American Voice 2004: Why didn’t military jets intercept the hijacked airliner before it crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q.  On September 11 why didn’t military fighter jets intercept the plane that crashed into the Pentagon? Wasn’t there enough time for the jets to get there after the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center?


The 9/11 Commission is examining this issue. As Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball commented in Newsweek last fall “the commission has been highly interested in compiling a precise time line of the events of September 11 and examining closely how various branches of the U.S. government responded…” Indeed, last October the Commission unanimously voted to use its subpoena power for the first time to request further records from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to clarify that time line.

It has been remarkably difficult to reconstruct the precise timing of events. For example, United Airlines Flight 93, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03. The FAA says it occurred at 10:07. The New York Times, drawing on information from flight controllers in more than one FAA facility estimated the time at 10:10. Mary Schiavo, a former Department of Transportation Inspector General in testimony before the 9/11 Commission last May claimed that ordinarily events are parsed down to thousandths of a second. As one aviation expert put it, “In terms of an air disaster, seven minutes is close to an eternity.”

Having said this, there is substantial agreement on the sequence of events that took place on that tragic morning from the time American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston at 7:59AM to the time Flight 93 crashed a little over 2 hours later.

9/11 Timeline

7:59AM-American Airlines Flight 11 bound for Los Angeles takes off from Boston’s Logan Airport.

8:10-American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles takes off from Virginia’s Dulles Airport

8:13-Communication with Flight 11 ceases.

8:14-United Airlines Flight 175, bound for San Francisco takes off from Logan

8:19-Two flight attendants, Betty Ong and Madeline (Amy) Sweeney use cell phones to call American Airlines from the plane. They report weapons on board, loss of communications with the pilots, one passenger murdered and two crew members stabbed. Sweeney maintains this is no ordinary hijacking. She provides the seat numbers of three of the hijackers. Within minutes American Airlines has their names, addresses, phone numbers and credit cards. One of them is identified as Mohammed Atta, a known operative for Al Queda who later turns out to have been the hijackers’ ringleader.

8:20- Flight 11’s transponder stops transmitting its Friend or Foe (IFF) beacon signal. The plane turns south, heading toward New York.

8:20 (approx.)-Air traffic controllers at Logan Airport contact the pilot of United Airlines Flight 175 which at 8:14 a.m. had left bound for California and ask him to help locate Flight 11.

8:20 (approx.)-Flight 11 Captain John Ogonowski, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam begins to intermittently trigger the push-to-talk button on the aircraft’s steering wheel so that the FAA can hear conversations.

8:24-The FAA hears a hijacker on Flight 11 say, “We have more planes. We have other planes.”

8:38 (approx.)-Boston air traffic center notifies NORAD that Flight 11 has been hijacked.

8:42-United Airlines Flight 93, destination Los Angeles, takes off from Newark International Airport.

8:43-FAA notifies NORAD that Flight 175 has been hijacked.

8:44-Otis Air National Guard Base in Mass. orders fighters scrambled.

8:46-Flight 11 strikes the World Trade Center’s north tower.

8:47-NORAD is informed of Flight 11 hitting the World Trade Center.

8:48-First news broadcasts of the crash appear on radio and television

8:50-Flight 175 deviates from its assigned flight path.

8:55-Flight 77 veers off course

9:02-Flight 175 strikes the World Trade Center’s south tower (F-15 fighter jets from Otis are about 70 miles away.)

9:06-All air traffic in New York area is grounded.

9:16-FAA informs NORAD that Flight 93 has been hijacked.

9:25-FAA notifies NORAD that Flight 77 has been hijacked.

9:27-9:35 — (approx) NORAD orders jets scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to intercept Flight 77.

9:38-Flight 77 strikes the Pentagon.

9:40-Transponder signal from Flight 93 ceases. Radar contact is lost.

9:49- F-16s arrive over Washington

10:03 (approx)-Flight 93 crashes in Pennsylvania

10:00 (approx.)-President Bush gives the order to shoot down any commercial airliner controlled by hijackers

This is the sequence of events. The controversy involves when the FAA contacted NORAD and when NORAD gave the order to scramble jets. Protocols dictate that in the event of an emergency the FAA is to notify NORAD. Once that occurs NORAD is to scramble fighter jets to intercept errant planes. It is not uncommon for fighter jets to intercept commercial airlines to regain contact with pilot.

NORAD says it was not contacted until 8:40, 20 minutes after the FAA first discovered Flight 11 had been hijacked. Former FAA administrator Jane Garvey says notification took place at 8:34.

NORAD says it was not notified until 9:24 that Flight 77 had been hijacked, 22 minutes after the second plane had hit the WTC. It says that by 9:30 three F-16s were airborne from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.

The FAA maintains there were informal discussions with NORAD before that, when Flight 77 first veered off course. FAA says it established an open phone line with NORAD to discuss both Flight 77 and Flight 93. If the FAA is right, NORAD might have had as much as 50 minutes to order airborne its fighter jets.

However, it is doubtful that the jets could have shot down a commercial airliner withour formal authorization from the President, which did not occur until after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.


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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.