'We Knew We Had a Deliberate Action'

Before the first jet hit the World Trade Center, Ottawa's Major-Gen. Eric Findley was ready to respond to acts of terror. His actions on Sept. 11 will earn him one of Canada's highest honours, George Kampouris reports.

by George Kampouris
The Ottawa Citizen
September 11, 2002

Early on the morning of last Sept. 11, at the core of Cheyenne Mountain on the Colorado Plateau, Canadian Major-Gen. Eric Findley was already on high alert.

A joint U.S.-Canada defence force was three days into a training exercise known as Vigilant Guardian. They were "battle cab" -- on high alert -- with key officers manning the most sophisticated communications and control technology on earth. The mandate of Cheyenne's staff, led by Gen. Findley on that day, was to respond to any threat in the skies over Canada and the United States.

At 8:40 a.m., Norad's Northeast Air Defence Sector took a call from air control in Boston regarding a possible hijacked airliner, American Airlines Flight 11. Fighter planes were ordered to take off.

Gen. Findley was "in the chair" -- director of combat operations for the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) -- when the call came in to Cheyenne. He immediately confirmed authorization of the fighters' deployment.

"At that point all we thought was we've got an airplane hijacked and we were going to provide an escort as requested" by the Federal Aviation Administration, he said in an interview with the Citizen. "We certainly didn't know it was going to play out as it did."

It is Gen. Findley's response to the terror attacks of that day, orchestrated from deep within the Norad Battle Management Center in Cheyenne Mountain, that has earned him the honour of Canada's Meritorious Service Cross. He will receive the medal in a ceremony Sept. 27 at Government House in Ottawa.

Gen. Findley, 52, was born in Ottawa and has spent a good part of his military career in this region. After joining the Forces in 1968 and training as a pilot, he graduated with a bachelor's degree from Carleton University.

After spending time posted to helicopter tactical squadrons in Edmonton, CFB Gagetown and Germany, Gen. Findley became commanding officer of a helicopter squadron at CFB Petawawa, west of Ottawa, in 1988.

Peacekeeping postings to Egypt, Israel and Central America were followed by a return to Ottawa in the early 1990s, for various jobs at National Defence headquarters and a stint as commander of CFB Ottawa before it closed.

Gen. Findley's vast experience served him well on the day the call came from Boston -- a day on which "we couldn't pull a plan off the shelf," he said. "There was no plan."

But there was also no panic. "Nobody was overwhelmed and nobody hesitated," he said. "Everybody knew what they had to do."

Images from CNN showed a World Trade Center tower with "a smoking hole in it." But it wasn't yet clear that the hijacked plane and the damaged tower were linked.

When the second plane hit the tower, "we knew we had something much more sinister than just an accident, a really co-ordinated and deliberate action."

A special air-threat conference call was made to connect the major regional command and operation centres in both countries. The voices on the line that morning included those of President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Gen. Findley and his staff responded by ordering as many fighters in the air as possible. "We were trying to achieve response capability over metropolitan areas and other vital points," he said. "Fighters have a limited amount of fuel so we wanted to have replacements in the air."

Flight 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46, the moment fighters were ordered into the air. Military jets were eight minutes away when a plane struck the second tower and 12 minutes behind the plane that slammed into the Pentagon.

Fighters already in the air above Washington were prepared to shoot down the fourth hijacked airliner if it came toward the capital. Instead, passengers rushed the terrorists, causing the Boeing 757 to crash in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"The way the attacks were executed, there was only a small chance of an intercept," Gen. Findley said. "By the time the fourth aircraft was hijacked we had air combat patrols over New York and Washington."

In the hours that followed, 11 aircraft were reported flying unexpected routes or were not in communication with control facilities. The order was made to "sanitize" airspace above both countries. Commercial flights were forced to land and departures were stopped nationwide.

When the first alert was made, Norad had only 20 fighters on armed alert in North America. Within 18 hours, some 300 fighters and 100 warships would be in play across North America, effecting a continent-wide lockdown.

Receiving the Meritorious Service Cross is an awkward thing, said Gen. Findley (who also co-ordinated air security for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and has tracked Santa's progress at Christmas on a Norad Web site for children).

"Because there were so many people that stepped forward, no one can truly say they did anything by themselves." He said he appreciates the honour but wishes it could be shared by all involved.

Copyright 2002 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp.

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