This is a serious question. It is not rhetorical. I would like honest answers.
Below is a map of the flight paths of the airplanes hijacked on September 11, 2001.
From today's hearings:
bq. During Thursday's hearing of the 9/11 commission, Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart was asked whether it would have been "physically possible" for U.S. fighters to intercept the planes, if everything had gone perfectly.
Eberhart responded: "I assume in the preface to your question -- you assume that FAA told us as soon as they knew, and if that is the case, yes, we could shoot down the aircraft."
What I would like to know is this: How likely is it that, if NORAD has scrambled the fighters in time, they would be able to strike the planes and take them down without casualties on the ground (in addition to casualties from the plane)?
Or do you automatically assume that there will be casualties on the ground? How much time would you have to weigh your options? Could the fighters force the planes to fly over non-residential areas and then take them down? Wouldn't that be a moot point if they were under the assumption that there were bombs on board (as the hijackers would probably blow up the plane before letting the fighters take it down)?
Again, I ask these questions in all seriousness. How perfect would the circumstances have to have been for NORAD to be able to get those planes down with the minimum amount of dead?
: please see the extended entry for some technical experise on this issue.
Via email from Lionel Mandrake:
I served in Britain's Royal Air Force and will tell you what I know.
If NORAD (or whomever was responsible) was told about the rogue flights in time, it should have been possible, but maybe difficult, to shoot them down.
First of all, there is much more 'empty' land than built up areas in the US, so it is highly likely they could have been shot down in a 'safe' place.
The main problem is getting the interceptors to the 'bogey' quickly. If the bogey is close to a UASF base, great. If not, there is a problem. Most civilians 'know' that Air Force interceptors are capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. While this is true, it is conditional. They fly at that speed by using reheat. Reheat works by injecting fuel into the hot exhaust gases from the engine. This ignites it, and provides many extra pounds of thrust. BUT, this gobbles up fuel at a frightening rate, and so can only be done over short distances (sometimes quoted as the 'dash speed' of an aircraft.
The second problem is that not all external stores (missiles, bombs, fuel tanks) are rated to be flown at that speed - it's embarrassing if your laser guided bombs fall of at 1,100 mph. Enough external stores also effect the 'all up' weight of a plane. Above a certain weight, the thrust to weight ratio looks really shitty, and you can't go supersonic whatever you do - too much weight to haul around the skies.
Without reheat engaged, the maximum cruising speed of an interceptor is just below the speed of sound i.e. around the same speed as a commercial airliner. This, depending on the position of the interceptor and airliner, can make it very difficult to intercept. Only Concorde and planes like the SR-71 were capable of sustained supersonic flight.
There are ways around all this:
1. In-flight refuelling. This extends the range of your interceptors, but takes time. It also means the equation is complicated by having to get the refuelling plane into position.
2. Decide the problem is serious enough to warrant the loss of the interceptors. That is, you tell the pilots that nothing is more important than shooting down the plane. They get there as quickly as they can, spending fuel recklessly. Hopefully they shoot down the bogey. They almost certainly run out of fuel and have to eject. You lose the plane, you may lose the crew.
3. Desperation model. You may have unarmed planes already in the air (this is common during peacetime). Explain the problem to the crews and ask for volunteers. You ask them to try and force the plane down, in extremis this may involve ramming it. Hopefully the crew ejects successfully.