8 things you may not know about our air defense on 9/11
by Katie Lange
It's been 20 years since Sept. 11, when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew them into New York's iconic World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural western Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens.
Whether the events of that day were etched in your memory forever, or you were too young to understand it at the time, it's a day all Americans know changed the course of our daily lives.
Thanks to the Internet, you can easily find accounts of what happened on 9/11 from survivors, first responders, the victims' families and officials who investigated what happened. Two New York Air National Guardsmen who were at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (now just the Eastern Air Defense Sector) in rural Rome, New York, give a glimpse into the military's role that day. NEADS was tasked with searching for the missing planes and scrambling fighter jets in response to the attacks.
New York Air National Guard Maj. Jeremy Powell was a 31-year-old tech sergeant taking part in Exercise Vigilant Guardian when 9/11 occurred. He was the first military person to learn about the hijackings, having taken the initial call from the Federal Aviation Administration's Boston center. Master Sgt. Stacia Rountree was a 23-year-old senior airman working as an identification technician. Vigilant Guardian was her first major NORAD exercise.
Like everyone else, Powell and Rountree remember that day vividly.
There was a lot of initial confusion.
It took some time for NEADS to realize 9/11 was a real-world scenario and not part of the exercise. Once they did, there was even more confusion trying to find the missing planes, which always seemed to be a step ahead of them.
"We were treating all the information we got as real-time, not understanding that it was coming to us late," said Rountree, who basically became a liaison between the FAA and the military for the rest of that day.
"We were trying to figure out departure destination, how many people were on board, how big the aircraft actually was, and factoring all of that stuff in. That way the [F-15 and F-16] fighters, when they got airborne, would know that they had the right plane in sight," she said.
"I stayed on the phone for 12-14 hours, just calling all the bases and asking how quick the fighters could get armed, get airborne, and if they could go to a certain location," Powell said.
There wasn't much time between the first FAA call and the first crash.
Just 10 minutes elapsed between the time Powell took the first call to NEADS about the hijackings to when the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower – not enough time to get fighters into the air.
According to the 9/11 Commission's report, the call from the FAA's Boston center came into NEADS at 8:37 a.m.
"8:46 is when I scrambled the first fighters [from Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts], and then 8:53 they were airborne," Powell said.
But it was too late to help American 11, which hit the World Trade Center's North Tower at 8:47 a.m.
There were several more reports of hijackings that day.
By the time the day was over, Rountree said there were probably 19 or 20 planes that she and the other ID techs had investigating as possible hijackings. Only the initial four – American 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77 and United Airlines Flight 93 – were the real deal.
At one point, there were reports that American 11 was still airborne. Air traffic controllers likely confused it with American 77, which was somewhere over Washington, D.C., air-space. Rountree said she tried to contact the FAA's Washington Center to get a position on it, while Langley Air Force Base fighters were trying to get to the capital.
"It was probably only a couple of minutes, but to me, it seemed like a lifetime. Then we got the reports that the plane hit the Pentagon," Rountree remembered. "I was actively trying to find that plane, and I felt that we may have had some time. We didn't."
There had been discussions of fighter pilots making the ultimate sacrifice.
The fighters were meant only to shadow potentially hijacked planes, but Rountree said there was discussion of those pilots making the ultimate sacrifice.
"In case their weapons were out, and if we would have had to use force, they were discussing whether or not those guys would have to go kamikaze," she said, meaning some pilots were considering risking their own lives by using their planes to stop hijacked jetliners. "It was scary, when you thought about the possibility of them having to do that."
There was a heartbreaking feeling of hope for Flight 93.
While all of the crashes were shocking, Rountree said that, for her, United 93 was the saddest. They had been trying to find the plane on radar and had called the FAA to get an updated position.
"They said, 'It's down,' and we were thinking it landed," Rountree remembered. But when they asked for landing confirmation, the info was clarified – it crashed. "For us, you had that glimmer of hope, and then… ."
NEADS was evacuated on Sept. 12 thanks to an unknown aircraft.
The day after 9/11, NEADS was evacuated because there was an unknown plane up at the time, and no one was supposed to be airborne.
"There were fighters coming back from air patrol over NYC … so our commander had them go supersonic over to where we were so they could figure out what it was. They thought it was heading toward us," Rountree said.
It turned out to be a harmless floatplane, and it was forced to land.
9/11 changed the role of the air defense sectors.
"Back then, the primary focus was that we were looking out at people coming to attack us from the outside," Powell said. "We weren't really focused on the inside."
"Nobody thought that somebody would go ahead and utilize planes that were in the U.S. to do something, so our radar coverage was indicative of that," Rountree explained. "Now, our coverage has definitely increased. It's night and day versus then."
The sector now has new and evolving technology.
"Our computer systems are bigger and better. … You should see all of the radars that are now hooked up. Everything the FAA sees, we see. We are much more actively involved in the identification of all aircraft in the United States," Powell said.
Before 9/11, Rountree said they couldn't always get in touch with critical personnel at the FAA centers. Now they can.
"We really didn't have to talk to the various Air Traffic Control Center supervisors. Now, we have instant lines with everybody," she said.
The military has been monitoring the skies over the U.S. ever since.
"A lot of people didn't even realize that we were probably there, or what we even do, which could be a good thing," Powell said. "It reinforces the idea that somebody's always watching you, especially in the sky. The FAA's there – that is their airspace – but the military is, too."
(This story was originally published on Sept. 11, 2019. The first paragraph has been updated.)
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