Chain of Events at NORAD on September 11

by Mike Taibbi
Dateline NBC
September 23, 2001

JANE PAULEY: Good evening.

The national mourning will not end with the return of flags at full staff, and while attention turns toward the mobilization against the terror assault on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, some have asked: With four hijacked commercial jets in the air that day, what was the role of our air defense? Tonight, new details emerge about the chain of events on September 11th. We go inside the North American aerospace defense command, NORAD, where those in charge of defending our airspace encountered an enemy who had struck in a way they had never foreseen. Here's Mike Taibbi.

MIKE TAIBBI reporting: (Voiceover) The pilots of NORAD are America's first line of defense against an attack from the skies. But on Tuesday, September 11th, those pilots and their commander, Major General Larry Arnold, would have to respond in a way they never anticipated to a threat that was unprecedented. General Arnold told DATELINE NORAD's traditional mission is clearly defined.

(NORAD pilots; planes; Major General Larry Arnold)

TAIBBI: Put simply, NORAD looks out, not in, generally speaking.

Major General LARRY ARNOLD: Absolutely.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) But this time, the threat came from within, and NORAD had to adjust immediately and dramatically.


Unidentified Woman: November 245, tango, tango. That's an aircraft.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) September 11th begins in NORAD's sector control room at Florida's Tyndale Air Force Base. It's 8:40 AM exactly when the FAA alerts this desk in sector control to report a problem with American Airlines Flight 11 bound from Boston to Los Angeles. The plane's transponder, which identifies the plane and transmits flight information, isn't working and the aircraft has made a left turn heading toward New York. The FAA tells NORAD the plane might--might be in the hands of hijackers.

(NORAD's sector control room; map showing Flight 11's route; control room)

TAIBBI: You don't know at that point why they have made that determination.

Gen. ARNOLD: We don't.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) But procedures kick in instantly. At 8:40, mission crew control turns to the weapons desk and orders NORAD pilots to battle stations.

(Control room)

Gen. ARNOLD: Battle stations, the pilot is sitting in an airplane ready to go, engines are not running.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) One possibly hijacked aircraft is a big enough problem. But then...

(Video of plane)

TAIBBI: Eight forty-three, another call from FAA, another call to your ID section saying, 'We think we've got a second aircraft that's been hijacked.' What changes at that point?

Gen. ARNOLD: By that time, I believe that we were in the scramble mode for those aircraft.

TAIBBI: The scramble time is not a fixed number, but in this instance, from the time, mission crew control turned to weapons and ordered battle stations at the nearest base, in this case Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, until the time two F-15s were airborne--six minutes.

(Voiceover) It's now 8:46. Two F-15s like these are wheels up at almost the precise moment American Airlines Flight 11 slams into Tower One at the Trade Center.

(F-15s flying; Tower One at the World Trade Center)

Gen. ARNOLD: In the meantime, our pilots were coming at about 1.5 mach, which is, you know, somewhere--11 or 1200 miles an hour.

TAIBBI: And they know where they're going at that point? The first...

Gen. ARNOLD: They're coming to New York. They're coming to New York. That's exactly right.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) As the planes chased the threat, General Arnold and the NORAD staff can't help noticing the live pictures on a nearby television screen.

(Arnold with NORAD staff; video of World Trade Center on fire)

Gen. ARNOLD: Like so many other people, we actually saw the second aircraft--went into the second tower--come through and hit it, and I blinked. I--I couldn't believe that that was actually happening.

TAIBBI: When the second plane hits the second tower, the fighter jets are eight minutes away--too late. And while all this is happening, the enormity of it reaches into the NORAD nerve center, just as it does to thousands of homes and offices elsewhere.

(F-15s; NORAD staff)

Gen. ARNOLD: We had our public affairs officer, who was talking to his brother in the Tower Number Two, and after talking to him for awhile, he said, 'Well, I better get out of here.' And his brother was killed.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) That won't be confirmed until later. But in this terrible hour, NORAD has more problems. At 9:24, with both Trade Center towers afire and on the verge of collapse, another call from the FAA. Another jetliner, American Flight 77, bound from Washington's Dulles Airport to Los Angeles, has U-turned back toward the nation's capital. At 9:30, three more attack jets join the life and death race, but from 130 miles away in Virginia...

(Control room; video of World Trade Center on fire; control room; video of plane; F-15s)

TAIBBI: The F-16s that scrambled out of Langley Air Force Base--a lot's been made about that fact that Langley's a lot further from Washington, DC, than is Andrews, than are other facilities.

Gen. ARNOLD: We don't have any aircraft on alert at Andrews. Our mission, again, was to defend against those attacks coming from outside. And we were--we were poised to be able to do that.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) And at 9:43, when American Flight 77 dives into the Pentagon, the F-16s are still 12 minutes away.

(Computer graphic of airplane crashing into Pentagon)

TAIBBI: Had they gotten there, the hijacked aircraft, what, if anything, could they have done?

Gen. ARNOLD: No one would have known the intent of the hijackers. And without that, I don't think anyone would have been able to order them to shoot down that--that aircraft.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (From file footage) Today, we've had a national tragedy.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) No one but the president, who actually gives that order minutes before the last of the four hijacked jetliners, United Flight 93 bound from Newark to San Francisco crashes outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

(President George W. Bush; map showing route of plane)

TAIBBI: Were there aircraft in position, armed aircraft, ready to shoot it down?

Gen. ARNOLD: There were armed aircraft from our alert detachment at Langley, that were over the--over Washington, DC.

TAIBBI: Ready to shoot it down?

Gen. ARNOLD: Yes, if need be.

TAIBBI: (Voiceover) In a single morning, NORAD's mission has changed. There are now random orbits of reconnaissance planes over potential target cities and fighter jets ready to scramble not from seven air bases, as were the norm, but from from 26 bases nationwide. And one more key change--General Arnold and NORAD are saying publicly that the order to shoot down a domestic jetliner, unthinkable before that Tuesday, no longer has to come directly from the president, but has been, in his word, delegated.

(NORAD staff; planes; Arnold)

Gen. ARNOLD: I think that we have a great chance of being able to stop the kinds of attack that we had on the 11th.

PAULEY: When we return, why some say we should have known the terror attacks were coming.


Copyright 2001 National Broadcasting Co. Inc.

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