9/11: The Saga of the Skies
Chaos and control over Washington, while the Pentagon burned.
- By Lynn Spencer
- AirSpaceMag.com, May 15, 2008
USAF / Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis
(Page 2 of 2)
As Razin watches fighters peel off in all directions to intercept targets, descending on them like bees to a hive, he realizes that the chances of a mishap are high. There is simply no existing protocol for a combat air patrol like this over an American city, where the threat might be coming in at any altitude and from any direction and where the air defenses are a collage from various bases and branches of the military. He radios his Supervisor of Flying, Dog Thompson, to see if he can call the various units to find out their taskings and radio frequencies so that they can at least develop some semblance of coordination.
When the DCANG asserts its authority over the operation, however, it causes some tension. Dog, the Supervisor of Flying of the D.C. Guard, gets on the phone to the SOF of the 177th Fighter Wing in Atlantic City, Lt. Col. James Haye. “We’ve got airplanes running all over the place!” Dog snaps. “We’ve got to coordinate here or someone is going to end up shooting someone down!”
Haye is not pleased with what he’s hearing. “Wait a minute,” he objects, “no one should be shooting at anyone. This is getting way out of control!”
A spirited discussion follows. Dog repeatedly asks for the radio frequency that the Atlantic City jets are on and the details of their mission over the capital. Being there in Washington, one of the Capital Guardians, he feels a natural inclination to take the lead in bringing order to the situation, but Haye is agitated. He is not even sure of all the answers to the questions Dog is asking, and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that the D.C. Guard pilots are operating under different rules of engagement than are his own fighters. Those rules of engagement—flying weapons-free—are not sitting too well with Haye. Firing weapons is a very serious matter, and the insinuation that “someone is going to get shot down” unless something changes is simply unacceptable.
“Listen, I have airplanes down there, and you have airplanes down there,” Haye growls, “and nobody is talking on the same frequency! If you guys have a target, I strongly suggest that you be sure to make visual identification before shooting!”
Tensions between the D.C. Guard and Atlantic City will run strong for days to come.
Over Washington, Razin knows that he has the ability to bring order to this combat air patrol. Having just completed Fighter Weapons School—the highest level of training for a fighter pilot—he knows how to develop a strategic plan to best utilize and organize these planes, and he needs to do that right here, right now.
While the fighters around him work to identify and intercept targets of interest, he moves into an orbit right in the center, directly over the National Mall. He begins to jot notes and make diagrams on the paper clamped to his kneeboard. He’s going to organize the melee. And if, in the interim, a hostile aircraft makes it to the center of the city, he’ll be the one to deliver its fate.
Razin manages to gather the capabilities, radio frequencies, and armament of the various fighters over the city. He then works to organize them to provide maximum intercept and strike capabilities, determining what areas and altitudes each will cover, what frequencies they will communicate on, and where a tanker will be positioned. When he has finished, he shares the plan with the others. To air traffic controller Dan Creedon, listening on the frequency, it sounds like they’re arguing. Yet Razin would say that it is military coordination at its finest, and the D.C. Air National Guard is taking the lead. Despite being from different squadrons, their years of training and common military language allow them to quickly synchronize their efforts.
For NEADS Battle Commander Bob Marr, that’s just fine. Building an air defense for the entire Northeast out of what was three hours earlier just four aircraft from two units is no easy task. With the D.C. Guard managing the combat air patrol over Washington, he has one less city to worry about.
North American Aerospace Defense Command Center, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, 11:30 a.m.
The 3-foot-thick, 25-ton steel blast doors at Cheyenne Mountain have closed for the first time in history. Locked inside NORAD’s command center, Gen. Ralph “Ed” Eberhart has been participating in the National Military Command Center’s teleconference. His chief of air defense operations now wants to implement SCATANA, short for Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids. SCATANA is a plan that was developed in the 1960s to clear the skies in the event of a confirmed missile attack from the Soviet Union. The plan shuts down all the navigational aids in the country and closes the airspace so that bombers, missiles, airborne command posts, and support aircraft can operate unencumbered.
General Eberhart is not sure that the order is appropriate. With new hijackings still being reported, however, he knows he must take action. He issues a modified SCATANA order known as ESCAT, Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic. The order allows for the continued operation of navigational aids, and also selective approval for specific and necessary flights. The order won’t ground everything, but it will give the military what they need for the current circumstances.
Notice is sent out to all civil and military air traffic control facilities: the skies now officially belong to NORAD. Across the country, airport facilities begin broadcasting alerts to all aircraft that the airspace is closed and that violating aircraft will be fired upon. For the 30 aircraft still airborne, that is nerve-wracking news.
At 12:16 the Federal Aviation Administration Command Center announces that the airspace has been successfully shut down. There are no commercial airliners flying over the United States. The military has taken firm control of the skies and fighters have moved into position escorting the last two suspicious international flights headed toward U.S. airspace.
Excerpted from Touching History. Copyright ® 2008 by Lynn Spencer. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.