Friday 28 September 2007

The Navy Jets That Never Arrived on 9/11

F-14s at Oceana Naval Air Station
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, "On 9/11, the defense of U.S. airspace depended on close interaction between two federal agencies: the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)." NORAD in particular is tasked with defending the airspace over North America and protecting the continent. The attacks on 9/11 all took place within its Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), which, according to the 9/11 Commission, was able to call upon two 'alert' military sites for assistance: Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. Each of these had just one pair of fighter jets at the ready. "Other facilities, not on 'alert,' would need time to arm the fighters and organize crews." [1]

This implied that the most sophisticated military in all history believed that four fighter aircraft was sufficient to defend 500,000 square miles of airspace and the 80 million people covered by it. However, there is good evidence that--as we would rationally expect--this was not the case at all, and the military had other lines of defense it could have called upon. One possibility totally ignored by the 9/11 Commission was that the Navy could have provided fighter jets to help defend America during the attacks of September 11.

The New York Daily News has reported: "Rudy Washington, one of Rudy Giuliani's deputy mayors on Sept. 11, 2001, ran New York for the first few hours after the attack." As he was being driven into downtown Manhattan after the first attack occurred, Washington saw the smoking North Tower and right away requested air defense over New York. He "immediately called Admiral Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet." Natter was based at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia, which is the world's largest naval base. Washington asked for air cover for the city. Natter "said he had to get in touch with NORAD and would call back." [2]

Right away, we have an important point to observe: When Rudy Washington wanted fighter jets over New York, he did not call NORAD, the FAA, the Air Force, or the Pentagon. The first place he turned to for help was the Navy. So he must have believed it was able to provide the kind of assistance that was required in the current crisis. What kind of support might the Navy have offered, then? Norfolk Naval Station is in the region of Naval Air Station Oceana. NAS Oceana's primary mission is "to train and deploy the Navy's fighter/attack squadron--the F-14 Tomcats and the F/A-18 Hornets." [3] At that time, twelve F-14 Tomcat fighter squadrons and eleven F/A-18 Hornet squadrons were based there. In total, there were 300 fighter jets. [4] These should have been a useful asset for dealing with emergencies, such as an aerial attack on the United States.

It is unclear exactly how long it took Admiral Natter to get the permission he sought from NORAD. At some time after the second WTC tower was hit (i.e. after 9:03 a.m.), Rudy Washington called Patrick Burns, who was at Norfolk Naval Station for his two-week Naval Reserve obligation. Among other things, he wanted to know about the status of the Navy jets. [5] Obviously, there was no sign of them yet having arrived over New York. Washington communicated with Natter again from City Hall, apparently fairly soon after the first WTC tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Natter said he had now received permission from NORAD to send some planes over New York. How long exactly it had taken him to get this permission is unspecified. [6] Also unspecified is what time the Navy jets were launched, and when--if at all--they reached New York. In describing events right after the second attack, Patrick Burns has claimed: "Air cover was already up with Navy jets out of Naval Air Station Oceana." [7] Yet the first fighters to arrive over New York were apparently two F-15s launched by NEADS from Otis Air Force Base. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, these arrived at 9:25 a.m. [8] In fact, the majority of witnesses on the ground have recalled first noticing fighter jets overhead at some time after 10 a.m. [9]

Further evidence that the Navy had the capability to provide fighters to protect the U.S. is the fact that individuals working in its Command Center were trying to get jets launched just before the Pentagon was attacked. Though it has not been stated explicitly, one would assume that, since they worked for the Navy, these men would have been calling upon Navy jets to help.

The Navy Command Center was located on the first floor of the Pentagon's southwest face. Inside it, Matthew Flocco, Edward Earhart, and their supervisor Nancy McKeown--all members of a small meteorological unit there--were watching the TV footage of the attacks in New York. McKeown reportedly asked Flocco and Earhart to bring up New York on the computer, because the Command Center was going to send some fighter jets there in case there was another attack on the city. She also told them to program weather updates for military aircraft converging on New York. [10] Another person in the Command Center was Ronald Vauk, the Navy's watch commander. Just before the Pentagon was hit, he was urgently trying to get fighter jets launched, reportedly to protect Washington, DC. [11] Tragically, except for McKeown, all of these individuals were killed just seconds later. The Navy Command Center was mostly destroyed when the Pentagon was hit at 9:37. [12]

The Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark has recalled his actions in response to the attacks: "We had carriers at sea. I talked to Admiral Natter and Admiral Fargo [Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet] about immediate loadouts [of weapons and armed aircraft] and the positioning of our air defense cruisers. Fundamentally, those pieces were in place almost immediately and integrated into the interagency process and with the FAA." This again indicated that the Navy was capable of rapidly providing air defense over the U.S.: the "immediate loadouts" of "armed aircraft." Clark explained: "There has never been an experience like this in my lifetime. We were thinking about the immediate protection of the United States of America." [13]

But what time was he describing? 8:15 a.m., just after Flight 11 broke radio contact with controllers? 8:20, when it veered drastically off course? 8:25, when the air traffic controller was sure he was dealing with a hijacking? [14] Apparently not. Clark seems to have been referring to the period after the Pentagon attack at 9:37. Until then, he had been in his office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. No reports describe him doing anything in response to the attacks in New York. When the Pentagon was hit, he was "receiving a budget briefing." A member of his staff then entered the office and told him he had to evacuate. After initially heading to the Pentagon's National Military Command Center (NMCC), he decided to re-establish the Navy's command center in another location in Washington, DC. [15] Presumably it was some time after he arrived at this new command center that he began "thinking about the immediate protection of the United States of America."

In his recollection, Clark referred to the Navy's air defense cruisers. The aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is based at Norfolk, was at sea off the Virginia coast that morning, conducting training exercises. It was dispatched to New York, "following the recovery of armed F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets from Naval Air Station Oceana." [16] Yet, none of these fighters appear to have been of any use in stopping the attacks.

To conclude, the U.S. Navy had many fighter jets available in the northeastern United States. Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington had requested some of these apparently minutes after 8:46, when the first attack took place. Yet it is unclear whether any Navy jets ever arrived over New York. They were certainly not there by 10 a.m. If they did arrive, it was only after the attacks had ended.

In spite of the Navy's therefore disastrous failure to protect the United States on 9/11, Admiral Robert Natter later commented: "I think we were responsive to something that came out of the clear blue, and I think naval forces reacted to it the way the taxpayers would have wanted. Readiness is the name of the game, and the ability of our people to respond is the second part of it." [17]

[1] 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. 14 and 16-17.
[2] "Aboard the USS Vela Gulf." CBS News, April 3, 2003; Stanley Crouch, "Forgotten Man of 9/11 Played Enormous Role." New York Daily News, May 20, 2004.
[3] Roger Richards, "Under Attack." Digital Journalist, October 2001; "Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana.", November 15, 2001.
[4] "History of Naval Air Station Oceana." Naval Air Station Oceana, April 3, 2001; "Vital Statistics." Naval Air Station Oceana, April 3, 2001.
[5] Patrick Burns, "Called to Ground Zero." Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2007.
[6] Stanley Crouch, "Forgotten Man of 9/11 Played Enormous Role."
[7] Patrick Burns, "Called to Ground Zero."
[8] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 24.
[9] See "(9:45 a.m.-10:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Witnesses First Notice Military Jets Over New York, Later Than Claimed by 9/11 Commission." Complete 9/11 Timeline.
[10] Malcolm McConnell, "Brick by Brick." Reader's Digest, September 2002; "Stories of 9/11." Larry King Weekend, CNN, September 8, 2002.
[11] Francis X. Clines, "Perseverance, Not Vindictiveness, in a Family Bereaved by Terrorism." New York Times, November 17, 2001; Scott Shane, "9/11: One Year." Baltimore Sun, September 11, 2002.
[12] Richard Leiby, "The Last Watch." Washington Post, January 20, 2002.
[13] Gordon I. Peterson, "Bush: 'The Might of Our Navy is Needed Again.' Readiness Improvements Prove Critical in War on Terrorism, But Future Navy is at Risk." Sea Power, January 2002.
[14] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 18-19; Tom Brokaw, "The Skies Over America." NBC News, September 9, 2006.
[15] Gordon I. Peterson, "Bush: 'The Might of Our Navy is Needed Again.'"
[16] Allen G. Breed, "In South, Shock, Fear Over Terrorist Attacks Put Life on Hold." Associated Press, September 12, 2001; Jack Dorsey, "Navy Carriers Sent to Patrol off New York, DC." Virginian-Pilot, September 12, 2001; Gordon I. Peterson, "Bush: 'The Might of Our Navy is Needed Again'"; Patrick Burns, "Called to Ground Zero."
[17] Gordon I. Peterson, "Bush: 'The Might of Our Navy is Needed Again.'"


Unknown said...

Great article, as always.

Shoestring said...

Thanks, Richard.