9/11: The Saga of the Skies

Chaos and control over Washington, while the Pentagon burned.

(USAF / Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis)

(Continued from page 2)

“Roger that!” the pilot responds, and one by one, Smurf checks in all the Marine fighters.

But having these fighters is helpful only if Northeast Air Defense Sector can communicate with them, and right now radio reception is nonexistent below 20,000 feet over Washington. The NEADS radio transmitter, like all radio transmitters, operates by line of sight. This means that the radio signals, which travel in a straight line, require an unobstructed path between the transmitter and the jets. Given the curvature of the earth and the distance to Washington, the fighters’ radio receivers cannot pick up the NEADS signal when they descend below that line of sight. What’s needed is an Airborne Early Warning and Control System plane, which has the capability to provide both radar and radio coverage over a citywide area.

Smurf gets on his radio to an AWACS from the 552nd Air Control Wing of Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Earlier this morning, the aircraft had been in the D.C. area for a training mission, but in the immediate confusion after the attacks it had been directed to return to its Oklahoma base. Smurf calls for it to turn right back around.

“Here’s the deal,” he announces. “We need you to cover the NCA [National Capital Area].”

“Roger that,” the pilot responds. “Where do you want us?”

“No, no,” Smurf answers. “You’re the one with the big jet with the rotor-dome on it. You tell me where you need to go to get me a surface-to-infinity look at that area.”

The problem of radar and radio coverage over D.C. has been solved. For Smurf, it’s right on to the next task.

As the skies over the nation’s capital become ever more dense with military aircraft, D.C. Air National Guard pilot Razin Caine is concerned by what he’s seeing. There’s no real communication between the units, and even less coordination. It’s as close to complete chaos as he’s ever seen in the skies. Some fighters are talking to Approach Control, others to Washington Center. Some are taking orders from NEADS, others from the Secret Service. Differing rules of engagement are only adding to the confusion. Flying low and weapons-free over Washington, the DCANG pilots are unaware that they are the only fighters in the country flying with weapons-free shoot-down authority.

Communication is cumbersome at best. The fighters are having to deal with multiple, uncustomary frequencies. They’re using both Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency radios to talk to each other, to NEADS, to their bases, and to air traffic controllers. They’re also relaying messages back and forth between NEADS and the controllers so that everyone stays on the same page with respect to targets.

The air traffic control facilities do not have direct connections to NEADS. Before today, they’ve never needed direct contact. Controller Dan Creedon at Washington Approach tries to find a phone number for NEADS, but has no luck. He asks the fighters, but the best they are able to do is to give him NEADS’s discrete radio frequency. He tunes in the frequency on an extra transceiver, and then he can at least hear what NEADS is saying to the fighters. The pilots will no longer have to relay to him such things as “Huntress wants us to investigate a target here” or “Huntress is wanting us to go refuel here.” Now he is able to be more careful about not talking to the fighter pilots when he hears them communicating back and forth to NEADS on the military frequency.

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