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A Question About Shooting Down Planes

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. flight_paths.jpe 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? Update: 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. .


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» The Sept. 11 Commission (updated) from Being American in T.O.
June 17 - Panel: U.S. unprepared 'in every respect' to stop the hijacking jets on 9/11 but there was something they did do which contradicts this statement: THEY GROUNDED ALL AIR TRAFFIC. THEY CLOSED THE BORDER. Remember the events of... [Read More]

» IRAQ AND AL-QAEDA from Heretical Ideas
James Joyner rebuts the 9/11 Commission's assertion that Iraq and al-Qaeda had no link.It should be noted, however, that the Commission also seemed to have demanded an inordinately high standard of evidence, unable to establish definitively, in their v... [Read More]

» A Question About Shooting Down Planes from The Shape of Days
Yesterday (I miss a lot when I don't make my regular rounds) Michele asked a question about shooting down planes. Her answer came from Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. Without reheat engaged, the maximum cruising speed of an interceptor is just [Read More]


Hindsight is 20/20. Liberal hindsight it 20/10.

IMHO the cruz of the problem is "under perfect circumstances"... umm...that just doesn't happen. One can plan, one can train, one can even try to brainstorm every circumstance and something will not be thought of. History shows us D-Day that had both its botches and its successes beyond the predictions of the people in charge.

As much as most cops are aware that every traffic stop can harbor a person willing to kill them, that scenario is repeated way too much everyday.

My oldest daughter is a paramedic. Last weekend she went to the funeral of a co-worker, a woman only a couple of years older than her. The woman had just gone through a divorce, was staying with some friends while she looked for a new place to live and one night two weeks ago, she went out and threw herself in front of a train. Her friends are now beating themselves up, trying to remember everything she had said or done looking for the clues they "missed" and engaging in the "if only I had done...." over and over again.

Then I had to witness the sheer insane crap coming out of the so-called 9/11 commission when they attacked Rudy and the police and fire officials. How much different is this from a scenario in which outsiders would attack the suicider's friends for not devining her intentions and stopping them?

IMHO I'm sure the scenarios of bringing down a civilian plane by the military exists, and I'm sure that if/when such a scenario actually becomes reality it won't match the the book. It will be handled on-the-fly, so to speak, relying on training and goals, but still being decided real-time.

Faith: umm, that's actually better than average vision. It means they can see at 20 feet what others can see at 10. Much more accurate to say their vision is 20/200. That's the legal definition of blindness.

oops.... cruz = crux devining = divining


this is what I get for trying to hurry and get things posted before I have to go back to work.


Err, unless that was your point. If so, sorry.

yes Big Brother, that was my point.

too many Liberals forgive every character fault amongst themselves and demand prescience from everyone else.

Thanks, Darleen, makes what I was trying to say clearer for those who don't like or understand metaphor.

I have no idea if they could shoot them down. But I know this: there would have been bloody hell to pay if they shot down even one civilian airliner.

As for the technical issues, it was not that easy for the Soviets to shoot down KAL007 despite the fact that the Sukhoi 15 used missiles with far larger warheads. Depending on the model used air-to-air missiles may not destroy modern airliners. Instead, you might have a cripple which will come down a random distance away - perhaps even under partial control.

But the simple reality is that on the morning of Sept 11th, no one was prepared to shoot down multiple civilian airliners on the suspicion that they were going to be guided into buildings. No one in the chain of command was ruthless enough to do that until at least the first two had crashed into WTC. It wasn't five minutes here or ten minutes there that was going to make the difference. Such a decision wasn't going to be made until after it was obvious that hundreds or thousands of people had been killed.

As much as I'd like to know who screwed up when so it might not happen again, once the original failings allowed the hijackers to take off in those planes, there was no happy ending. Maybe NORAD might have been able to force them out to sea. Maybe they would have been able to shoot them down over a field. Either way, I agree... instead of arguing about whether they should have shot them down to prevent 9-11, we'd be horrified that our military shot down civilian aircraft without absolute proof that they were going to do anything other than hijack them and take the passengers hostage.

I do not subscribe to the theory that no one could have done anything to prevent 9-11. I think there was plenty that the Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush series of administrations could have done to have taken out the threat from al-Qaeda (rather than feeding them arms and money!!). But this particular piece of navel gazing is pointless in my opinion.

How will the situation change when Congress eventually mandates IAI-style anti-missile defenses for airliners?

WHat Ken said. If they had been shot down, we'd be hearing endlessly about how Bush wanted to scare us all with phony claims about a terrorist plot and killed hundreds of innocent American airliner passengers as a pretext. And, of course, those ordered to do the shooting down, and the whole chain of command, would be the target of a wonderful set of conspiracy theories and personal attacks, I'm sure.

(Oh, how I wish I was making this up.)

Pilots that are intercepted must adhere to very strict procedures and every pilot must be familiar with these rules.

I would assume that the military would analyze the ground situation as long as they have time, attempt to maneuver the aircraft away from populated areas (not likely) and minimize risk.

However, if the intruder does not respond properly after being intercepted, the interceptors would probably be under orders to take action before the intruder comes with 'x' miles of a specific location. (i.e. the Capitol Building).

To answer your question directly Michele I don't see how there can be any guarantees about the ground casualties.

I finally see a use for the phrase "very perfect". There would have been hell to pay for having done so, too, making the inqusition into the events of 9-11 look like a Sunday School picnic.

So far as I know, there were NO armed planes in the air or on the runway at 8 a.m. on 9/11/01. Armed patrols had been discontinued some years before.

The first planes in the air were Reserve guys who were at a base to get in some flying time. They were not armed.

Arming an aircraft takes about 20 minutes. That's providing that everyone involved knows that they are going to arm the aircraft. Spring it on them, and "Where the hell are the keys to the armory?" "They want us to do what?" "I want that order in writing, sir."

Robin is correct. A 767 is a lot bigger than an F-16. A Phoenix would certainly do the job but that's a Navy missle. Anything smaller and it becomes much ifier.

And, Michele, yes, there was a decent chance that the planes would injure someone on the ground.

"And, Michele, yes, there was a decent chance that the planes would injure someone on the ground."

True.. but Flight 93 didn't hit anyone on the ground (so far as I know).

One other interesting point. The NORAD guy didn't say HOW they planned to shoot down the planes.. we all just presumed they meant to use a fighter plane.

What Robin said. The only issue is could they have shot down Flights 77 & 93 (the two that hit the WTC were way too close together).

I'd like to see those flight paths overlaid on population centers or major pieces of infrastructure visible from the air. My guess would be there could have been plenty of people killed that day either way. Not the payoff the 9-11 19 were hoping for in the Towers, of course, but still hundreds if not thousands.

What I have read indicates that NORAD was considering ordering fighters to crash into the jetliners, because there were no armed aircraft flying. There was no way they could get approval for such an action in the time available. For that matter, I don't think they could have scrambled one of the aircraft in the air to a rendezvous with the hijacked aircraft.

Going through fuel-up through checklist for a fighter takes a couple of hour minimum. Prior to 9-11 we did not have jets flying air patrols over American cities "just in case." We also did not have aircraft "hot" on the ground ready to take off at a moment's notice. Both of those really eats cash and aircraft ready time. They would have nailed "W" for proflagrate spending.

Incidently, this makes sense. Who was going to attack us and with what? There is no way that either China or NK could fly planes to the US. Russia has enough troubles. Cuba? Well, I'd bet that we had some ready fighters down there, but McDill is a loooong way from Pennsy.

I'm not so sure we didn't shoot down Flight 93.

That doesn't mean "Let's Roll" didn't happen but if there was a plane they had a shot at, that was it.

Now, look at the kook conspiracy sites dealing with Flight 93 being shot down. It's nearly unaminous in derision and scorn of said decision.

Damn if they had, damned because they didn't.

As a WV native, I would guess that Flight 77 could have been taken down pretty much anywhere during the path over WV with relatively minimal casualties. It's a sparsely populated state; there few cities to speak of and about 75% of the state is covered by forests.

On that occasion when we had Osama in our sights some years back, the military could not get legal clearance to take HIM out. No one in their right mind would have given the go ahead to blast a US civilian airliner out of the sky.

The only solution would be to turn over all domestic air travel to El Al Airlines.

Something no-one else has mentioned: If the planes had been shot down by teh U.S. military, what then? This is a no win situation all the way around. There would have been hell to pay if the military had shot down 4 civilian airliners without proof of intent. Only after the first plane went into the tower would it have been permissible to destroy the other 3.

Look, the US military jets could have visually inspected the hijacked planes to determine whether the flight crew was in control of the plane.

Given the hijackers's lack of flying skills, it would not have been necessary for the military pilots to ram the jets, or shoot the jets down, simply flying in front of the jumbo jet and hitting the afterburner would have caused enough turbulence to 'take out' the plane.

A trained, skilled flight crew could recover from that manuever, the terrorists could not.

For no other reason than 'hunch' I don't think Flight 93 was shot down. Once something happened on the plane, something like the passengers entering the cockpit, which caused the plane to get out of level flight, I think the plane was going down. It's probable that the hijacker didn't have the flying skill to recover the aircraft safely.

Which is a simpler theory than 'we shot them down and hid the evidence'

Methinks that Mr. C'mon has seen one too many Steven Seagal movies.

What we really should have done was capture all the airliners in that tractor beam that we all know the government has.

Sorry Michele. C'mon made me do it.

There are no perfect circumstances, ever, in anything. Speculating about that scenario is so stupid as to be criminal. It's no different than saying, "Golly, if only I hadn't stopped for gas, I wouldn't have been in that intersection when the dump truck ran over my car". It makes me warm all over that I'm paying X% of my income to pay for this idiocy.

"How perfect would the circumstances have to have been...?" So perfect as to not matter. First, as others have done an excellent job of explaining, is the matter of getting planes in the air. 20 years ago we had fighters alert and ready to go at a moment's notice. Even at the lowest levels of tension between us and the USSR pilots were in bunkers near their planes 24/7. When tenions rose the pilot would move to waiting in the planes, then waiting with hot engines on the runway, to actually flying around ready to intercept Soviet bombers. Not any more. Say the siuation was perfect (and involved an unbelievable amount of luck) and armed fighters were already in the air over that portion of the US. Flights with live missiles are very very rare. Live cannon rounds are not rare, in fact they're the rule. The F-16 always flies with a full load of ammo for balance and weight reasons. Good luck taking out a jumbo jet with a cannon. Of course, as C'mon has pointed out, even knocking out one engine might have been sufficient.

The big question is would the pilots do it in time? I'm not saying they wouldn't obey orders. I'm a former AF officer; I know the level of discipline required for pilots. But out of the blue an order to shoot down a civilian jet? That would require a lot of confirmation. That would take a few minutes, at least. Finding the plane and positively identifying it isn't trivial either. Given all the hoops that would have to be jumped through, perfect is an understatement. First the FAA would have to notify the AF of the threat. Then that information would need to be transmitted to the fighter bases. Then, if a plane was miraculously in position, the base commander would probably need to give the order. Maybe not, but the CYA mentality that can grow in the military has to be considered. So in our perfect scenerio now we need a suitable plane in position, with someone capable of giving the order in possesion of all of the information about the threat. It's certainly possible, but likely in anything other than perfect circumstances? I don't think so. Civilian deaths on the ground are impossible to predict. It could be zero. It could be worse than what happened. What if a plane was shot down at the last second before it hit the Twin Towers and instead of hitting near the top of the buildings it went down at the base? Not good.

Anyway, so perfect as to not matter is still my answer.

The other thing nobody seems to consider is that until the first WTC tower collapsed, nobody would have thought shooting down the planes made sense, and by that time all the planes were down anyway.

No offense to anybody, but you have to be a fevered conspiracist to think Flight 93 was shot down. That kind of thing could never be kept secret for long.

You all have to simply trust that I'm telling you the truth on this. You've got no way of knowing whether or not what I'm about to tell you is true, or just plain bull, but for what it's worth...

I arrived at HQ NORAD/USSPACE in June of 2001. During Aug/Sep NORAD was in the middle of a an exercise, so I was wearing my NORAD hat in Cheyenne Mountain. I was on night shift. I was asleep at home in Colorado Springs when the towers and the Pentagon were hit, didn't find out about it until after when a neighbor came over crying and then I heard my wife say..."Oh my God!" and then she started crying and I figured I'd better get up.

Anyway, I stayed in the mountain for a couple of months after 9/11 and though I mostly was working comm issues, I was in a position to see many of the reports being generated after the fact.

Let me also say that having worked around Gen Eberhart as the NORAD/USSPACE and then NORAD/NORTHCOM Commander I would work for him anytime, anywhere, under any circumstance. He was going to retire in the summer of 2002. He had what I understand was a GREAT job lined up. The President asked him to stay on and stand up NORTHCOM and he did.

I'm no operator, I'm just an Info Manager...today's version of the old clerk. Radar O'Reilly with a computer and a whole lot of attitude. But I can read, and I can hear briefings when I have to click a mouse button for folks talking to the boss.

Without getting my ass in a sling for writing about stuff that I might have overheard...

I can say without any reservation that Gen Eberhart told the truth today. IF we'd known which planes were the bad guys and IF we'd gotten clearance and IF the AF pilots understood that they were doing the right thing...yeah, we could have stopped them. Don't forget, "Wars are fought by men." The human factor. Never ever forget the human factor. We in the military were in just as much shock as everyone else and those of us in NORAD were also HOT PISSED! Those bastards did this on OUR WATCH!

As far as SOP or ROE on where and when they could have been shot down...most pilots I've met over the past 20 years would rather ride a flaming bird down to a field than punch out and let their aircraft land in population. "Situational Awareness" means knowing where you are and what you're doing and what the consequences of the actions you're taking are, and our pilots work for hundreds of hours playing situational awareness games. "Pull the trigger, missile fires, travels from my aircraft to bandit, hits bandit at point X, based on spead and the fact that it's busting up....should land just about...over there somewhere." Yeah, they think about those things.

"How perfect would the circumstances have to have been?" There were windows in the hijacked planes' flight paths. It was doable IF...

But I find all of this playing of "What if...?" three years after the fact on the ridiculous side. Now we can imagine the events taking place. Now we can see that we were most vulnerable from within. Back then? Hell, we were actually more concerned with Russia playing ol' "catch me if you can" games off the coast of Alaska. It was in the papers...look it up.

Oh and Ryan...we did NOT shoot down Flight 93. Anyone who says they "know" we did is a damn liat, and I'll say it to their face. The people on that flight brought down that plane. I pray for them every time I think of them. They were heroes. They deserve every honor we can give them. To even suggest otherwise is beyond the realm.

Another thing that shows Flight 93 was not shot down: There was still a lot of sparsely-populated area between it and D.C. when it went down. I've always thought it was quite possible that AF planes were shadowing it when it went down, but why would they shoot it down then and there? Surely they would have waited until it was approaching a populated area. After all, you don't want to shoot it down unless you absolutely have to, and there's always a chance the passengers might regain control.

Of course, the main disproof of the conspiracy theory is (as others havd said) that it would be impossible to keep such a grim secret for long.

What disturbs me about this subject is that I suspect that if somehow we did somehow get enough warning about the hijackings to get warplanes in the air and shoot them down with no casualties on the ground (pretty much the best case scenario once the planes had been hijacked), the moonbats, puppet molesters, and other left-wing nuts would have shrieked "Conspiracy!" louder than they have about Iraq, and claimed that the evidence unearthed regarding the plans of the hijackers to use the planes as weapons were faked--and I suspect the more mainstream members of their side of the political spectrum would only be too glad to shake their heads sadly at the dead passengers on the planes, and to immediately--rather than later--accuse the Bush Administration of incompetence.

I am reminded of a "what-if" story I read years ago, about General Billy Mitchell, who offered Cassandra-like warnings about the future threat that Japan posed to the United States in the years after WWI, and was courtmartialed and disgraced for his troubles. The story postulated a timeline where Mitchell was not kicked out of the military, but instead was actually in charge at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941--and disobeyed orders by reacting to early warnings and launching a air strike on the incoming Japanese fleet that utterly annihilated it, though Mitchell himself died in the attack. Alas, the easy victory combined with public outrage caused the US to underestimate Japan as an enemy, and the war with them was bloodier and longer than it was. One of the last passages of the story was a comment from Senator Harry Truman that we would have been better off if Mitchell had just obeyed his damned orders and let the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor.

A cynical story, and I certainly do not wish that someone with the opportunity to stop 9/11 had declined to do so. However, having seen GWB's political enemies at work in the last two and a half years, I also am quite convinced that they would have done their level best to make what would in retrospect have been an astonishing triumph under the circumstances into another occasion for foaming at the mouth and otherwise loathsome behavior.

This aspect of the 9/11 Book Sales Event...er, I mean, Commission has received such publicity because it just makes good theater. Reporters get to tell tales of fighters racing to shoot down the errant jets, graphics designers put together 3-D graphics showing a little plane closing on a big plane, then the big plane blowing up, etc.

As plenty of others have noted here--and as Gen. Eberhart pointed out--we weren't at war then, so fighters on the "ready line" with live missiles were simply not available. It's grasping at straws to imagine how the planes could have been downed after they were hijacked. Once terrorists take control of an airliner in flight, the only options are bad, and worse. The real goal should be to prevent hijackings in the future.

Granted, it's not such good theater, but it is good sense.

That was such a great comment, Timmer, that I immediately went over to my blog and linked yours.

From a perspective that I know about...if you've ever watched Top Gun, one of the things they got right was a reference to the "Ready 5" aircraft. What that refers to are fully armed, fully fueled, checked and ready aircraft already connected to fully charged catapults with alert and ready pilots sitting in the cockpits. All of that preparation done and they still expect it to be 5 minutes before the planes are in the air.

So, if you really really think we hed time to shoot them down, ask yourself this: How long does it take you to grab your keys, run out to your car and get 1000 feet down the road when you just figured out you don't have milk for that bowl of cereal? Keep in mind that the Kwik-E Mart isn't a moving target. Usually.

"in 2001 before the 9-11 attacks, 62 aircraft had been intercepted by Air Force fighter interceptor jets, and usually within 10 to 15 minutes of going off course."
Doesn't say what kind of aircraft, or I skimmed it.

I can guarantee that all 62 of those aircraft went off course within the protected airspace over a military base. Here in Tampa, a kid stole a plane and flew it into the Bank of America building in tribute to Al Qaeda's attack on 9-11. Macdill AFB only scrambled planes to intercept him when he APPROACHED their air space.

ummm.... thanks, Matt

tractor beams and what not.....


It's a bit much to conclude that pilots with practically no seat time would have difficulty keeping a plane flying should a crowd of angry passengers storm the cockpit.

thus causing the plane to, you know, crash and stuff.

AND, regards the afterburner idea ... rather than think, you know, Steven Seagal, how about taking a page from recent history.

The EC-130 'spy' plane that was forced to land with the Chinese.

.... that afterburner thing.

What if your love one was on the plane that was going to be shot down, how would you feel after they shot it down and your love one was gone? It is something I can't even comprehend. What would you think of our government then?

This has been covered pretty well by some people who obviously know what they are talking about.

It is absurd to think that an interceptor shoot-down response would have reliably worked that morning. Of course pilots follow orders. But folks it took us hours to understand what we were dealing with. You have to have some heavy clearance to get that shot authorized.

What was impressive, and done remarkably well (and another "screw them" to this damn 9/11 commission for their goddamn agenda) was air traffic control getting everybody out of the air so we could figure out what the hell was going on. The airlines and the FAA did a helluva job executing something that has never been done before.

I'm in agreement with most of the commenters here that this is mostly speculation in fantasyland. Maybe now people would be forgiving of taking down a civilian plane if it veered off course and was totally unresponsive, maybe. Though there's absolutely no way that we could have reasonably done that pre-9/11 and not have it be nearly as great a national crises as 9/11 was. It's important here to distinguish between finding fault and finding lessons for the future.

Also, C'mon, the EC-130 that was forced to land in China did so because that Chinese fighter jet actually collided with it, damaging part of the nose and the engines, if I remember correctly. Otherwise I'd agree with your speculation on the difficulty of amateurs recovering from abnormal flight conditions and I'd disagree, strongly, with your speculation that Flight 93 was downed by the military. As you point out, it's very easy for an unskilled crew to lose control of an aircraft and not be able to recover in time (even skilled crews have this problem sometimes). It seems enormously more likely that the commotion caused by the passengers trying to retake the plane caused it to veer out of straight and level flight and that there was not enough time, opportunity, or skill to recover from that.

I am not a pilot and I am in the Coast Guard Reserves so my experiences are unlikely to shed any light on the question of the day. That is, if, on a day when we had sufficent clarivoyance to acertain the hijakers intent and have ready planes on the runway, yet insuficient claryvoyance to prevent the vermin from boarding those planes could we have saved lives.

My civillian experiences may have some relevance though.One of the differences between real life and an effing video game is that in the video game one can save and do over untill one gets everything right....in real life lessons are learned with no opertunity to redo them. This should be obvious but isn't to many of those who sit with smug assurance in judgement on those who had to get planes in the air to respond to a type of attack that had not happened before.... and decide on the fly if they were going to blow airliners out of the sky.

If one plays and saves a video game enough times one will eventuially find the sequence of actions that will yield access to the next level. If one goes over hypothetical scenarios with the perfect uncluttered perspective of hindsight one might find that one or two planes could have been shot down, IF knowledge, perspective, and equipment had been magically injected into the scenario.

Just my 2 cents....

A lot of folks have hit the salient points here - I for one am extremely surprised that the fighters scrambled on 9/11 managed to get as close as they did, particularly to flight 93 (and no, the two F-16's DID NOT shoot down that plane)

My surprise comes from being in the Air Force, as an 'operator' in the C2ISR (Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) field for my entire career. Detecting threats,identifying targets, allocating resources, vectoring for the intercept, and authorizing the shots is the bread and butter of what the folks I work with do.

A couple of things - 'forcing the planes down'. This activity requires a cooperative pilot onboard the aircraft you want to force down. If he chooses to ignore you, you have two choices - continue to call him on the radio and/or make hand signals at him (possibly even 'fire across his nose', which is a pretty forceful communication) or, just shoot the asshole. Ramming is not an option, other than for Hollywood screenwriters.

Can the armaments (either AMRAAM or AIM-9)(those 'small' missiles) take down an airliner. Absolutely. It takes an amazingly small amount of damage to bring down a civilian aircraft lacking multiply redundant hydraualic and electrical systems. Sufficient kinetic and or shrapnel damage would be inflicted by either of these weapons to render an airliner 'unflyable', particularly by an inexperienced pilot.

As the procedings today indicated, by timeline, the order to down the airliners was issued after the last aircraft (93) had already gone down. There were not, nor do there exist now, standing orders delegating the shoot/don't shoot decision for such a situation down to the controller/pilot level. It's gonna have to come from up high - and in the case of 9/11, that meant the President.

Now, supposing that the commo had all worked perfectly, and the realization that the hijacked airliners would be used as bombs was there on 9/11. Aside from notifying NORAD, and NORAD dessiminating the effort, you're still pretty far towards the beginning of a 'kill chain' in the scenario. A few other things have to happen. First off, you have to figure out where the planes are - and the fact of the matter is that the bulk of the FAA radar coverage of the US is a cooperative system - it relies on the radar set itself, and an active transponder onboard the aircraft being tracked. FAA Air Traffic Control radars do not 'skin paint' the airliners - in other words, track them solely by the energy reflected back off the planes themselves. Without working transponders, most FAA radars 'see' zippo. Ok, so now, even if the aircraft in question is in an area covered by a radar that can 'skin paint' it (and there are a number of them out there) you have to positively ID which track is the hijacked aircraft. One of the misconceptions that is often standing like an elephant in the room during discussions of those crucial moments on 9/11 is that the hijacked planes and the interceptors were not the only aircraft in the area (and by area, I mean the northeastern US). There were, averages tell me, probably 100 to 150 planes active in the region at the time. Now most of those can be sorted out by a number of factors (transponder is on, and not set to the code number of the hijacked flight; altitude too low/high, speed wrong) but that takes a bit, and when you lack a positive ID, there is always a niggling question about whether it is the right track or not. The most 'comfortable' solution to this dilema is to insist upon 'visual ID' of the target. While not the most accurate method, it is the one that has the highest 'comfort level'.

But to do a VID, you have to get within visual range, so that is part of the 'end stage' of the intercept, which still has yet to occur.

Prior to 9/11, there was absolutely no system set up that tasked the military to launch and intercept potentially hostile air targets within the continental United States. (foot stomp here). The threat was perceived as inbound from outside - for example, Soviet Bear-D bombers scouting the East Coast, nudging the Air Defense envelope in Alaska or the Canadian Arctic frontier. Another example - drug running aircraft ingressing from Central/South America. and in that case, the only setup was unarmed surveillance aircraft to take video and still pictures, as evidence for use after apprehending them on the ground. Forget Tom Clancy 'Clear and Present Danger' scenarios.

And having such a setup is no guarantee, either. The Soviets ran one of the most overlapping, layered, redundant air defense systems in the World - equipped with radars that do 'skin paint' non-cooperative targets, with fighters on 'strip alert' to launch at a moments notice to intercept threats to the Motherland. And Mathias Rust caught them all napping after taking a liesurly flight in a Cessna 172 through the most heavily watched corridors approaching Moscow, and landed in Red Square.

Likewise, with the shootdown of KAL007 - the Russians tracked, trailed, and LOST that aircraft not once, but twice, during the event. A 747. With nothing else around it. And yes, the SU-15 (Flagon) used a single radar guided missile to bring it down, btw. A missile with about the same kinetic/blast effect as an AMRAAM or AIM-9.

Anyway, back to getting the fighters off the ground. On 9/11, even though there weren't any planes sitting 'hot alert' per se, the AF got at least two flights of two into the air in response. What exactly they were going to do was probably a hugely open question at the time they launched.

From the readings of the timelines I've seen - 15 more minutes (an eternity in air-to-air engagements) - and the three remaining aircraft (after the first one hit the WTC) could have been intercepted. On 9/11. I have no idea how the rest of the equation would have been working; and simply getting the interceptor into position such that the potential target is within his weapons engagement zone is merely an interesting physics solution if you have no plan of action, or rules of engagement.

As for the other point Mandrake makes about 'reheating' (afterburners) and sprint speeds - the current inventory F-15s and F-16s have sufficient internal fuel capacity/combat radius to have made the intercepts at supersonic speeds - the F-15s particularly so.

Can it be done? Yes, Eberhardt testified correctly today, I believe. Could it have been done on 9/11 - murkier. Even if a few key things had gone 'right' and the pilots in the fighters had managed to radar lock or get an eyeball on the hijacked aircraft - without specific guidance, they may have just been additional witnesses to those aircraft punging into the places they eventually ended up.

One more point - on the shoot/no shoot decision being based upon potential ground fatalities. That is a very, very low consideration item - unless the decision was made at such a time that the airliner was over a very obviously populated area, such as within the NYC Metro area. And consider - even over the outskirts - of either DC or NYC, or any other large urban center - if the situation has come to the 'shoot it down' point, the plane will get shot - and the relative handful of suburbanites in the fall path will be a few more names on the list of innocent unfortunates, along with the folks onboard the airliner. Cold, but probable.

Hope this adds something to answering the question for ya, M.

Oh, and one more slight clarification - the US aircraft that made the emergency landing on Hainan Island following the mid-air collision with the extremely poorly piloted People's Liberation Air Force F-8 (Finback) Fighter was a US Navy EP-3E, not an EC-130.

Somebody once suggested that if we knew all about 9-11 on 9-10 and acted on it, Bush and Ashcroft would have been in jail for violating civil rights wholesale.
Until the airplanes were highjacked, nobody had actually DONE anything wrong unless there were some immigration irregularities. But doing something about that would have been baseless profiling.
Considering the essential validity of the foregoing, how about shooting down a highjacked plane BEFORE it hit something?
Highjacked planes, you know, usually land and start negotiating. What good does shooting them down do? Needless loss of life.
Cowboys. Etc.
The likelihood of shooting down a highjacked plane is that it would be more likely to happen over an inhabited area than the ratio of sparsely populated areas to heavily populated areas would lead one to believe. The CAP covers cities. That is, lots of people. Interception would have been done on aircraft as they approached the city, either from the CAP, or from a dedicated interception flight. But the destination of the flights meant they were looking for cities and would have been close to them.
How sparsely populated is the territory between Boston and NYC, anyway?
The Pentagon had been just recently hardened where it took a hit. Had it been a civilian building, even a smallish one, a school, something like that which was not protected, the death toll would have been horrendous.
And the pilot, wanting to kill a lot of people with his plane, would have aimed with the last vestige of control, toward a fat target. Might have hit it, too.

It seems that there is no way to defend against this sort of attack once the hijacker has control of a commercial jet. Someday someone is going to hijack another plane, perhaps for the usual reason, to extort money. AF jets will be scrambled. A pilot will be given authority to do what i suppose has become the main training exercise for a jet fighter since 911. Then all this talk and memory of 911 and "what if" senarios, will cause the unnecessary death of innocent people. I think it should be the government's policy not to shoot down a commercial jet under any circumstances. That would remove this question from relevance in the future.

I have read that inventors are working on a device that marrys a GPS with the autopilot in commercial airliners. The computer has the fixxed positions of every building on the planet loaded into its database. When the plane is on a collision course with a skyscraper or a mountain, there is an auditory warning to the pilot to correct his flightpath. If the pilot doesn't respond within a certain distance of the obstruction the computer takes over the controls and steers the plane back to a safe direction. This is the sort of solution we need to be looking at.

We really don't want to be shooting down airliners do we? We don't really want to have our AF personel practicing to shoot down civilian aircraft, even if such a thing is possible. Not to question the professionalism of our pilots, but there is no upside to that senario. Politicly, personally, spiritually. Too many people would be second guessing the necessity of shooting a plane down. The families of the passengers would be out for justice no matter if there was none to be had. And some pilot would be standing before a nation in mourning trying to find words to molify his guilt.

Let it be the policy of our country never to fire on a civilian aircraft. It is the only answer that makes sense to me.

"Ramming is not an option, other than for Hollywood screenwriters."

That is simply not true. I know a retired Zipper (F-104) and Phantom (F-4) driver who could explain the facts to you. He hangs at rec.aviation.military, and he might be persuaded to come out of the wood-work and do so. An F-15E driver reports that, on the CAP's he flew immediately after 9/11, ramming was a part of his standard brief. Historically, this has often been known as a "Fox-4" kill. It takes its name from the F-4 Phantom, during whose time (prior to AMRAAM -- BVR changed the lexicon by one number) the codes went: Fox-1 = beam-riding radar missile (e.g., AIM-7); Fox-2 = heatseeker; Fox-3 = guns; Fox-4 referred to the jet as the missile. The order of the numbers is arranged from longest-range to shortest. Naturally, poking the other guy with your jet is the shortest range of all. Since AMRAAM, it has survived as a Fox-5 mort.

There can be minor variations on these calls from jet-community to different jet-community. (In fact, the old Fox-3 call is often superceded with a plain-English "Guns!"x3 call.) The point is that ramming is well-known and trained as a last-ditch attack.

"The F-16 always flies with a full load of ammo for balance and weight reasons."

That's true. What's also true is that, in ordinary CONUS operations, the gun was not armed. (Remember: this was the state of afairs, 9/11.) Usual procedure was to leave ignition cabling to the gun un-plugged, and ammo belts short of feed. The whole purpose was weight and balance: not armament.

"Prior to 9/11, there was absolutely no system set up that tasked the military to launch and intercept potentially hostile air targets within the continental United States. (foot stomp here)."

This is an elementary and crucial fact, with implications far beyond the comprehension of most people who remark on these events.

The one thing the press seems to be missing is the fact that prior to 9/11, jet planes were not flown into buildings intentionally.

So you have one plane already crashed into one of the towers. First thing you think is, what went wrong? How did they not miss the tower?

Two other planes are not responding to the transponder frquency. You certainly are not thinking they are going to be used as weapons either.

Anyway, my $.02.

I'm an old fighter pilot with combat and (peace time) intercept experience. I just have to say something about some of the comments.

a different Bill: Aviation movies seldom depict anything accurately, including "Top Gun". I have launched off alert in 5 minutes from sound sleep in the alert shack, so you can see the T G "Ready Five" depiction is bullshit.

Nick: As a former Air Force Officer, I'm sure you know the BASE Commander has absolutely nothing to do with aircraft operations.

C'mon: Afterburner? Took me 10 minutes to quit laughing. Wake turbulence (NOT caused by burner & left as an exercise for the student to figure out what causes it) can cause violent gyrations, but even inexperienced pilots are taught early in training how to recover. Given adequate altitude, no biggy.

Timmer: Excellent post, Bud.

Airliners are aluminum foil balloons. Any or all USAF Air-to-Air armaments will bring them down. Visualize an IR missile taking half a wing when it strikes an engine, for instance.

Other commenters have hit the key issues, but the main one is that pre-9/11 continental air defense was designed against EXTERNAL threats.

Putting myself in the scenario under perfect conditions, I find myself vectored to radar ID of the intended target. Now WTF do you want me to do? Just assume I have limited, but adequate time to: POSITIVELY ID the target; attempt, by internationally recognized means, to force the aircraft to divert to the nearest airfield (probably talking 5-10 minutes here); That failing, VERIFY, VERIFY, VERIFY a LAWFUL order to down the target. Can I do that? I have killed in combat, but can I deliberately destroy a civilian aircraft, sending I know not how many souls to meet their maker? I DO NOT KNOW. I really, really, really DO NOT KNOW.

1) I personally know someone who was at the flight 93 crash site within hours. It was not shot down.

2) Tom Clancy has a pretty good point here, on a similar subject.

Larry: Zulu (air defense) alert at Bitburg used to go from bunk to gear-up in three minutes in the F-4's.

That's amazing.

Wind Rider Wrote:
"It takes an amazingly small amount of damage to bring down a civilian aircraft lacking multiply redundant hydraualic and electrical systems."

I can't answer about the survivability of commercial aircraft in a air-to-air engagement with military aircraft. However, I formerly worked at the major U.S. based supplier of aircraft electrical power systems. I worked on both commercial systems and military systems. The commercial systems ARE redundant just not as redundant as the military systems.

For example, every engine on a multiple-engine jet aircraft has an electrical generator and hydraulic pump. The systems are all cross coupled so that if any one is lost the others can pick up the slack. There are other backup systems as well.

For example, see this about UA Flight 232 which suffered an uncontained failure (e.g. explosion) of a tail engine resulting in the loss of all three hydraulic systems because the plumbing for all three ran too close to the engine. They lost operation of all control surfaces (e.g. rudder, etc.). The pilots flew to an airport (Sioux City) and crash landed by controlling the thrust of the two remaining engines on the wings. They and many of the passengers survived.


I do doubt that the terrorist pilots would have been able to accomplish the same feat.

Larry: Do'h! That'll teach me to write code and comments at the same time. Base commander, wing commander. I was (to my displeasure) a missileer and the wing commander WAS the base commander. I forgot that often that's not the case. For ICBMs the orders come from NCA and not the base anyway. My bad. As for the F-16 cannon being unplugged, I'm sure that Billy Beck is correct. The one time I got a ride in a Falcon was for a training ground attack mission where the cannon was used. It would make sense that at other times (peacetime) it would be disabled for safety.

I think there might be some lingering confusion about what would happen if a missile struck an airliner. Almost definitely it would cause a crash. Some people may be thinking of the comments from one of Clancy's books that a shoulder fired SAM couldn't stop a 747. First, there's a big difference between a Stinger and an AA missile. Second, stopping the plane is a relative matter. If the missile hits the plane a few seconds before the plane hits the target it won't make much of a difference. No missile (unless we start building AAMRAMS with nukes) is going to completely destroy a jumbo jet. Destroy the wings or take out an engine? Certainly. Huge Hollywood explosion with tiny pea sized debris? Nope. Not gonna happen. What will remain after the explosion, airworthy or not, is going to be big and have significant momentum.

Is it terrible to say that if it was shot down, then that was the best solution to the problem?

Even the guys onboard, who have been touted as heroes, reportedly took the plane down to prevent it crashing into its intended target.

That plane, if I remember correctly, was still in the air when President Bush ordered all planes on the ground. It made a deliberate aim for a volatile and devastating target.

I grieve for those who were lost. But the second those hijackers revealed themselves onboard and took over, the passengers on that flight were doomed one way or the other. Regardless of who took it down - some heroic passengers, or Air Force pilots - what happened was ultimately for the best.

Actually, the President didn't order the "ground stop" ie., the order for all civilian aviation to land at the nearest airport. A mid-level FAA manager made this decision, to his credit.

"Is it terrible to say that if it was shot down, then that was the best solution to the problem?"

I'd put it this way: not anymore.

I usually fly with charts in my seat, now. I generally know where I'm going. (I'm only a private pilot, but I know enough to watch the routes.) If something like this happened to my flight and there was no other action on the thing, I like to think I would expect it to get whacked-out someplace where it would do the least possible damage, and take that like a man.

At the same time, anyone trying that on my flight would have to kill me, first, so it wouldn't matter much.

From what I've read (granted, in the newspapers, I haven't read the text of the 9-11 commission report), the order to "shoot down" was given (albeit too late), but there was a NORAD commander (if I remember correctly) who DID NOT relay that command to in-flight crew, because "he didn't know what the implications were."

I think that is a crucial factor re: this thread, and from my quick reading of the comments I don't think this has been adequately addressed (other than "this would not happen post 9-11 given the lessons learned."