Air Defense: June 30, 2004

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Last week, the North American Air Defense (NORAD) command was called to task by the 9/11 commission for several mistakes. Foe example, NORAD sent two F-16 planes from Langley AFB (Air Force Base) to find American Airlines Flight 77, despite the fact that this aircraft had already crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Repeated statements from NORAD claimed the planes had been sent northward to respond to threats over Washington, DC. Senior NORAD commanders also failed to pass along orders from the White House authorizing scrambled planes to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners if they threatened to strike targets. Testifying before the commission, the head of NORAD stated such orders were not issued to pilots due to a fear of accidentally shooting down the wrong planes. 

NORAD's current commander testified before the commission that if they had been given immediate notification of the hijackings by the FAA, planes would have been in position to intercept and shoot down all four aircraft that day, a claim regarded with considerable skepticism by commission members and outside experts. 

Such faith in NORAD's capabilities was not shared by the Secret Service prior to 9/11. It appears Secret Service officials and Andrews Air Force Base commanders most likely had made some sort of off the books arrangements to bypass NORADs chain of command in case of an extreme emergency, and their ad hoc plan was implemented on September 11. Within minutes of the first planes crashing into the World Trade Center, Secret Service officials directly contacted commanders at Andrews AFB and passed along orders directly from the White House to get planes in the air as well as clearing them to shoot down hijacked civilian aircraft if necessary. The first ANG fighters out of Andrews unarmed and previously tasked for target practice at a North Carolina range -- were over the Pentagon before the alert planes from Langley arrived, with armed Andrews fighters arriving shortly thereafter. Today, the F-16 fighter wing at Andrews is the first responder for air threats in Washington DC, in addition to armed UH-60 helicopters operated by the Customs Service. Doug Mohney


 


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