'The Boston Globe'
Saturday 15 September 2001 Third Edition Page A1
"Facing Terror Attack's Aftermath: Otis Fighter Jets Scrambled Too Late
to Halt The Attacks"
by Glen Johnson, Globe Staff
Mitchell Zuckoff and Matthew Brelis of the Globe staff contributed to
WASHINGTON - Two armed fighter jets that were supposed to protect New
York streaked away from their base on Cape Cod as Tuesday's airline
hijackings unfolded, but arrived too late to foil the attacks.
There were contradictory accounts last night about whether they were
close to nearing the World Trade Center before its second tower was
struck - or sat silent on the ground until after the Pentagon was in
A spokesman for NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which is
charged with protecting US airspace, said the fighters were not
scrambled or more than an hour after the first hijacking was reported,
by which time the three buildings were struck and a fourth hijacked
plane was over Pennsylvania on a course toward Washington.
Yet the CBS Evening News reported last night that two supersonic F-15s
were scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base early in the sequence
of hijackings, but were able to fly only to within 70 miles of New York
City before the second of two hijacked planes slammed into the World
Trade Center towers.
The network also broadcast a flight timetable showing that the Otis
fighters did not reach New York until it was too late. The NORAD
spokesman would not comment on the network report. He said the two F-15s
on alert at Otis were not immediately ordered into the sky because a
Cold War approach to air defense - protecting US borders from incoming
military aircraft - did not anticipate the terrorist threat posed by
hijackers commandeering domestic, civilian aircraft.
That approach will be reviewed in light of Tuesday's events, which
killed 266 people aboard four hijacked aircraft, as well as thousands
more in and around the collapsed buildings.
"We scramble aircraft to respond to any aircraft that we consider a
potential threat. The hijacked aircraft were normal, scheduled
commercial aircraft on approved flight plans and we only had 10 minutes
prior notice to the first attack, which unfortunately was not enough
notice," said Marine Corps Major Mike Snyder, a spokesman for NORAD
headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"This is an unprecedented event, unfortunately, and we're just going to
have to adjust accordingly," Snyder said.
Former senator Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, a Korean War veteran
and national security expert, said it would have been "very unrealistic"
to expect the military to have interceded successfully on Tuesday.
"This country is not on a wartime footing," Rudman said. "We don't have
capable fighter aircraft loaded with missiles sitting on runways in this
country. We just don't do that anymore. We did back during the '70s, the
'60s, along the coast, being concerned about Russian intrusion, but to
expect American fighter aircraft to intercept commercial airliners, who
knows where, is totally unrealistic and makes no sense at all."
Otis offers something close to that posture, however. Its 102d Fighter
Wing is equipped with 18 F-15 Eagles, twin-engine, supersonic,
air-to-air combat aircraft. They are flown by 32 pilots who are part of
a 1,100-person unit.
A Web site for the Cape Cod Air Show, which features aircraft from the
unit, describes its duty this way: "Specifically, our mission is to
protect the Northeast United States from armed attack from another
nation, terrorist attack, and activities such as smuggling, illicit drug
activity, and illegal immigration."
The planes, which can fly at more than twice the speed of sound, patrol
a 500 000-square-mile area extending from the Canadian border south to
Washington. That gives it responsibility for protecting Boston, New
York, Philadelphia, and Washington, the Web site says.
To complete that mission, the unit has two armed and fueled aircraft
ready to fly around the clock, each day of the year, a unit spokeswoman
said. Each plane is staffed with a pilot and a crew chief to get them
off the ground. Other planes in the squadron fly four to six training
sorties a day, said Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Quenneville, the unit's
spokeswoman. All are under the command of NORAD, which is charged with
airspace warning and control for North America.
Quenneville refused to say if or when any airplanes were launched
Tuesday, citing operational security. "Every tasking that NORAD has
given us, we have responded appropriately and professionally and
adequately," she said.
According to CBS News, the Federal Aviation Administration alerted air
defense units to the hijackings at 8:38 a.m. Tuesday, less than 10
minutes before the first tower was struck. Otis received its order to
scramble its alert aircraft at 8:44 a.m., the network reported, and the
planes took off at 8:56 a.m. They were still 70 miles away from New York
when the second tower was struck at 9:03 a.m.
CBS also reported that at 9:30 a.m., minutes before the Pentagon was
struck, three F-16 fighters were scrambled from Langley Air Force Base
in southern Virginia and sent to Washington. However, they did not
arrive until 10 a.m., about 20 minutes too late.
But Snyder, the NORAD spokesman, had a different version. He said the
command did not immediately scramble any fighters even though it was
alerted to a hijacking 10 minutes before the first plane, American
Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, slammed into the first
World Trade Center tower at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Never before had a hijacked airliner been steered into a skyscraper,
Snyder noted, in trying to explain the lack of immediate response.
The spokesman said the fighters remained on the ground until after the
Pentagon was hit by American Airlines Flight 77 at 9:40 a.m., during
which time the second trade center tower was struck by United Air Lines
Flight 175, which also originated in Boston and was destined for Los
By that time, military authorities realized the scope of the attack,
Snyder said, and finally ordered the jets aloft.
The delay in scrambling fighters was confirmed by Air Force General
Richard B. Myers, a four-star officer who has been nominated to be the
next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told the Senate Armed
Services Committee on Thursday: "We're pretty good if the threat is
coming from outside; we're not so good if it's coming from the inside."
Amid Tuesday's frenzy, during which a fourth aircraft crashed in a field
near Pittsburgh and government officials chased erroneous reports of a
fifth crash in Kentucky and several more unaccounted airliners, Myers
did cite one success.
He said one inbound international flight was broadcasting a hijacking
code from a radio beacon, but "before it got to Alaska, we had fighter
aircraft on it." The plane eventually landed at a remote base in Canada
and the warning was deemed a false alert.
Snyder, the NORAD spokesman, said its fighters routinely intercept
When planes are intercepted, they typically are handled with a graduated
response. The approaching fighter may rock its wingtips to attract the
pilot's attention, or make a pass in front of the aircraft. Eventually,
it can fire tracer rounds in the airplane's path, or, under certain
circumstances, down it with a missile.
(c) 2001 The Boston Globe Reposted For Fair Use Only