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Profile: Western Air Defense Sector (WADS)

Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) was a participant or observer in the following events:

Captain Tom Herring, an F-15 pilot with the Florida Air National Guard.Captain Tom Herring, an F-15 pilot with the Florida Air National Guard. [Source: Airman]Fighter jets are regularly scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in response to suspicious or unidentified aircraft flying in US airspace in the years preceding 9/11. [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 4; Associated Press, 8/14/2002] For this task, NORAD keeps a pair of fighters on “alert” at a number of sites around the US. These fighters are armed, fueled, and ready to take off within minutes of receiving a scramble order (see Before September 11, 2001). [American Defender, 4/1998; Air Force Magazine, 2/2002; Bergen Record, 12/5/2003; Grant, 2004, pp. 14] Various accounts offer statistics about the number of times fighters are scrambled:
bullet A General Accounting Office report published in May 1994 states that “during the past four years, NORAD’s alert fighters took off to intercept aircraft (referred to as scrambled) 1,518 times, or an average of 15 times per site per year.” Of these incidents, the number of scrambles that are in response to suspected drug smuggling aircraft averages “one per site, or less than 7 percent of all of the alert sites’ total activity.” The remaining activity, about 93 percent of the total scrambles, “generally involved visually inspecting unidentified aircraft and assisting aircraft in distress.” [General Accounting Office, 5/3/1994, pp. 4]
bullet In the two years from May 15, 1996 to May 14, 1998, NORAD’s Western Air Defense Sector (WADS), which is responsible for the “air sovereignty” of the western 63 percent of the continental US, scrambles fighters 129 times to identify unknown aircraft that might be a threat. Over the same period, WADS scrambles fighters an additional 42 times against potential and actual drug smugglers. [Washington National Guard, 1998]
bullet In 1997, the Southeast Air Defense Sector (SEADS)—another of NORAD’s three air defense sectors in the continental US—tracks 427 unidentified aircraft, and fighters intercept these “unknowns” 36 times. The same year, NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) handles 65 unidentified tracks and WADS handles 104 unidentified tracks, according to Major General Larry Arnold, the commander of the Continental United States NORAD Region on 9/11. [American Defender, 4/1998]
bullet In 1998, SEADS logs more than 400 fighter scrambles. [Grant, 2004, pp. 14]
bullet In 1999, Airman magazine reports that NORAD’s fighters on alert at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida are scrambled 75 times per year, on average. According to Captain Tom Herring, a full-time alert pilot at the base, this is more scrambles than any other unit in the Air National Guard. [Airman, 12/1999]
bullet General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD on 9/11, will later state that in the year 2000, NORAD’s fighters fly 147 sorties. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004 pdf file]
bullet According to the Calgary Herald, in 2000 there are 425 “unknowns,” where an aircraft’s pilot has not filed or has deviated from a flight plan, or has used the wrong radio frequency, and fighters are scrambled 129 times in response. [Calgary Herald, 10/13/2001]
bullet Between September 2000 and June 2001, fighters are scrambled 67 times to intercept suspicious aircraft, according to the Associated Press. [Associated Press, 8/14/2002]
Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, the commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region at the time of the 9/11 attacks, will say that before 9/11, it is “not unusual, and certainly was a well-refined procedure” for NORAD fighters to intercept an aircraft. He will add, though, that intercepting a commercial airliner is “not normal.” [Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 pdf file] On September 11, 2001, NEADS scrambles fighters that are kept on alert in response to the hijackings (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20, 26-27]

Entity Tags: Larry Arnold, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Norton Schwartz, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Ralph Eberhart, Tom Herring

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The United Nations headquarters building in New York.The United Nations headquarters building in New York. [Source: Mark Garten / United Nations]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) practices a scenario in which five terrorists take over a transcontinental aircraft with the intention of crashing it into the United Nations headquarters building in New York. The simulation takes place during a command post exercise conducted by the Continental United States NORAD Region, called Falcon Indian. NORAD’s three air defense sectors in the continental US, including the Northeast Air Defense Sector based in Rome, New York, take part in this exercise. General Richard Myers, currently the commander in chief of NORAD, will reveal the details of the scenario during an August 2004 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to Myers, the scenario is based around a China Air aircraft flying from Los Angeles to JFK International Airport in New York, which is “hijacked east of Colorado Springs by five terrorists.” If the plane is not intercepted by the US military, the terrorists intend “to crash into [the] United Nations building.” [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 8/25/1989; US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004; Arkin, 2005, pp. 362] The UN headquarters building is a 39-story high-rise, located a few miles from the World Trade Center. [New York Daily News, 12/2/1999; Evening Standard, 9/11/2002] In response to the simulated crisis, exercise participants have to follow hijack checklists, exercise command and control, coordinate with external agencies, and carry out a handover of responsibilities between NORAD sectors. [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004] Like in this scenario, the teams of hijackers that take over three of the four aircraft targeted in the 9/11 attacks will comprise of five terrorists. And all four of the aircraft targeted on 9/11 will be making transcontinental flights, like the plane hijacked in this scenario, although they will be flying from the east coast to the west rather than from the west to the east. [New York Times, 9/12/2001; CNN, 9/20/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 4, 11] A subsequent Falcon Indian exercise in June 2000 will include scenarios in which hijackers plan to crash aircraft into the White House and the Statue of Liberty (see June 5, 2000). [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Continental US NORAD Region, Falcon Indian, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Richard B. Myers

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center standing behind it.The Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center standing behind it. [Source: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) practices two scenarios in which aircraft are hijacked, and in one scenario the hijackers plan to crash the plane into the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, while in the other the hijackers plan to crash into the White House in Washington, DC. The scenarios are included in a command post exercise conducted by the Continental United States NORAD Region called Falcon Indian. NORAD’s three air defense sectors in the continental United States, including the Northeast Air Defense Sector based in Rome, New York, are participating in this exercise. [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 8/25/1989; US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004; Arkin, 2005, pp. 362]
Hijackers Take Over Learjet, Plan to Crash into White House - The two hijacking scenarios will be described by General Richard Myers, currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in August 2004. According to Myers, one of the scenarios involves a Learjet being hijacked and maintaining a “tight formation with [a] Canadair airliner, loaded with explosives.” (From Myers’s description it is unclear whether the Learjet or the Canadair airliner is the plane carrying explosives.) According to Myers, the “Learjet planned to crash into the White House.” In response to the simulated crisis, exercise participants have to follow hijack checklists, exercise command and control, and coordinate with external agencies.
Communist Group Plans to Crash Plane into Statue of Liberty - The other scenario is based around a “Communist Party faction” that hijacks an aircraft “bound from [the] western to [the] eastern United States,” according to Myers. There are “[h]igh explosives on board” the aircraft and the fictitious hijackers intend “to crash into the Statue of Liberty.” During the simulation, the FAA requests assistance from the military. Exercise participants have to again follow hijack checklists, exercise command and control, and coordinate with external agencies, as well as carrying out a handover of responsibilities between NORAD sectors. [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004] Even though these two NORAD exercise scenarios involve hijackers attempting to use planes as weapons, the 9/11 Commission will claim in its final report, “The threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States—and using them as guided missiles—was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17] A previous Falcon Indian exercise in November 1999 included a scenario of hijackers planning to crash an aircraft into the United Nations headquarters building in New York (see November 6, 1999). [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004]

Entity Tags: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Continental US NORAD Region, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Falcon Indian, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Richard B. Myers

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A FedEx MD-11 aircraft.A FedEx MD-11 aircraft. [Source: Alan Radecki]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) practices scenarios based around suicidal pilots planning to deliberately crash stolen aircraft into the United Nations headquarters—a skyscraper in New York. The two scenarios are practiced on October 16 and October 23 as part of NORAD’s annual command post exercise called Vigilant Guardian. All of NORAD, including its Northeast Air Defense Sector based in Rome, New York, participates in this exercise. [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004; Arkin, 2005, pp. 545; GlobalSecurity (.org), 4/27/2005]
Simulation Involves Planned Suicide Plane Attack - General Richard Myers, currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will later describe the scenario practiced on October 16: “Due to recent arrests involving illegal drug trafficking in Maine, an individual steals a Federal Express plane and plans a suicide attack into the United Nations building in New York City.” In response to the simulated crisis, exercise participants follow hijack checklists, exercise command and control, and coordinate with external agencies.
Simulation Involves WMD Directed at the UN - The October 23 scenario, according to Myers, is based around “[w]eapons of mass destruction directed at the United Nations. An individual steals a Federal Express aircraft and plans a suicide attack on the United Nations building in New York City.” In response, exercise participants practice command and control, and coordinate with external agencies, and fighter jets conduct an interception of the stolen aircraft. [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004] Federal Express currently flies mostly the DC-10 and the MD-11, which are both large jet planes, so presumably one of these kinds of aircraft is considered in the exercise scenarios. [Washington Post, 1/17/2001] The UN headquarters building—the target in the scenarios—is a 39-story high-rise, located just a few miles from the World Trade Center. [New York Daily News, 12/2/1999; Evening Standard, 9/11/2002]
Scenarios Revealed in 2004 - The details of these two scenarios will come to light in August 2004 during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They will be revealed by Myers, at that time the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN) asks him, “Did NORAD conduct exercises or develop scenarios, prior to September 11, 2001, to test a military reaction to an aircraft hijacking which appeared destined to result in a suicide crash into a high-value target?” [US Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services, 8/17/2004] NORAD will state in 2004 that, until 9/11, it conducts four major exercises each year. Most of these include a hijack scenario, but not all of them involve planes being used as weapons. [USA Today, 4/18/2004; CNN, 4/19/2004] NORAD’s next Vigilant Guardian exercise, in 2001, will actually be several days underway on 9/11 (see (6:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). It will include a number of scenarios based around plane hijackings, with the fictitious hijackers targeting New York in at least one of those scenarios (see September 6, 2001, September 9, 2001, September 10, 2001, and (9:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Richard B. Myers, Southeast Air Defense Sector, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Vigilant Guardian, Western Air Defense Sector, Northeast Air Defense Sector

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

McChord Air Force Base.McChord Air Force Base. [Source: Michel Teiten]Major Kevin Nasypany, the mission crew commander at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), calls NORAD’s Western Air Defense Sector (WADS), which is at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, to request assistance. He says: “I’d like to… steal some aircraft out of Fargo from you guys.… Bring up the weapons too, if possible,” to which WADS replies: “Yep, ok. We will do that.” [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/11/2001] The three F-16s launched from Langley Air Force Base at 9:30 (see (9:25 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001) are in fact from the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing, which, though based at Fargo, ND, has had a detachment of two F-16s on alert at Langley since late 2000. However, these are under the command of NEADS, not WADS. [Virginian-Pilot, 9/22/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001; McChord Air Museum, 2007] It is therefore not clear what specific fighters are now being referred to when Nasypany speaks of the “aircraft out of Fargo,” nor is it clear if and when these planes are launched. Colonel John Cromwell, the commander of WADS, will later recall that he calls every fighter wing commander west of the Mississippi, and by midday (3:00 p.m. ET) has more than 100 fighter jets on alert. [News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), 6/3/2006]

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Kevin Nasypany

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Continental United States NORAD Region (CONR) issues a message to its three air defense sectors—including the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS)—stating that Vice President Dick Cheney has authorized it to shoot down suspicious aircraft.
Order Sent over Computer Chat System - About 15 minutes earlier, a military officer at the White House relayed to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) that Cheney had confirmed that fighter jets were cleared to engage an inbound aircraft if they could verify that the aircraft was hijacked (see 10:14 a.m.-10:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). According to the 9/11 Commission, “It is not clear how [this] shootdown order was communicated within NORAD.” However, Major General Larry Arnold, the CONR commander, now instructs his staff to broadcast a message over a NORAD computer chat system, passing on Cheney’s authorization. The message states, “10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond, per CONR CC [General Arnold].” The message is received at CONR’s three air defense sectors: the Western, Southeast, and Northeast. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42; Spencer, 2008, pp. 240]
Arnold Could Issue Shootdown Order Himself - Arnold, who is at the CONR air operations center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, will later comment, “I have the authority in case of an emergency to declare a target hostile and shoot it down under an emergency condition… but it was comforting to know we legally had the authority from the president of the United States.” [Filson, 2002; Code One Magazine, 1/2002; Filson, 2003, pp. 75-76] The 10:31 chat message is the first notification personnel on the NEADS operations floor receive of the shootdown order. These personnel are reportedly confused over the order and do not pass it on to fighter pilots under their command (see 10:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 42-43; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 47]

Entity Tags: Continental US NORAD Region, Southeast Air Defense Sector, Western Air Defense Sector, Larry Arnold, Northeast Air Defense Sector

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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