Murphy's Law: September 24, 2002


In the tense moments after the World Trade Center was first hit, the F-16s sent to defend Washington DC were not an intercept squadron controlled by Norad, but an air-to-ground unit (the 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia's Air National Guard) ordered into the air by the Secret Service office in the White House. Because of the urgency, the first two aircraft took off with only training rounds in their 20mm cannons and no missiles. The two pilots conjectured that they might try to saw off the wing of an airliner (although their gun had only five seconds of non-explosive ammunition) and that their final option was to ram the airliner. The working theory was to approach from behind, roll vertically, and try to ram the wing of the fighter into the trailing edge of the airliner's wing. This provided a chance that the fighter pilot might have been able to bail out. Three more F-16s had just landed from a training flight; one of them had enough fuel to take off again, but had no missiles or ammunition. This fighter was headed for Flight 93 when word came that the airliner had crashed. Two more F-16s from the 121st took off a few minutes later, after the ordnance crews had loaded missiles on their wings. Within the hour, planes from Langley and other bases had joined up over the capital and New York. The whole air defense plan for Washington (and New York) for that day was made up on the spot by pilots already in the air. The senior officer in each case took charge and assigned each plane an altitude so they could avoid mid-air collisions. It is a tribute to the discipline of the pilots that none of the lost business or commercial planes that didn't land when first ordered to do so were shot down. In one of the most unusual events of the next day (September 12th), Air National Guard transports had to hopscotch across the country to pick up reserve pilots from the 121st who (being commercial airline pilots) were stranded at airports all over the country by the ban on flying.--Stephen V Cole


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