Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] By this time, Caine has left his post, as he intends to take off in a jet himself (see (Shortly After 9:39 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson has replaced him as SOF. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 184] Thompson says to Hutchison: “[W]e need you here now! You need to return to base ‘buster’!” The code word “buster” means Hutchison is to push his thrust lever into afterburner and fly as fast as his plane will go. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 217] Thompson does not tell Hutchison anything about the terrorist attacks. Hutchison’s only awareness of the morning’s crisis is what little he’d been told by the pilot of the refueling plane. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] But he has never heard the code word “buster” used before, and realizes something very bad is going on. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 217]
Hutchison Sees Burning Pentagon - Hutchison will later recall: “So we light afterburners and we are coming back at Mach as quick as we can get back.… As I get back, I cross the Potomac River on the south end of Maryland and Virginia, and I see a big column of smoke. It was so clear and there was no haze in the air.” He again talks over the radio with Thompson. Hutchison says: “It looks like there’s been an explosion near [Washington’s Reagan] National Airport. What’s going on?’” Thompson replies: “We know. Just keep coming.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 79] The first of the three F-16s returning from the training mission will land back at Andrews AFB at 10:14 a.m. (see 10:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). The other two land at 10:36 a.m., but Hutchison will be instructed to take off again immediately (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004]
The air traffic control tower at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC, broadcasts regular warnings over radio that any aircraft entering the restricted airspace around the capital will be shot down, even though, according to the 9/11 Commission, the president does not authorize the shooting down of threatening aircraft until 10:18 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41] The Andrews control tower begins broadcasting warning messages over the Air Traffic Information System (ATIS) at 10:05 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] The ATIS is an automatic information system over which “[p]re-recorded airfield advisory information is automatically transmitted at timed intervals over the airways on a specific frequency.” [US Air Force, 10/1/1999 ]
Planes Told They Could Be 'Shot Down' - A 9/11 Commission document summarizing key transmissions from the Andrews tower will show that warning messages are broadcast about once or twice every 10 minutes. The messages, which are all quite similar, include: “No fly notice. Remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down,” and, “Any aircraft monitoring Andrews Approach Control frequency: remain clear of Andrews Class B airspace or you will be shot down.” [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] (Class B airspace is restricted airspace in which no one is supposed to fly without a working transponder and permission from an air traffic controller. The airspace around much of Washington is designated Class B airspace. [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/29/2001] )
Fighter Pilots Hear Warning - At least one of the warning messages is heard by District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) fighter pilots who launch from Andrews Air Force Base at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001) and by pilots launched from Langley Air Force Base by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) earlier on (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). DCANG pilots Marc Sasseville and Heather Penney Garcia are flying at low altitude over Washington, while the three Langley pilots are above them at around 20,000 feet. Although they are on different radio frequencies, both sets of pilots hear a message over a shared channel: “Attention all aircraft monitoring Andrews tower frequency. Andrews and Class Bravo airspace is closed. No general aviation aircraft are permitted to enter Class Bravo airspace. Any infractions will be shot down.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 82]
Officers Hear Warning - The warning messages are also heard by DCANG officers at Andrews. After hearing that violators of the Washington airspace will be shot down, Brigadier General David Wherley thinks to himself, “I guess that will be us doing the shooting.” [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Apparently referring to the warnings from the Andrews tower, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson will later recall: “We kind of winced at that, because there are plenty of hard reasons to not shoot somebody down. We were really in an ID posture—and trying to really be careful.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]
Shootdown Not Authorized until 10:18 - Although the first of the warnings is broadcast at 10:05 a.m., President Bush only gives authorization for hostile aircraft to be shot down at 10:18 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, in a phone call with Vice President Dick Cheney (see 10:18 a.m.-10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001). Furthermore, NEADS only learns that NORAD has been given clearance to shoot down threatening aircraft at 10:31 a.m. (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission document of Andrews tower transmissions will show that the warnings are broadcast until at least 11:05 a.m., although presumably they continue after that. [9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41-42]
Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, wants his fighter jets to intercept a suspicious aircraft coming down the Potomac River toward the capital, which is apparently thought to be Flight 93, although that plane has already crashed (see (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 79-81; 9/11 Commission, 8/28/2003]
Numerous Suspicious Aircraft - According to the Washington Post, the DCANG has learned there are “about a half-dozen suspicious aircraft in the air across the country, among them hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, on a path toward Washington.” Wherley will add: “Nobody knew it had crashed. We just knew there was an airplane out there that could be coming to Washington. We knew the threat was real.”
Fighters Launched due to False Report - The first three DCANG fighters to take off in response to the attacks are ordered to go after this alleged inbound aircraft. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002] Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the chief of safety for the DC Air National Guard, will later recall: “We had something coming down the Potomac at low altitude. Brigadier General Wherley is standing here, and we’ve got the tower with the Secret Service agent, and they want us to launch anything we’ve got. And the general said, ‘Do it.’” [Filson, 2003, pp. 81] DCANG pilot Billy Hutchison, who takes off at 10:38 a.m. (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001), will describe, “There was an aircraft coming down the Potomac that they needed me in the air for” that had to “be prevented from reaching the DC area.” He is told this aircraft is “coming from Pennsylvania.” [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] And pilot Marc Sasseville, who, along with Heather Penney Garcia, takes off at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001), later says: “We all realized we were looking for an airliner—a big airplane. That was Flight 93; the track looked like it was headed toward DC at that time.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
Incorrect Report Comes from Secret Service - According to Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the DCANG, his understanding is that “the information about the plane coming down the river” came from the Secret Service’s White House Joint Operations Center. [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] FAA personnel are also receiving similar information from the Secret Service. At 10:32, an FAA employee tells John White, a manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, “Secret Service is reporting one unknown eight miles out, flying inbound.” Two minutes later, this employee says they are “[t]rying to tell [the] Secret Service about [Flight] 93,” because the Secret Service is “a little bit behind, still getting reports.” They then tell White, “Secret Service is saying the aircraft they are talking is coming up the Potomac right now.” [9/11 Commission, 11/4/2003] Fire and rescue workers are evacuated away from the Pentagon site around this time, in response to a report from the FBI of a hijacked aircraft flying toward Washington (see (10:15 a.m.-10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). This may be the same alleged plane that the DCANG and FAA learn of. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A30 ; Fire Engineering, 11/2002]
Aircraft Supposedly a Helicopter - The incoming aircraft is apparently a false alarm. [9/11 Commission, 8/28/2003] After searching for it, Hutchison will be instructed to fly back toward Washington because, he will say, “the plane had been lost.” [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] According to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, “FAA tapes and transcripts” reveal the aircraft to be “an Army National Guard helicopter based out of Davison Field, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which had become isolated in Maryland as events unfolded and which wanted to return to its home field.” [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ]
Secret Service Thinks Plane Crashed at Camp David - However, at 10:36, the FAA employee relays that the “Secret Service is saying they believe United 93 hit Camp David.” Seconds later, they add that the Secret Service is “confirming that UA 93 did go into Camp David.” [9/11 Commission, 11/4/2003] Even President Bush is given an incorrect report of a plane going down near Camp David around this time (see (10:37 a.m.-11:09 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Sammon, 2002, pp. 108] So this erroneous information may be what leads to Hutchison being informed that the aircraft he was sent after has been lost. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004]
Entity Tags: US Secret Service, David Wherley, Billy Hutchison, Phil Thompson, David McNulty, John White, Marc Sasseville, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Heather Penney Garcia, Federal Aviation Administration
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
Billy Hutchison. [Source: Family photo]The first fighter jet to launch from Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles southeast of Washington, takes off in response to the attacks. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; GlobalSecurity (.org), 1/21/2006] The F-16 belongs to the 121st Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, and is piloted by Major Billy Hutchison. It is one of three F-16s that were flying on a training mission in North Carolina, over 200 miles from Andrews (see 8:36 a.m. September 11, 2001), and which have finally been recalled to the base (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; American Forces Press Service, 5/12/2005] Although the three jets met with a refueling plane, they did not fill their tanks up completely. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-217] Hutchison’s aircraft is the only one of them with enough fuel remaining to take off again immediately, though he only has 2,800 pounds, which is equivalent to one-eighth of a tank in a car. His jet has no missiles, and only training ammunition.
Pilot Takes Off, Instructed to Protect Washington - Immediately after landing at Andrews at 10:36 a.m., Hutchison takes off again at the instruction of Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard. He is instructed “to intercept an aircraft coming toward DC and prevent it from reaching DC,” he will later recall. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 79-81; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] According to author Lynn Spencer, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the supervisor of flying (SOF) at Andrews, tells Hutchison to “use whatever force is necessary to prevent [the aircraft] from getting to DC.” Thompson adds: “You are weapons free. Do you understand?” “Weapons free” means the decision to shoot at a target now rests solely with Hutchison. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 219] However, according to the 9/11 Commission, the “weapons free” instruction goes out to other pilots that launch from Andrews at 10:42 and after, but apparently not to Hutchison. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44] Thompson will tell Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine simply that he instructs Hutchison “to ‘do exactly what [air traffic control] asks you to do.’ Primarily, he was to go ID [identify] that unknown [aircraft] that everybody was so excited about” (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] Hutchison takes off “without afterburner to conserve fuel, go across the White House over the Georgetown area and continue northwest up the Potomac,” he will recall (see 10:39 a.m.-10:45 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Filson, 2003, pp. 81]
Conflicting Timelines - Conflicting times will later be given for when Hutchison takes off from Andrews. The pilots with the 121st Fighter Squadron will admit that their own recollection of the morning’s timeline “is fuzzy.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] According to 113th Wing operations desk records, Hutchison takes off at 10:33 a.m. [Filson, 2003, pp. 81, 89] Based on an interview with David Wherley, the 9/11 Commission states he is airborne at 10:38 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 44, 465] Recordings of air traffic controller transmissions confirm this time. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] But in her 2008 book Touching History, Lynn Spencer will claim Hutchison took off significantly earlier, some time after 9:50 but before Flight 93 crashed (which was just after 10:00 a.m.). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 216-220] (However, she will later amend her claim, saying instead, “Radio data indicates that Hutchison’s flight did not depart from Andrews… until just after 10:35.” [Lynn Spencer, 2008] ) Two more fighters will take off from Andrews at 10:42 a.m. (see 10:42 a.m. September 11, 2001) and another two take off at 11:11 a.m. (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). Due to his plane’s limited fuel, Hutchison will only be airborne for about 10 minutes, and he lands back at Andrews at 10:47 a.m. (see 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/28/2003; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446]
One Jet Landed Already - The first of the three F-16s to return from the training mission over North Carolina landed at Andrews at 10:14 a.m., but did not take off again to defend Washington (see 10:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). The other F-16, piloted by Lou Campbell, landed with Hutchison’s jet at 10:36 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] The 113th Wing is not part of NORAD’s air sovereignty force and, according to the 1st Air Force’s book about 9/11, does not have an alert mission. [Filson, 2003, pp. 76] According to Phil Thompson, “We’ve never been an air defense unit,” but “We practice scrambles, we know how to do intercepts and other things.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002]
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