Tuesday 26 May 2009

The F-16s That Failed to Protect Washington on 9/11: Was the Langley Jets' Emergency Response Sabotaged?

An F-16 taking off from Langley Air Force Base
Langley Air Force Base was the second military base that launched fighter jets to defend America in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Three of its F-16s were ordered to take off toward Washington at 9:24 a.m. that morning, but by the time they were airborne, more than 40 minutes had passed since the first attack on the World Trade Center, and almost half an hour since the second.

Furthermore, the pilots were hindered by an extraordinary combination of confusion, communications problems, conflicting orders, breaches of protocol, and other difficulties. Consequently, when the Pentagon was hit at 9:37 a.m., the jets were further away from it than they'd been when they took off. According to witnesses on the ground, fighters did not arrive over the Pentagon until around 10:40 a.m.--more than an hour too late to protect it from the attack.

A close examination of publicly available accounts raises the possibility that deliberate attempts were made to sabotage the ability of the Langley jets to respond to the 9/11 attacks, thereby paralyzing normal, well-practiced procedures. In this article, I focus on three particular aspects of the jets' response.

Firstly, I examine the initial order to launch F-16s from Langley AFB. Notably, instead of the usual two jets taking off, a third pilot took off in a spare jet. This left the unit with no supervisor of flying (SOF) to communicate with other agencies and pass on vital information to the pilots. Secondly, I question why, instead of heading toward Washington as instructed, the jets initially flew out over the ocean, where they were of no use in defending against further attacks. I look at the mysterious role played by the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in Virginia Beach, which was handling the jets while they were over the ocean. Could this facility have been misdirecting them? Thirdly, I look at the breakdown of communications between the military and the Langley jets, and the confusion experienced by the pilots that this contributed to.

Taken together, the sheer number of things that went wrong appears highly suspicious, and makes clear the urgent need for a new and unrestrained investigation of 9/11, to find out what was really going on that day and who was behind the attacks.

Langley Air Force Base is in Hampton City, southeastern Virginia, about 130 miles south of the Pentagon. [1] It covers some 2,900 acres, and employs about 9,000 permanent military personnel and 3,000 civilians. It is the headquarters of the Air Combat Command, which provides active Air Force pilots to deploy for overseas combat missions, and the home of the 1st Fighter Wing, which is one of the largest fighter wings in the Air Combat Command. [2]

Crucially, on 9/11 the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard had a small detachment at Langley AFB. Although it had only four aircraft and 18 full-time members of staff, this unit was involved in the air defense mission of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It was one of NORAD's seven "alert" sites around the U.S., all of which kept a pair of fighter jets ready for immediate takeoff. [3] As author Lynn Spencer described: "As an alert site, the [119th Fighter Wing's] pilots are always just five minutes away from rolling out of the hangars in their armed fighters. They live, eat, and sleep just steps from jets." [4]

At 9:24 a.m. on September 11, NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), which is based in Rome, New York, ordered jets belonging to the 119th Fighter Wing to scramble (i.e. launch immediately) from Langley AFB. [5] In public accounts and testimony, NORAD officials subsequently claimed these jets were scrambled in response to either Flight 77 (the third hijacked aircraft) or Flight 93 (the fourth hijacked aircraft). However, according to various evidence uncovered by the 9/11 Commission, the scramble was in response to an incorrect report that Flight 11 (the first hijacked aircraft) hadn't crashed into the World Trade Center and was heading south toward Washington. The Langley jets were initially ordered toward the DC area, but their heading was soon adjusted to send them to the Baltimore area, about 35 miles north of Washington, so as to block the path of the supposedly southbound Flight 11 as it approached the capital. [6]

It is important to recognize here that, despite the unprecedented nature of the 9/11 attacks, the task the F-16s were being asked to perform was a well-practiced and routine one. Even before September 11, NORAD regularly launched fighters in response to suspicious aircraft. It reportedly performed 67 such scrambles between September 2000 and June 2001. [7] And a 1994 General Accounting Office report stated: "Overall, 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 suspected drug smuggling aircraft averaged … less than 7 percent of all of the alert sites' total activity. The remaining activity generally involved visually inspecting unidentified aircraft and assisting aircraft in distress." [8] So, over that period, NORAD launched fighters to intercept suspicious aircraft once per day on average. Yet on September 11, the performance of the NORAD jets launched from Langley AFB was disastrous.

Problems began as the jets prepared to take off. The 1st Air Force's book about 9/11 stated that the fighters were "given highest priority over all other air traffic at Langley Air Force Base." [9] But according to Lynn Spencer, while on the runway, they were instructed to "hold for an air traffic delay," because the FAA's Washington Center had not yet cleared airliners out of the way for their intended path. [10] All the same, the fighters were finally airborne at 9:30 a.m. [11]

Of particular significance is that, instead of just launching its two F-16s that were kept on alert, the 119th Fighter Wing launched a third jet at this time. Unlike the two fully-armed alert jets, this aircraft had guns only and no missiles. [12] Its pilot was Captain Craig Borgstrom, the operations manager at the alert unit. In the event of a scramble order, he was supposed to man the battle cab and serve as the supervisor of flying. As the SOF, he had a critical role to play. He was responsible for monitoring scrambled jets, working with local air traffic controllers, and communicating with NEADS so as to get all necessary information about the jets' mission to pass on to the pilots. But by taking off himself, Borgstrom left his unit without an SOF. [13]

The reason for this alarming breach of protocol was that, shortly before 9:24, someone from NEADS called Borgstrom and asked him with urgency, "How many total aircraft can you launch?" When Borgstrom replied that, other than the two pilots on alert duty, he was the only pilot at the unit that day, the caller instructed him: "Suit up and go fly! We need all of you at battle stations!" [14] The two alert pilots were apparently shocked when they were told that their SOF would be taking off with them. According to Spencer, it "doesn't make any sense to" Major Dean Eckmann, the unit's lead pilot, and his initial response was "What?" [15] The other pilot, Major Brad Derrig, was "stunned. ... [N]ot much surprises him, but this does." And the unit's crew chiefs and mechanics were "bewildered" when they watched Borgstrom taking off, as they had "just been left with no commanding officer in the midst of a situation completely foreign to them." [16]

The decision to send the unit's SOF into the air caused serious problems. In her book Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11, Lynn Spencer explicitly pointed out two examples. Firstly, at around 9:30 a.m., Tech Sgt. Jeremy Powell called from NEADS, wanting to tell Borgstrom that his jets' mission was to set up a combat air patrol over Washington and intercept an airliner heading for the city. But with Borgstrom gone, the phone rang and rang. Finally, a sergeant answered it and told an incredulous Powell that the SOF had taken off. Powell knew that the alert unit at Langley was meant to keep an SOF on duty 24/7, and was speechless. Presumably, Borgstrom's absence meant the three F-16s did not receive Powell's message about what their mission was. [17]

Then, at around 9:34 a.m., William Huckabone, a staff sergeant at NEADS, noticed that the F-16s were drastically off course, heading east out over the ocean instead of north toward the Baltimore area (see below for details). The jets urgently needed to be redirected onto their intended course. But, as Spencer described, Huckabone could not "get word to the jets through their SOF--he's flying!" [18] Presumably there were other times when the absence of the SOF meant NEADS, and perhaps other agencies, were unable to quickly pass important information to the jets, but these incidents have not yet been reported.

Furthermore, we do not know who at NEADS instructed Borgstrom to take off in the spare jet, thereby leaving his unit without its SOF. In an interview, Borgstrom later said, "to this day, I don't know who it was" that made the call. [19] When Jeremy Powell had called from NEADS and learned that Borgstrom had taken off in a third jet, he exclaimed: "Three? I only scrambled two!" [20] Whoever instructed Borgstrom to take off should be rigorously questioned about why they issued such an unprecedented--and dangerous--order.

After being delayed during takeoff, things got significantly worse for the Langley jets. Major Kevin Nasypany, the NEADS mission crew commander, had ordered them to fly north, toward the Baltimore area. [21] But at around 9:34 a.m., William Huckabone noticed that instead they were going east over the ocean, toward a military training airspace called Whiskey 386. [22] As a result, when the Pentagon was hit at 9:37 a.m., the Langley fighters were about 150 miles from there--further away from the Pentagon than they had been when they took off. [23]

The 9/11 Commission put forward rather elaborate reasons why the jets headed in the wrong direction, such as that the scramble order had not conveyed complete instructions for the pilots to follow, and that "a 'generic' flight plan--prepared to get the aircraft airborne and out of local airspace quickly--incorrectly led the Langley fighters to believe they were ordered to fly due east ... for 60 miles." [24]

However, evidence shows that the question of why the jets went so drastically off course requires further investigation. For example, a Navy facility was responsible for handling the F-16s while they were out over the ocean. The Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is the Navy air traffic control agency that handles all over-water military operations. It is known by the call sign "Giant Killer." [25] When Nasypany asked Major James Fox--the leader of the NEADS weapons team--why the Langley jets had flown out over the ocean, Fox replied, "Giant Killer sent them out there." [26] Certainly, what little has been reported about the actions of this facility appears quite bizarre and suspicious.

When William Huckabone first noticed that the Langley jets were off course, along with Master Sergeant Steve Citino he called Giant Killer to try and get them redirected onto the correct heading. Yet the Navy controller who answered their call sounded indifferent, as if he were oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. He responded: "You've got [the Langley F-16s] moving east in airspace. Now you want 'em to go to Baltimore?" Huckabone said yes, told the controller to get the jets to call NEADS, and asked him to inform the FAA's Washington Center that the F-16s needed to head toward Baltimore. Yet the controller showed no sense of urgency, saying: "All right, man. Stand by. We'll get back to you." In frustration, Citino snapped: "What do you mean, 'We'll get back to you'? Just do it!" After hanging up the phone, Huckabone joked, "I'm gonna choke that guy!" [27]

Another controller at Giant Killer showed similar indifference a couple of minutes later, when Huckabone again contacted the facility. Kevin Nasypany had just ordered that the Langley F-16s be sent toward the White House, and declared "AFIO" (Authorization for Interceptor Operations) for Washington airspace, which would give the military authority over the FAA for that airspace. Huckabone told the Navy controller: "Ma'am, we are going AFIO right now with [the Langley fighters]. They are going direct [to] Washington." The declaration of AFIO was an unusual and unique event. When Dean Eckmann, the lead Langley pilot, was finally notified of it, he was startled, because, according to Spencer: "He has never, in all his years of flying, received such an order. He's only heard about it and, to him, it means no less than the start of World War III." Yet, in response to Huckabone's information, the controller at Giant Killer appears to have shown no signs of emotion, and offered only modest reassurance that the Langley fighters would be given the necessary clearance. She said, "We're handing 'em off to [the FAA's Washington] Center right now." Apparently unsettled by the controller's lack of urgency, Huckabone instructed her: "Ma'am, we need that expedited right now! We need to contact them on 234.6. ... Do you understand?" [28]

As previously mentioned, one consequence of all the problems with the fighter response was that at the time the Pentagon was hit, the Langley jets were further from it than they had been when they took off. They had flown almost 60 miles out over the Atlantic Ocean and were 150 miles from Washington. [29] In fact, numerous witnesses on the ground have recalled seeing the first fighter jet arriving over the Pentagon possibly an hour or more after the Pentagon attack. [30] Authors Patrick Creed and Rick Newman have placed this at 10:40 a.m. [31] According to the New York Times, "witnesses, including a reporter for the New York Times who was headed toward the building, did not see any [fighter jets over the Pentagon] until closer to 11 [o'clock]." [32] Upon seeing the first jet arriving overhead, one firefighter commented: "Thank God that guy's there! Where has he been?" [33]

Another indication that the Langley F-16s' ability to respond to the crisis was being sabotaged is that military personnel repeatedly experienced problems when trying to communicate with them. Lynn Spencer described three particular incidents in which NEADS was unable to contact the fighters, although presumably there were other occurrences of this problem.

Firstly, when at around 9:34 a.m. William Huckabone noticed the jets were off course, he supposedly had "no direct method of contacting the jets, as they are out of radio range over the ocean in Giant Killer's airspace." Then, at 9:36 a.m., when NEADS declared AFIO for Washington airspace, Steve Citino tried to contact pilot Dean Eckmann to notify him of this. But, according to Spencer, Citino initially received "no response; the fighters are not yet in radio range." [34] And, minutes later, Citino was still "having trouble communicating with the Langley fighters heading toward Washington," supposedly because "NEADS radio coverage east of Washington is poor." [35]

While Spencer's explanation--that the Langley jets were outside NEADS's radio range--may be correct, these communications problems should surely be investigated further, to check this. This is especially the case since, as tape recordings of the NEADS operations floor from September 11 have revealed, personnel there repeatedly complained about various communications problems that morning. For example, one member of staff at NEADS told an American Airlines employee, "We cannot call out for some reason." Later on, when a caller mentioned, "We're having a tough time getting hold of you guys," a NEADS employee responded, "We're having problems with our phone lines as well." [36] During a 2004 interview, 9/11 Commission staffers mentioned to NEADS employee Chief Master Sgt. Edward Aires that "they had heard in past interviews that there were communication lapses and difficulties between NEADS and Langley scrambles." [37] Might there have been deliberate attempts made to block communications to and from NEADS that morning?

What is more, the three Langley pilots were confused by what journalist and author Jere Longman described as a "jumble of radio communications." [38] According to the New York Times, as the pilots approached Washington, "Their radio frequencies became cluttered with orders and chatter." Pilot Brad Derrig recalled: "It was like getting 10 hours of conversation in about 10 minutes. No one knew what was going on." [39] Craig Borgstrom has said that he and the two other pilots "were hearing a lot of chatter but nothing about airliners crashing into buildings." He recalled: "There was some confusion for us, this was very abnormal. We were all three on different frequencies ... and were getting orders from a lot of different people." [40]

Could these jumbled communications have been part of a deliberate attempt at paralyzing the emergency response, by trying to prevent legitimate orders from reaching the pilots?

The poor communications between the pilots and their contacts on the ground, combined with the lack of an SOF to pass information to and from the pilots, may help explain why the pilots had so little understanding of what was going on. They were even unsure of what their mission was. As the 9/11 Commission stated: "The Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled. ... The pilots knew their mission was to divert aircraft, but did not know that the threat came from hijacked airliners." [41]

Brad Derrig described the confusion--what he called "the smoke of war"--over what was happening that morning, saying, "No one knew exactly what was going on." [42] Craig Borgstrom said that, as the crisis unfolded, he "had no idea" the Pentagon and World Trade Center had been struck by suicide terrorists in airplanes. Describing the growing confusion, he said, "It was a mess." [43]

Borgstrom has said it was only when he caught sight of the burning Pentagon that he started thinking, "OK, maybe there's some type of attack going on," adding, "You start correlating Washington, DC, with New York." [44] When Dean Eckmann saw the Pentagon, he actually thought the Russians had attacked it. He told the 9/11 Commission: "I reverted to the Russian threat. ... I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know, you look down and see the Pentagon burning, and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. ... No one told us anything." [45]

Eckmann and Derrig had even thought that they were headed to New York rather than Washington. Craig Borgstrom described: "The other two guys I was flying with initially thought that we were going to New York because they knew the Trade Center had been hit and they'd seen the smoke. ... I was more familiar with the area and knew we were going more toward DC." But, he recalled, as they approached Washington, "We still have not been intel briefed as to what's going on." [46] At that time, according to Lynn Spencer, when Brad Derrig "looks up to see smoke on the horizon in front of him, he assumes that he is looking at New York. He had heard about an aircraft hitting the World Trade Center just before they were scrambled, and with all the changes in coordinates they've been given, he has no idea that he's looking at Washington." [47]

Furthermore, it was only when the jets returned to base, after being airborne for over four hours, that the three pilots learned about Flight 93--the fourth hijacked plane, which supposedly crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. [48]

We have seen that there were numerous ways in which the Langley jets were hindered on 9/11: the delay while they were on the runway and the problems that occurred because the alert unit's supervisor of flying took off in a spare fighter; the fact that the F-16s flew east over the ocean, instead of going north as NEADS had instructed; the inexplicable indifference of the Navy controllers who were handling the jets while they were over the ocean; NEADS's repeated inability to contact the pilots directly; the jumbled communications the pilots were receiving over their radios; and the fact that the pilots were not informed about what was going on or what their exact mission was.

There is evidence of additional problems that further impeded the Langley F-16s that morning. Lynn Spencer described two notable incidents.

After the pilots had initially been misdirected over the ocean, NEADS weapons director Steve Citino forwarded coordinates to them, telling them to establish a combat air patrol over Washington. However, Citino apparently gave out the wrong coordinates. According to Spencer, "He inadvertently transposed two of the coordinates, and the F-16s turned onto a flight path that would take them 60 miles southwest of Washington." When he noticed the jets heading the wrong way, Citino had to contact them again to get them on the correct course. [49]

And after receiving the incorrect coordinates, lead pilot Dean Eckmann had a problem with his aircraft. The bearing pointer on its horizontal situation indicator, which shows a plane's position relative to its intended destination, froze, so he had to get the heading from one of the other pilots. [50]

These incidents are only what have been described in the publicly-available accounts. It seems reasonable to assume the jets experienced other complications that have so far gone unreported. A thorough and unrestrained investigation of the 9/11 attacks is imperative in order to reveal such problems, find out why the Langley F-16s were so badly obstructed in carrying out what should have been a routine emergency response, and uncover who was responsible for this.

[1] Parsons Engineering Science, Inc., Draft: Work Plan for a Treatability Study in Support of the Intrinsic Remediation (Natural Attenuation) Option at IRP Site - 16. San Antonio, TX: Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, June 1995, p. 1-3; Jonathan Weisman, "Shoot-Down Order Issued on Morning of Chaos." USA Today, September 16, 2001.
[2] Parsons Engineering Science, Inc., Draft: Work Plan for a Treatability Study in Support of the Intrinsic Remediation (Natural Attenuation) Option at IRP Site - 16, p. 1-3; "Langley AFB, Virginia." GlobalSecurity.org, January 21, 2006; 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, p. 114.
[3] 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, p. 17; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 114.
[4] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 117.
[5] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 27.
[6] Ibid. pp. 26-27, 34.
[7] Dan Collins, "Scrambling to Prevent Another 9/11." Associated Press, August 14, 2002.
[8] Jerry Herley et al., Continental Air Defense: A Dedicated Force is no Longer Needed. Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office, May 3, 1994, p. 4.
[9] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America: Sept. 11 Alters Face of Air Defense Mission. Tyndall Air Force Base, FL: 1st Air Force, 2003, p. 63.
[10] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 143.
[11] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 27.
[12] Ibid. p. 465; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 141-143.
[13] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 116, 118.
[14] Ann Scott Tyson, "A New Diligence in the American Blue Yonder." Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2002; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 118.
[15] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 119.
[16] Ibid. p. 142.
[17] Ibid. p. 148.
[18] Ibid. p. 149.
[19] Craig Borgstrom, interview by Leslie Filson, circa 2002.
[20] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 148.
[21] "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With NEADS Alpha Flight Mission Crew Commander (MCC), Lt. Col. Kevin J. Nasypany." 9/11 Commission, January 22-23, 2004; 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 27.
[22] Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live: The NORAD Tapes." Vanity Fair, August 2006; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 149.
[23] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 27.
[24] Ibid.; Staff Report: The Four Flights. 9/11 Commission, August 26, 2004, p. 96.
[25] Matthew L. Wald, "Military Air Controller is Criticized in Close Encounter." New York Times, February 10, 1997; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 143.
[26] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 151.
[27] Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live"; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 149-150.
[28] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 150-151.
[29] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 27; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 151.
[30] "(10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001: First Fighter Seen Arriving Over the Pentagon." Complete 9/11 Timeline.
[31] Patrick Creed and Rick Newman, Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11. New York: Presidio Press, 2008, p. 130.
[32] David E. Sanger and Don Van Natta Jr., "In Four Days, a National Crisis Changes Bush's Presidency." New York Times, September 16, 2001.
[33] Patrick Creed and Rick Newman, Firefight, p. 131.
[34] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 149-150.
[35] Ibid. p. 180.
[36] "(9:12 a.m.-11:57 a.m.) September 11, 2001: NEADS and NORAD Experiencing Communications Problems." Complete 9/11 Timeline.
[37] "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Bill Aires." 9/11 Commission, January 23, 2004.
[38] Jere Longman, Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 76.
[39] Kevin Sack, "2 Pilots Praise Passengers Who Fought Hijackers." New York Times, November 15, 2001.
[40] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 66.
[41] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 45.
[42] Jere Longman, Among the Heroes, p. 222.
[43] Ann Scott Tyson, "A New Diligence in the American Blue Yonder."
[44] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 65.
[45] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 45.
[46] Craig Borgstrom, interview by Leslie Filson.
[47] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 182.
[48] Kevin Sack, "2 Pilots Praise Passengers Who Fought Hijackers."
[49] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 180-181.
[50] Ibid. p. 181.


MrC said...

It is honestly hard to say if it was an intentional act of sabotage. When you hear the tapes, it is like some if them thought it was a joke and/or they had no training on what to do, "who do we call? How do I get 'somebody' to scramble jets?" The other issue is that at least until 2001, military air response training was that threats usually come from the ocean, not from 'within,' so in the heat of things, directors at GK may have assumed that initially. Not sure if we'll ever know.

MrC said...

It is difficult to say the actual reasons behind the problems that day. A lot of the people in the tapes seemed to have no training, both civilian ATCs and also lower levels at the military defense networks. There is a lot of, "wait, what? Who do I call? Who is it that scrambles fighters for this, DO we scramble them for this?" From there, base military air defense within the nation center on threats coming from outside as in from the ocean. So who knows, one person in high command at GK may instinctively fallen back on that traning in time of crisis and mistakenly sent the Langley jets the wrong way. Who knows, if sabotage came from within, you can bet each actor only knows their own part in it so as not to have credibility.

Unknown said...

thank you for your research. fantastic job!