Air National Guard fighter jets scrambled in a desperate but
vain attempt to intercept two of the hijacked airliners that brought
terror to New York and Washington, a senior Pentagon official said
undisclosed details of the military's reaction to the terror attack, Maj.
Gen. Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, acknowledged that
if the F-15s and F-16s had caught up with the hijacked passenger planes,
their mission might have been futile.
"What does he
do when he gets there? You're not going to get an American pilot shooting
down an American airliner," Gen. Weaver said. "We don't have
permission to do that."
Only the president
could issue such an order, he confirmed in an impromptu hallway interview
at the Pentagon.
The Guard planes
responded nevertheless, Gen. Weaver said, on orders from the Northeast
Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y., which had been alerted by the Federal
Pulling a chronology
from his pocket, the general offered the following details, using Eastern
At 8:46 a.m.,
American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston's Logan Airport hit the North
Tower of the World Trade Center.
Seven minutes later,
two F-15 fighters from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., scrambled
to chase the second plane that hit the trade center, United Airlines
Flight 175, which had taken off from Boston at 8:14 a.m. and had deviated
from its course.
At that point, it
was uncertain that Flight 175 had been hijacked, Gen. Weaver said, but
the FAA had told the air defense sector that "there was an airplane
that had a problem."
Nine minutes to
By the time the F-15s
were airborne, United 175 was nine minutes away from plowing into the
south tower of the World Trade Center, and the fighter planes were more
than 100 miles away.
"We had a
nine-minute window, and we had in excess of 100 miles to intercept
175," Gen. Weaver said. "There was just literally no way."
The pilots flew
"like a scalded ape," topping 500 mph, but were unable to catch
up to the airliner, Gen. Weaver said.
After Flight 175 hit
the trade center, the F-15s began circling New York City in case of
further hijacked planes.
Flight 77, which would hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., took off from
Dulles International Airport near Washington at 8:10 a.m., flew west for
45 minutes, then turned east.
flying it had turned off the transponder," Gen. Weaver noted,
referring to the device that identifies an airliner to air traffic
"They came back
on the [radar] scope at 9:10 in West Virginia," Gen. Weaver said.
With the F-15s that had scrambled from Otis Air Force Base about 350
miles away, Air Guard F-16 Falcon fighters from Langley Air Force Base,
Va., were ordered to try to intercept American 77.
The Northeast Air
Defense Sector "scrambled F-16s that were on alert at Langley Air
Force Base at 9:35. The crash happened at 9:37," Gen. Weaver said.
The F-16s then
remained in the area, on patrol over the crippled Pentagon.
No Air National
Guard or other military planes were scrambled to chase the fourth
hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 93, which took off at 8:10 a.m.
from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Gen. Weaver said.
"There was no
notification for us to launch airplanes," he said. "We weren't
United 93 flew to
the Ohio border, then "turned around real quick," the general
said. The plane plunged into a field in southern Pennsylvania at 10:10
a.m. - apparently after passengers struggled with the hijackers.
The transponder on
that aircraft also was turned off, Gen. Weaver said.
No regular Air Force
planes were scrambled during the terrorist attacks because continental
air defense is the mission of the Air National Guard, an Air Force
spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Regular Air Force
fighters "have air superiority as their mission," the spokesman
explained, meaning they train "to deploy somewhere where we are
engaged in hostile action and secure the skies."
ordinarily are not ready to fly on short notice, and their pilots are not
on standby to defend the United States, the spokesman said.
Bases on alert
During the Cold War,
the Air National Guard and Air Force kept planes on "strip
alert" - ready to fly within minutes - at more than 100 bases around
the country, Gen. Weaver said. But with the decline of the Soviet threat,
that number was drastically reduced.
Since 1997, the Air
National Guard has kept two fighter planes on strip alert at only seven
bases on the East, South and West coasts of the country to guard against
threats coming from outside U.S. borders, Gen. Weaver said.
For that reason, no
Guard planes would have been able to intercept United 93 even if the
order had been given, he added.
events, the Defense Department has raised the number of bases where
planes are on strip alert to 26. But it remains unclear what their pilots
would do if terrorists again succeeded in taking over an airliner and
turning it into a flying bomb.
certain rules of engagement for a hijacked plane - if you know it's a
hijacked plane - or a missing plane or off course," Gen. Weaver
said. "There's ways of getting their attention. But remember, this
is an American carrier with American pilots and Americans on board.
"This is new
territory for all of us."