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Otis fighter jets scrambled too late to halt the attacks
By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 9/15/2001
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 flames.
A spokesman for NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which is charged with protecting US airspace, said the fighters were not scrambled for 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 Angeles.
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 aircraft.
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.
Mitchell Zuckoff and Matthew Brelis of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/15/2001.
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