Washington Air National Guard fighter jets scrambled in a desperate but vain attempt to intercept two of the hijacked airliners that brought terror to New York and Washington, a senior Pentagon official revealed Friday.
Offering previously undisclosed details of the military's reaction to the attack, Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, acknowledged that if the F-15s and F-16s had caught up with the hijacked passenger planes, their mission might have been futile.
"What does he do when he gets there? You're not going to get an American pilot shooting down an American airliner," Weaver said. "We don't have permission to do that."
Only the president could issue such an order, Weaver confirmed.
The Guard planes responded nevertheless, Weaver said, on orders from the Northeast Air Defense Sector, which had been alerted by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pulling a chronology from his pocket, the general offered the following details, using Eastern Daylight Time:
At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston's Logan Airport hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Seven minutes later, two F-15 fighters from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., scrambled to chase the second plane that hit the trade center, United Airlines Flight 175, which had taken off from Boston at 8:14 a.m. and had deviated from its course.
At that point, it was uncertain that Flight 175 had been hijacked, Weaver said, but the FAA had told the air defense sector that "there was an airplane that had a problem."
By the time the F-15s were airborne, United 175 was nine minutes away from plowing into the south tower of the World Trade Center, and the fighter planes were more than 100 miles away.
"We had a nine-minute window, and we had in excess of 100 miles to intercept 175," Weaver said. "There was just literally no way."
The pilots flew "like a scalded ape," topping 500 mph, but were unable to catch up to the airliner, Weaver said. After Flight 175 hit the trade center, the F-15s began circling New York City in case of further hijacked planes.
American Airlines Flight 77, which would hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., took off from Dulles International Airport near Washington at 8:10 a.m., flew west for 45 minutes, then turned east.
"Whoever was flying it had turned off the transponder," Weaver noted, referring to the device that identifies an airliner to air traffic control.
"They came back on the (radar) scope at 9:10 in West Virginia," Weaver said. With the F-15s that had scrambled from Otis Air Force Base about 350 miles away, Air Guard F-16 Falcon fighters from Langley Air Force Base, Va., were ordered to try to intercept American 77.
The Northeast Air Defense Sector "scrambled F-16s that were on alert at Langley Air Force Base at 9:35. The crash happened at 9:37," Weaver said. The F-16s then remained in the area, on patrol over the crippled Pentagon.
No Air National Guard or other military planes were scrambled to chase the fourth hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 93, from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Weaver said.