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Article published Sunday, December 9, 2001

Toledo's Air Guard called to defend U.S. on Sept. 11
Local pilots some of first into air
F-16s from the Air Guard unit at Toledo Express Airport, like this one flying over Kuwait in 1998, took to the skies on Sept. 11.

In the frantic minutes after terrorists downed three hijacked airliners in New York and Washington, the Air Force sent up jets ready to shoot down any other planes that threatened the East Coast.

Jets from a Massachusetts base circled New York. Jets from Virginia soared over the nation's capitol.

And, guarding the rest of the nation in the first chaotic minutes of the crisis: F-16s from Toledo.

Federal military officials recently confirmed that the 180th Fighter Wing - an Ohio Air National Guard unit based at Toledo Express Airport - was the first unit outside the East Coast to answer the Air Force's plea for immediate help.

And had the last hijacked plane continued west - or had any other hijacked plane headed across the heartland - the Toledo fighter wing was the only unit immediately available to carry out the ultimate act: Shoot it down.

"They had the fuel. They had guns. That's what was needed," said retired Lt. Col. Alan Scott, who has been analyzing the air responses for the Air Force.

Three months after the worst terrorist attack in America's history, new details are emerging about the frenzied minutes from the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center to the time the nation had grounded every civilian plane in the sky.

The man responsible for coordinating the air defense strategy over the hard-hit area - Lt. Col. Robert Marr - confirmed to The Blade last week that the Toledo unit played a critical role as the nation's military geared up for any more attacks.

"It just had a phenomenal response on Sept. 11," Colonel Marr said from his command post in Rome, N.Y.

The new details also reveal a key weakness in the nation's air defense system on Sept. 11 - a weakness that left the interior of the nation more vulnerable.

Up until that day, the military's radar trackers had a Cold War posture of looking outside America's borders for threatening invaders. Those radars were positioned along the continental coasts, leaving blind spots in America's interior.

That meant the military was forced to rely on civilian air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration to detect what was in the skies - something they're now trying to fix.

"We're working very hard in trying to achieve an interior look," said Colonel Scott, now an Air Force consultant, whose first briefing of the issue was broadcast on C-Span last week.

Toledo's response on Sept. 11 is believed to be the first time the unit has answered a call from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD - the special U.S. and Canadian military agency that scans the skies around the continent watching for any kind of invaders, from nuclear missiles to foreign fighter jets.

A former commander of the Toledo fighter wing, Lt. Col. Gary Chudzinsk, said the local base has always been aware that it could be alerted to such crises "but you just don't expect it."

"In [my] 31 years, I've never heard of that happening," said the lieutenant colonel, who retired seven years ago.

But with the hijackers striking the nation's vital spots, military officials say they were forced to call Toledo and other units to protect America's interior.

To be sure, the nation was in a deep peace on the morning of Sept. 11. Only 14 military jets were on alert at seven locations at 8 a.m. EST - all along the country's borders, according to the briefing.

Additionally, the people who monitor America's radar system - the Federal Aviation Administration - were not poised for what was about to unfold.

The trouble began at 8:20 a.m., when the first hijacked airliner, American Airlines Flight 11, turned off its transponder, an electronic device that tells the FAA the plane's location.

Twenty minutes later - after the plane veered off course - FAA officials alerted the North East Air Defense Sector based in Rome, N.Y., of the possible hijacking. Six minutes later, the plane crashed into the trade center.

At that same time, the military response began. The sector commander, Colonel Marr, ordered two Massachusetts-based F-15 fighter jets to prepare for takeoff. In six minutes - considered a quick response time - the jets left for New York, closing the 153-mile gap at speeds of 950 mph.

They were eight minutes too late to catch the second plane's crash into the trade center, but they set up an air patrol of the city to catch any other potential hijacked planes.

Within a few minutes, hijackers took control of the third plane as it crossed the southern tip of Ohio, turning it around toward Washington. A military transport plane in the area told the FAA it was flying low and fast, prompting air traffic controllers to call the Rome, N.Y., command center.

Two jets were scrambled for takeoff, and within six minutes they embarked on a 100-mile journey from Langley Air Force base in southeastern Virginia to Washington. But the third plane crashed into the Pentagon as the jets were 12 minutes away.

Then, a fourth plane deviated from its westward flight path and circled counter-clockwise around the western Cleveland suburbs, prompting another call from the FAA to Rome, N.Y., command center.

By 10:01 a.m., the command center began calling several bases across the country for help. That included a phone call to Toledo's 1,000-member 180th Fighter Wing.

At 10:17 a.m., according to the briefing, Toledo's fighter jets took off, heading east.

"They basically just took aircraft that were just being set up for training missions and launched out to help defend the skies over North America, wherever they could," Colonel Marr said. "[The response was] very, very, very quick."

By then, President Bush had issued an order to shoot down that fourth plane before it hit any potential targets, and the jets in Washington were still circling.

It's unclear what role Toledo's jets played before they were joined by Air National Guard jets from Syracuse at 10:44 a.m. The fourth plane crashed into a western Pennsylvania hillside sometime between 10:02 and 10:10 a.m., officials say.

Toledo Air Guard officials declined to talk about the events that morning, even in general terms permitted by the military.

Lt. Col. Carole Allen - the base spokeswoman - said personnel were still grieving over the unexpected death of their 44-year-old commander of operations, Pete Raffa, who died seven days ago of a heart attack.

But, in explaining their mission, Colonel Marr said the Toledo jets "never had a track close enough that they were directed to engage."

"[But] if a valid direction had come from the appropriate level to engage a target, or shoot down a target at some time, they could have done that," he said.

And, at the time, military and civilian officials were scrambling to land all the other commercial planes in the air during the crisis - plus sort out more than a dozen false reports of additional hijackings.

"By the time [Toledo's jets] got in the air, all those four [hijacked planes] were down," Colonel Marr said. "The problem was, we didn't know those were only the four."

Another problem was that military commanders were never fully able to track all hijacked jetliners. The third flight - the one that hit the Pentagon - left NORAD's radar system shortly before it crossed the southern tip of Ohio.

That left the military relying on the FAA, which has no authority to direct military defense.

Complicating matters: Until the Sept. 11 attacks, the military relied on the FAA to ask for help before the Defense Department took action in a potential hijacking. The civilian agency, initially, was late calling key events:

  • Eleven minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the trade center, the FAA formally notified the military the airplane had crashed. Until then, the responding fighter jets did not know the plane had crashed.

  • It took three minutes after United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the trade center for the FAA to report it had been hijacked. It took an additional six minutes for the FAA to formally report the plane had crashed.

    As a result, NORAD's radar system is now being expanded to complement the FAA's nationwide coverage. No one will clearly identify the blind spots that were present on Sept. 11, nor will they say how far it has been widened.

    Also being re-examined is the protocol over who can respond to domestic hijackings. Until Sept 11, law enforcement handled hijackings, and the military responded only when asked and approved by the top brass.

    It created a situation where military commanders had to improvise, and Toledo played right into that scenario that sunny Tuesday morning.

    The base was not assigned to NORAD's regular defense network - meaning it was not supposed to even expect a call for help, military officials said.

    But, with about three dozen pilots and 20 F-16s, the 180th offered the right personnel and location to intercept and, if ordered, shoot down any hijacked airliners that strayed into the Midwest.

    It was not as if Toledo's personnel were oblivious to real-life action: Less than four weeks before NORAD's call, the 180th had returned from flying patrol missions in Iraq's no-fly zone.

    Still, the orders that came down that Sept. 11 morning were like no others. While they practice "air interception," a typical mission focuses on either a plane ferrying drugs or enemy fighters approaching America's coasts, said Gen. Paul Sullivan, who heads all Ohio Air Guard units.

    It's not to find and - potentially - shoot down airliners.

    "In very general terms, they were being asked to do some very serious things when they didn't have the chance to sit down and ask the kinds of questions they would normally ask while preparing for a mission," General Sullivan said.

    To Colonel Chudzinkski, the pilots must have felt that all their time and training had paid off.

    "It's like preparing for a game, except it's for real," the colonel said. "For these guys, the time had finally come."

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