9/11: The Saga of the Skies

Chaos and control over Washington, while the Pentagon burned.

USAF / Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis

In her new book, Touching History, author and airline pilot Lynn Spencer has written a meticulously documented account of all that unfolded in the skies over the United States on September 11, 2001, when the nation’s air defense network and all of commercial and private aviation faced an unprecedented crisis. The following excerpt focuses on the defense of Washington. At this point—coming up on 11:30 a.m. EST—the World Trade Center towers have fallen, an airliner has flown into the Pentagon, and the hijacked Flight 93 has crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. All air traffic has been ordered to land at the closest airport, save for the few military aircraft that were directed to head to Manhattan.

Combat Air Patrol over Washington, D.C., 11:25 a.m.

As yet more military aircraft arrive in the skies over Washington, pilots’ flying skills and judgment are being put to a daunting test. Pilots are calling on all of their training to improvise solutions and to reach past their comfort zone to attend to the demands of this unprecedented crisis.

Langley Air Force Base F-16 pilot Borgy Borgstrom is now running out of fuel. His flight lead, Dean Eckmann, directs him to a refueling tanker plane that has been positioned just off the coast. When Borgy arrives at the tanker, his eyes widen to see the immense aircraft in front of him. Oh shit! he thinks. The plane is a KC-10 jumbo jet, the military version of a DC-10, and he’s never refueled on one before; he’s used to refueling on the much smaller KC-135 plane.

“Hey, Otis,” he calls in a panic, using Eckmann’s military call sign. “It’s a -10!”

“Yeah, so?” Eckmann responds, not quite sure what the problem is.

“I’ve never tanked on a -10 before!” Borgy urgently replies.

“It's okay,” Eckmann reassures. “Here’s what you’re gonna do…”

He coaches his wingman through the process, which is somewhat trickier than refueling on a KC-135. Borgy is learning on the fly, quite literally, today.

Several minutes later, he rejoins the combat air patrol with a call to Eckmann.

“That thing’s huge!” he exclaims, enormously relieved to have succeeded at the tricky maneuver.

Soon, F-18s from the 321 Marine Fighter Attack Squadron of Andrews Air Force Base join the air defense over Washington, adding further confusion to the mix. When Northeast Air Defense Sector Weapons Director Smurf Murphy tries to authenticate one of the Marine pilots—giving the authentication code that demonstrates that he is who he says he is and that his orders are legal and lawful—the pilot does not respond with the appropriate authentication; the code he comes back to Northeast Air Defense Sector with has too many letters. What the hell is he talking about? Smurf wonders. He tries again to authenticate the pilot.

“Dude, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” the pilot responds. It quickly occurs to Smurf that he has an unexpected challenge on his hands: these fighters, who are not normally part of North American Aerospace Defense Command, do not have NORAD authenticators. Instead, they have authenticators from Air Combat Command. They don’t match! Shit!

Smurf knows that this problem is going to be repeated frequently as increasing numbers of non-NORAD fighters take to the skies. Searching for a solution, he directs fellow Weapons controller Animal Julian to help him call the various squadron commanders of the non-alert jets launching to patrol the Northeast in order to resolve the problem. Doing so is of critical importance. The authentication system is set up to ensure that a pilot knows he is being given a valid order, and a pilot cannot legally comply with an order unless he can authenticate it first. Smurf gets on a secured line to their unit, the 321 Marine Fighter Attack Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base.

“We use this authenticator,” Smurf announces. “Are you using the same one?”


“Uh…okay! Here’s what we’re gonna do.” He improvises a plan of action, and soon faxes are fired off over secured lines to every squadron launching aircraft to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

Meanwhile, the Marine pilots already in the air over Washington waiting to be checked in are doing some of their own improvising. They know of only one way to solve their authentication problem: voice recognition. Smurf is a Marine buddy of some of the pilots, and they know his voice. The Marine pilots decide that they will accept orders from him and him only.

“No, no!” one pilot objects when another Weapons controller tries to give him instructions. “Smurf’s voice only! That’s all I want to hear.”

Smurf gets on the radio to check him in. “All right! Devil 1-1, Smurf, I authenticate…You’re in the Combat Air Patrol. Here’s your mission…I’m turning you over to my controller.”

“Roger that!” the pilot responds, and one by one, Smurf checks in all the Marine fighters.

But having these fighters is helpful only if Northeast Air Defense Sector can communicate with them, and right now radio reception is nonexistent below 20,000 feet over Washington. The NEADS radio transmitter, like all radio transmitters, operates by line of sight. This means that the radio signals, which travel in a straight line, require an unobstructed path between the transmitter and the jets. Given the curvature of the earth and the distance to Washington, the fighters’ radio receivers cannot pick up the NEADS signal when they descend below that line of sight. What’s needed is an Airborne Early Warning and Control System plane, which has the capability to provide both radar and radio coverage over a citywide area.

Smurf gets on his radio to an AWACS from the 552nd Air Control Wing of Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Earlier this morning, the aircraft had been in the D.C. area for a training mission, but in the immediate confusion after the attacks it had been directed to return to its Oklahoma base. Smurf calls for it to turn right back around.

“Here’s the deal,” he announces. “We need you to cover the NCA [National Capital Area].”

“Roger that,” the pilot responds. “Where do you want us?”

“No, no,” Smurf answers. “You’re the one with the big jet with the rotor-dome on it. You tell me where you need to go to get me a surface-to-infinity look at that area.”

The problem of radar and radio coverage over D.C. has been solved. For Smurf, it’s right on to the next task.

As the skies over the nation’s capital become ever more dense with military aircraft, D.C. Air National Guard pilot Razin Caine is concerned by what he’s seeing. There’s no real communication between the units, and even less coordination. It’s as close to complete chaos as he’s ever seen in the skies. Some fighters are talking to Approach Control, others to Washington Center. Some are taking orders from NEADS, others from the Secret Service. Differing rules of engagement are only adding to the confusion. Flying low and weapons-free over Washington, the DCANG pilots are unaware that they are the only fighters in the country flying with weapons-free shoot-down authority.

Communication is cumbersome at best. The fighters are having to deal with multiple, uncustomary frequencies. They’re using both Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency radios to talk to each other, to NEADS, to their bases, and to air traffic controllers. They’re also relaying messages back and forth between NEADS and the controllers so that everyone stays on the same page with respect to targets.

The air traffic control facilities do not have direct connections to NEADS. Before today, they’ve never needed direct contact. Controller Dan Creedon at Washington Approach tries to find a phone number for NEADS, but has no luck. He asks the fighters, but the best they are able to do is to give him NEADS’s discrete radio frequency. He tunes in the frequency on an extra transceiver, and then he can at least hear what NEADS is saying to the fighters. The pilots will no longer have to relay to him such things as “Huntress wants us to investigate a target here” or “Huntress is wanting us to go refuel here.” Now he is able to be more careful about not talking to the fighter pilots when he hears them communicating back and forth to NEADS on the military frequency.

As Razin watches fighters peel off in all directions to intercept targets, descending on them like bees to a hive, he realizes that the chances of a mishap are high. There is simply no existing protocol for a combat air patrol like this over an American city, where the threat might be coming in at any altitude and from any direction and where the air defenses are a collage from various bases and branches of the military. He radios his Supervisor of Flying, Dog Thompson, to see if he can call the various units to find out their taskings and radio frequencies so that they can at least develop some semblance of coordination.

When the DCANG asserts its authority over the operation, however, it causes some tension. Dog, the Supervisor of Flying of the D.C. Guard, gets on the phone to the SOF of the 177th Fighter Wing in Atlantic City, Lt. Col. James Haye. “We’ve got airplanes running all over the place!” Dog snaps. “We’ve got to coordinate here or someone is going to end up shooting someone down!”

Haye is not pleased with what he’s hearing. “Wait a minute,” he objects, “no one should be shooting at anyone. This is getting way out of control!”

A spirited discussion follows. Dog repeatedly asks for the radio frequency that the Atlantic City jets are on and the details of their mission over the capital. Being there in Washington, one of the Capital Guardians, he feels a natural inclination to take the lead in bringing order to the situation, but Haye is agitated. He is not even sure of all the answers to the questions Dog is asking, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that the D.C. Guard pilots are operating under different rules of engagement than are his own fighters. Those rules of engagement—flying weapons-free—are not sitting too well with Haye. Firing weapons is a very serious matter, and the insinuation that “someone is going to get shot down” unless something changes is simply unacceptable.

“Listen, I have airplanes down there, and you have airplanes down there,” Haye growls, “and nobody is talking on the same frequency! If you guys have a target, I strongly suggest that you be sure to make visual identification before shooting!”

Tensions between the D.C. Guard and Atlantic City will run strong for days to come.

Over Washington, Razin knows that he has the ability to bring order to this combat air patrol. Having just completed Fighter Weapons School—the highest level of training for a fighter pilot—he knows how to develop a strategic plan to best utilize and organize these planes, and he needs to do that right here, right now.

While the fighters around him work to identify and intercept targets of interest, he moves into an orbit right in the center, directly over the National Mall. He begins to jot notes and make diagrams on the paper clamped to his kneeboard. He’s going to organize the melee. And if, in the interim, a hostile aircraft makes it to the center of the city, he’ll be the one to deliver its fate.

Razin manages to gather the capabilities, radio frequencies, and armament of the various fighters over the city. He then works to organize them to provide maximum intercept and strike capabilities, determining what areas and altitudes each will cover, what frequencies they will communicate on, and where a tanker will be positioned. When he has finished, he shares the plan with the others. To air traffic controller Dan Creedon, listening on the frequency, it sounds like they’re arguing. Yet Razin would say that it is military coordination at its finest, and the D.C. Air National Guard is taking the lead. Despite being from different squadrons, their years of training and common military language allow them to quickly synchronize their efforts.

For NEADS Battle Commander Bob Marr, that’s just fine. Building an air defense for the entire Northeast out of what was three hours earlier just four aircraft from two units is no easy task. With the D.C. Guard managing the combat air patrol over Washington, he has one less city to worry about.

North American Aerospace Defense Command Center, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, 11:30 a.m.

The 3-foot-thick, 25-ton steel blast doors at Cheyenne Mountain have closed for the first time in history. Locked inside NORAD’s command center, Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart has been participating in the National Military Command Center’s teleconference. His chief of air defense operations now wants to implement SCATANA, short for Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids. SCATANA is a plan that was developed in the 1960s to clear the skies in the event of a confirmed missile attack from the Soviet Union. The plan shuts down all the navigational aids in the country and closes the airspace so that bombers, missiles, airborne command posts, and support aircraft can operate unencumbered.

General Eberhart is not sure that the order is appropriate. With new hijackings still being reported, however, he knows he must take action. He issues a modified SCATANA order known as ESCAT, Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic. The order allows for the continued operation of navigational aids, and also selective approval for specific and necessary flights. The order won’t ground everything, but it will give the military what they need for the current circumstances.

Notice is sent out to all civil and military air traffic control facilities: the skies now officially belong to NORAD. Across the country, airport facilities begin broadcasting alerts to all aircraft that the airspace is closed and that violating aircraft will be fired upon. For the 30 aircraft still airborne, that is nerve-wracking news.

At 12:16 the Federal Aviation Administration Command Center announces that the airspace has been successfully shut down. There are no commercial airliners flying over the United States. The military has taken firm control of the skies and fighters have moved into position escorting the last two suspicious international flights headed toward U.S. airspace.

Touching History jacketExcerpted from Touching History. Copyright ® 2008 by Lynn Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.