Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Davison Army Airfield and the 12th Aviation Battalion on 9/11: Pentagon Attack Oral Histories Reveal New Details

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Davison Army Airfield
Minutes after the Pentagon was hit on September 11, two aircraft were seen on the radar screen at a nearby Army airfield, circling the Pentagon and rapidly descending, with one of them emitting an emergency distress signal. The identities of these aircraft are unclear, as is the reason one of them was emitting the distress signal. These and other details about the 9/11 Pentagon attack were revealed by a supervisor of air traffic control at the airfield, in one of over 1,300 oral histories relating to the attack that were recorded by military employees. To date, only a small number of the oral histories have been publicly released, which raises questions about what important details might be in the other, unreleased interviews.

The supervisor of air traffic control (whose name is blacked out in the transcript of his interview) was working at the control tower at Davison Army Airfield, which is located at Fort Belvoir, an Army base 12 miles south of the Pentagon. He was informed that news reports were saying an aircraft had hit the Pentagon. He then looked at the radar scope, which showed two aircraft circling above the Pentagon. The supervisor described: "We have a small radar up in the tower cap. It's called the D-Bright. It's a tower display just to make sure that when the aircraft reports--just for us to ensure that when he reports like, six miles west of the airport, it's actually six miles." [1]

Aircraft are fitted with an electronic device called a transponder that identifies a plane on a controller's screen and gives information such as its exact location and altitude. Pilots can signify to air traffic controllers that they are experiencing a general in-flight emergency by dialing 7700 into their transponder. [2] The Davison supervisor has recalled that he looked "at where the Pentagon area is [on the radar scope], and I look, and there was an aircraft squawking 7700, meaning emergency. And it was circling--it was coming down and fast, and it was circling." He also noticed another aircraft: "And there was another target with no markings or anything--it was just a target," with none of the accompanying information that would be emitted by a transponder, such as the aircraft's call sign and speed. He continued describing the two aircraft: "But there was an aircraft circling the area squawking, emergency, emergency. ... And there was another aircraft coming in--descending rapidly and very fast. So it circled around--they circled around and both tags they disappeared. But they stay in the air." [3]

What were these aircraft and why was one of them emitting the distress code? Two U.S. military aircraft are known to have been in the air near the Pentagon around this time, just after the attack there. But neither should have had any reason for emitting a distress code.

One of these was a C-130 cargo plane that had reportedly taken off from Andrews Air Force Base at 9:30 a.m. The pilot, Steve O'Brien, has claimed he witnessed the Pentagon being hit from the air at 9:37, and then he reported to air traffic controllers, "looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon." [4]

The other aircraft was a mysterious jet plane that was witnessed circling above the White House, shortly after the time when the Pentagon was hit. [5] (The White House is about three miles from the Pentagon.) An analysis by CNN later revealed this to have been an E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), which is a militarized version of a Boeing 747 that is fitted with sophisticated communications equipment and is used as a flying command post. The U.S. Air Force possesses just four of them. [6] It is known that one of the E-4Bs took off from an unspecified airfield outside of Washington shortly before the time of the Pentagon attack, as part of a major training exercise called Global Guardian, which was being conducted by the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom). [7]

Was the supervisor at Davison Airfield watching one or both of these aircraft--the C-130 and the E-4B--on his radar scope? If so, why was one of them emitting the 7700 distress code? If it was other aircraft that he saw, what were they? And, again, why was one of them emitting the distress code?

According to the military newspaper Pentagram, Davison Army Airfield's principal missions include maintaining "a readiness posture in support of contingency plans," exercising "operational control" of the local airspace, and providing "aviation support for the White House, U.S. government officials, Department of Defense, Department of the Army, and other government agencies." [8] Stationed at the airfield is the 12th Aviation Battalion, which is the aviation support unit for the Military District of Washington. The battalion operates UH-1 "Huey" and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. [9]

This raises two key questions: Could 12th Aviation Battalion helicopters have helped protect the Pentagon on September 11, and, if they could, why didn't they?

A possible reason their response may have been hindered is revealed in another of the Pentagon oral histories, this one an interview with a helicopter pilot and training officer with the 12th Aviation Battalion. He said that at least some members of the battalion were away from base that morning at a shooting range at Fort A.P. Hill, for their annual weapons training. They had driven there--a journey of one and a half to two hours. Having headed out early in the morning, they were at the range at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center. They only learned of these when the sister of one of their captains called her brother with news of the attacks, presumably after seeing them on television. They were still at Fort A.P. Hill at the time the Pentagon was hit. It was only then, according to the training officer, that "we just pretty much packed up and came back up here and came into work." [10]

When the members of the battalion finally made it back to base, they were broken down into aviation crews and briefed on what to expect at the Pentagon. Even then, they were unable to launch. This was because they "were locked down until further notice," because, "at that point, aviation got hit the hardest, so nobody was flying anywhere unless we had specific permission."

What is more, the 12th Aviation Battalion had "two crews that are always on standby for any kind of contingency mission." According to the training officer, one of these crews had been "launched earlier that morning." They had been "flying around doing a traffic survey." [11] So, all in all, it appears to have been a rather unsuccessful day for the 12th Aviation Battalion.

Another detail revealed in the oral history of the supervisor of air traffic control at Davison Army Airfield is that, just before the Pentagon was hit, someone from Washington's Reagan National Airport--presumably an air traffic controller--called Davison Airfield and instructed it to recall its aircraft. The caller was "going crazy," and was "telling us, recall all your traffic. Just make sure that everybody lands ... he was like, telling us, everybody that you got outside, bring them in and land them quickly, very quickly." The supervisor responded to him, "Give me a reason and I'll do it," to which the caller replied, "I can't tell you the reason, but you need to do this." After the caller hung up, the supervisor told the air traffic controller at his facility, "Okay, tell everybody to come in." The Davison controller started "recalling everybody that just departed," and the supervisor "approved for them to make it straight in, the helicopters to land straight in without using the regular traffic pattern." According to the supervisor: "Everybody was coming in. And at that time when everybody was coming in ... I was like thinking, why? Why do they want to recall everybody? That means that something is going on." [12]

This raises more questions: Exactly what aircraft from Davison Army Airfield were airborne at that time? And could any of them have helped protect the Pentagon had they been informed of the threat to it in time, and had they not been urgently recalled to base?

Furthermore, the Davison air traffic control supervisor was unhappy about the odd behavior of the air traffic controllers at Reagan National Airport, who were responsible for the airspace around that area. He later visited the airport's control tower and talked to one of the controllers there, wanting to know why they had not alerted Davison Airfield or the Pentagon to the aircraft that hit the Pentagon. The supervisor described: "I was asking him, did you know that the aircraft was coming this way? And he said, yes. We were tracking him for so many miles."

The supervisor asked: "Why you didn't say anything to Davison? Why you didn't say anything to the Pentagon? Because if you would have said something, my controller at the Pentagon would have called the DPS unit," meaning the Defense Protective Service, which guards the Pentagon, "and it would have alerted them that there was something coming to Washington, DC, an aircraft with hostile intentions or something." The controller's reply was, "Well, you know what, it never occurred to me," and "we didn't know that he was going to hit the Pentagon." The supervisor responded, "I know, but all these buildings around here and, you know, we're also an air traffic control facility, you should have said something, you should have said something." [13]

Surely this behavior was suspicious and needs to be investigated? The controllers at the Reagan National Airport tower were aware that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center, so should have realized America was under attack. [14] And yet it supposedly did not occur to them to alert the Pentagon or the Davison air traffic control tower to an unidentified aircraft approaching Washington--the location of the White House, the Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court, and many other government buildings. We need to find out what was really going on.

The information described above comes from just two of the Pentagon attack oral histories. The website has 41 of them available to view. [15] But the military gathered more than 1,300 interviews with survivors, rescuers, and other witnesses to the Pentagon attack. [16] What new details about 9/11 might the other oral histories reveal?

Clearly we need a new and unrestrained investigation of the September 11 attacks. But a good start would be for all 1,300 of these interviews to be made publicly available.

[1] "NEIT 321." U.S. Army Center of Military History, November 14, 2001.
[2] Wm. Steven Humphrey, "With Deadly Intent: Dr. Todd Curtis on the Modern Hijacker." Portland Mercury, September 13, 2001.
[3] "NEIT 321."
[4] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, pp. 25-26; "The Secret History of 9/11: The U.S. Government Reacts." CBC, September 10, 2006.
[5] "The White House Has Been Evacuated." Breaking News, CNN, September 11, 2001.
[6] "E-4B National Airborne Operations Center." Federation of American Scientists, April 23, 2000; Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees. CNN, September 12, 2007.
[7] Joe Dejka, "Inside Stratcom on Sept. 11 Offutt Exercise Took Real-Life Twist." Omaha World-Herald, February 27, 2002; Dan Verton, Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism. New York: Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 2003, pp. 143-144.
[8] Jody T. Fahrig, "Davison Army Airfield Hosts Open House." Pentagram, May 7, 1999.
[9] "Davison U.S. Army Airfield." Military District of Washington, August 2000.
[10] "NEIT 322." U.S. Army Center of Military History, November 14, 2001.
[11] Ibid.
[12] "NEIT 321."
[13] Ibid.
[14] Lynn Spencer, Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11. New York: Free Press, 2008, pp. 144-145.
[15] "Army Center of Military History Interviews."
[16] Milan Simonich, "Sgt. Dennis Lapic: Army History Team." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 11, 2002; Steve Vogel, "The Attack Recounted, by Those Who Were There." Washington Post, September 27, 2007.

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