The Air Defense Failures of September 11th, 2001

Standard Operating Procedures

It happens all the time. When a small private plane recently entered the 23-mile restricted ring around the U.S. Capitol, two F-16 interceptors were immediately launched from Andrews Air Force Base, just 10 miles away.In a similar episode, a pair of F-16 “Fighting Falcons” on 15-minute strip alert was airborne from Andrews just 11minutes after being notified by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) of a Cessna straying towards the White House. [Associated Press, Nov 11, 2003;CNN Jun 20, 2002]

These were well-practiced routines. With more than 4,500 aircraft continuously sharing US airspace, between September 2000 and June 2001 the Pentagon launched fighters on 67 occasions to escort wayward aircraft. [FAA news release, Aug 9, 2002; Associated Press Aug 13, 2002]

But on Sept 11, 2001, NORAD and the FAA ignored routine procedures and strict regulations. In response to a national emergency involving hijacked airliners as dangerous as cruise missiles, interceptors launched late from distant bases flew to defend their nation at a fraction of their top speeds. [NORAD news release, Sept. 18, 2001]

What Norad Knew

A recently resurfaced NORAD news bulletin released seven days after Sept. 11 explains that America’s aerial defenders were slow to counter rapidly developing air attacks because they didn’t hear from the FAA that American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked until 8:40 that fateful morning. [NORAD news release, Sept. 18, 2001]

But at the National Military Command Center (NMCC) in the basement of the Pentagon, Air Force staff officers monitoring every inch of airspace over the northeastern seaboard would have caught that first hijacking when Flight 11’s identification transponder stopped transmitting at 8:20 – automatically triggering a radar alarm.

With their capability to monitor developing “situations” by tapping into military and civilian radars, U.S. military commanders would have also seen Flight 175 turn abruptly south 25 minutes later – just as they had watched on radar in October 1999 when pro golfer Payne Stewart’s Learjet abruptly departed its flight path while en route to Dallas. [CNN, Oct 26, 1999]

In that legendary intercept, a fighter jet out of Tyndall, Florida was diverted from a training flight to escort the Lear, whose pilot had become incapacitated, trapping Stewart in the stratosphere. An F-16 was reportedly sitting off the left wingtip of Payne’s pilotless business jet within 19 minutes of the FAA alert. [ABC News, Oct 25, 1999]

If NORAD had been as quick to scramble or divert airborne fighters on Sept. 11, two “anti-terrorist” F-15’s on armed alert could have been sent south from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. Flying at full afterburners without edging over the Atlantic to disperse their sonic footprint, two of the fastest fighters on the planet would have broken a few windows. But all the glass in the Twin Towers might have stayed intact had the “fast-movers” intercepted Flight 11 over the Hudson River at least six minutes from Manhattan.

No Hurry Says NORAD

Instead, in a stunning admission that received little press scrutiny at the time, NORAD noted that for all interceptions flown against the hijackers on Sept. 11, “Flight times are calculated at 9 miles per minute or .9 Mach.” In other words, every interception flown by the world’s hottest air-combat aircraft was flown at less than a third of the planes’ top speed.

A Defense Department manual insists, “In the event of a hijacking, the NMCC will be notified by the most expeditious means by the FAA.” To make this happen, the Federal Aviation Administration permanently posts a liaison officer in the Pentagon air defense room. [CJCSI 3610.01A, Jun 1, 2001]

Yet, according to NORAD, after air traffic controllers realized that Flight 11 had been hijacked, 38 vital minutes passed before a pair of F-15’s was scrambled from Otis. As they lifted off, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, 153 air miles away as a Falcon flies. [NORAD, Sept. 18, 2001]

United Airlines Flight 175 was still 20 minutes out.

“The F-15 pilots flew ”like a scalded ape, topping 500 mph but were unable to catch up to the airliner,” Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver later told reporters. [St. Augustine Times, Sep 16, 2001]

Scalded apes? Airliners fly at 500 mph. An F-15 can fly almost four times faster.

Step On It

One of the Otis intercept pilots dubbed “Duff”, later lamented: “We’ve been over the flight a thousand times in our minds and I don’t know what we could have done to get there any quicker.”

For starters, he and his wingman could have tried pushing their twin throttles fully forward. Instead of flying two-and-a-half times faster than a bullet, “Nasty” and “Duff” drove their expensive air superiority fighters at a leisurely 447-mph – supposedly to intercept a Boeing 767 flying 43 mph faster! Utilizing only 27% power, the F-15’s were “eight minutes/71 miles” away, according to NORAD, when Flight 175 struck the South Tower with 56 souls and more than ten tons of fuel onboard. [Christian Science Monitor, Mar 8, 2002]

Honor the Threat

With both Trade Towers burning, and hijacked United Flight 93 shadowed by a circling F-16 over Pennsylvania, American Airlines Flight 77 was the only threat left in the sky. When that Boeing 757 silenced its transponder signal, made a U-turn over Kentucky and headed directly for the White House and the Pentagon, one billion viewers riveted to the big networks knew this was a kamikaze run. [Telegraph, Sep 13, 2001]

With no other bogeys on eastern seaboard scopes, air combat doctrine dictates that the two unemployed Otis F-15s already in the area be redirected to “honor the threat” of an incoming flying bomb, 330 miles out. Even loafing along, the fighters would have more than 20 minutes to confront Flight 77 before it neared the Pentagon.

Instead, Pentagon professionals defending their country’s nerve centers waited more than an hour after watching Flight 11 go rogue – including 30 critical minutes after Flight 77 turned abruptly toward them and the nearby White House – before scrambling two F-16’s out of Langley Air Force Base to protect the capitol.

Nearly half-an-hour after receiving the belated order to scramble, two Falcons coasted in over the burning Pentagon. Slowed down to just 410 mph, it had taken the 1,500 mph-capable fighters 19 minutes to cover the 130 miles from Virginia. It should have taken just over seven minutes to reach the Pentagon – at about the time Flight 77 was making a predatory circle overhead. [NORAD, Sep 18, 2001; USAF]


The supersonic jets were flown no faster than WWII prop-driven fighters. But it hardly mattered. Sitting on the Andrews ramp just 10 miles away, were two fully armed and fueled supersonic interceptors tasked with protecting the capitol from airborne terrorist threats on 15 minutes’ notice!

Isn’t it about time someone asked why those routinely launched Andrews interceptors were “stood down” as Flight 77 bored in toward the headquarters they were supposed to protect? [San Diego Union-Tribune, Sep 12, 2001]

In the most heavily armed nation on Earth, at least two-dozen air force installations were within fast flying time of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Does anyone else wonder why none of those aircraft were ordered launched – or why none of the armed fighters on training flights or patrolling Air Defense Intercept Zones just off the Atlantic Coast were diverted to intercept four commandeered airliners until after the Pentagon was struck – one-hour and 18 minutes after Flight 11 was hijacked? []

According to NORAD, the F-16s from Langley were still “12 minutes/105 miles” away when the big Boeing they were “chasing” soared past the White House and the Andrews runways. Allegedly flown by an incompetent Egyptian flight student who couldn’t solo a Cessna, the 757 peeled off and piled into the Pentagon after an abrupt dive and pull-up that left veteran pilots agape. [San Diego Union-Tribune Sep 12, 2001; NBC Nightly News, Sep 11, 2001; All Fall Down]

Immediately after the Pentagon was hit, the Andrews alert jets were launched to guard empty skies. [Mirror, Nov 13, 2003]

Asleep at the Switch

Responding to questions from a Senate confirmation committee two days after this suspicious fiasco, the Joint Chief’s acting air defense chief on Sept. 11 said he was in a meeting while all hell was breaking loose in his sector.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers had not let a TV report about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center interrupt his routine. As jumbo jetliners kept diving into buildings, apparently no one thought to inform the acting commander of U.S. air defenses that his country was under attack. Myers said he came out of his meeting just as the Pentagon was hit.

Asked repeatedly when the brass were first informed of the emergency, and when interceptors were scrambled, Myers repeated a muddled mantra six times, saying “”I’ll have to get back to you on that.”[]

Instead of being court-martialed like the luckless commanders defending Pearl Harbor, or even reprimanded, General Myers was awarded command of the entire U.S. military as new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush publicly commended the air force general for his “calm manner, sound judgment, and his clear strategic thinking.” [White House press release, Oct 15, 2001]

As this bizarre and possibly treasonous story goes to press, the FAA has refused to disclose documents relating to when that agency notified U.S. air defenses about the four hijacked airliners. A second subpoena served on the Pentagon by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has been similarly unsuccessful in attaining records concerning whether NORAD responded quickly enough in dispatching interceptors on Sept. 11. [Washington Post, Nov 8, 2003]

Instead of fingering air traffic controllers for not following procedures, these documents could show that the FAA did follow its own Standard Intercept Procedures and notify NORAD within a few minutes of each hijacking – which would leave the Air Force with even more explaining to do. [Associated Press, Oct 18, 2003]

NORAD’s Response Times (September 18, 2001)

Above research by William Thomas,

Award-winning journalist William Thomas is the author of Bringing The War Home

Go at for more writing by William Thomas.