Failure of Air National Guard to intercept hijacked aircraft sees fighters on 15min alert

The US Air Force is simultaneously bolstering the air defences of the North American continent while deploying 1st Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) units to the Gulf in readiness for retaliation.

The air force has moved quickly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC to strengthen the US defences. It has placed fighters on 15min quick reaction alert status and increased to 26 the number of air bases assigned to the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). It has also implemented a standing combat air patrol in the 195nm (360km) corridor between New York and Washington. This has entailed the mobilisation of 13,000 Air National Guard (ANG) personnel as part of a wider call-up.

This follows the failure of ANG fighters to intercept any of the hijacked aircraft. NORAD ordered two Boeing F-15s to scramble from Otis ANGB, Massachussetts, only 2min before the first hijacked aircraft, an American Airlines Boeing 767, hit the north World Trade Center tower.

The fighters were still more than 60nm from the city when the United Airlines 767 hit the second tower. Three Lockheed Martin F-16s took off from Langley AFB, Virginia, over 30min later to intercept an American Boeing 757, which by then was only 3min from crashing into the Pentagon.

The US Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for covering domestic airspace and according to NORAD it was only notified of the first hijacking 18min after the transponder on the American 767 was switched off. Another factor was that the nearest NORAD units, at Otis ANGB and at Langley AFB, are around 175nm (320km) and 115nm respectively from New York and Washington DC.

Prior to the 11 September attack the number of NORAD squadrons had been reduced to 10 ANGunits operating from 14 bases across the USA. There were closer non-NORAD bases and units, including an ANG F-16 unit at Andrews AFB near Washington. The fourth hijacked aircraft, a United 757 from Newark, was also believed to be heading for the US capital before crashing in Pennsylvania.

The USAF has started deploying to Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia up to 100 additional aircraft, comprised of F-15s, F-16s, Boeing B-1Bs, B-52s and KC-135s drawn from two aerospace expeditionary wings. The US Navy has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is expected to join the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise now in the Gulf and Arabian Sea respectively.

Other deployments include two major exercises providing a significant increase in manpower and equipment outside the operational build-up. UK forces are in Oman for Exercise Saif Sareea II - including around 60 aircraft - while 20,000 UStroops are due in Egypt for Operation Bright Star.

Source: Flight International