67 Intercepts
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The story...

It is routine policy and practice for fighter jets to intercept planes if they go off course even by 2 miles. In the year prior to 9/11 there were 67 such intercepts. It's therefore inconceivable that none of the hijacked planes would be intercepted on 9/11.

Our take...

Popular Mechanics claimed that intercepts were not routine at all:

 In the decade before 9/11, NORAD intercepted only one civilian plane over North America: golfer Payne Stewart's Learjet, in October 1999. With passengers and crew unconscious from cabin decompression, the plane lost radio contact but remained in transponder contact until it crashed. Even so, it took an F-16 1 hour and 22 minutes to reach the stricken jet. Rules in effect back then, and on 9/11, prohibited supersonic flight on intercepts. Prior to 9/11, all other NORAD interceptions were limited to offshore Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). "Until 9/11 there was no domestic ADIZ," FAA spokesman Bill Schumann tells PM. After 9/11, NORAD and the FAA increased cooperation, setting up hotlines between ATCs and NORAD command centers, according to officials from both agencies. NORAD has also increased its fighter coverage and has installed radar to monitor airspace over the continent.

This issue attracted many comments from other sites, attempting to themselves debunk the Popular Mechanics piece. 911 Research, for instance, referred to this quote by Norad official Major Douglas Martin, who in an AP story said:

"From Sept. 11 to June, NORAD scrambled jets or diverted combat air patrols 462 times, almost seven times as often as the 67 scrambles from September 2000 to June 2001, Martin said".

And from this 911Research conclude:

It is safe to assume that a significant fraction of scrambles lead to intercepts, so the fact that there were 67 scrambles in a 9-month period before 9/11/01 suggests that there are dozens of intercepts per year. To its assertion that there was only one intercept in a decade, the article adds that "rules in effect ... prohibited supersonic flight on intercepts," and the suggestion that there were no hotlines between ATCs and NORAD.http://911research.wtc7.net/essays/pm/

This seems reasonable, until you look more closely, because the primary assertion they are objecting to here is that “there was only one intercept in a decade”. And that’s not what the original piece said: let’s look at the key points again.

In the decade before 9/11, NORAD intercepted only one civilian plane over North America: golfer Payne Stewart's Learjet

Prior to 9/11, all other NORAD interceptions were limited to offshore Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). "Until 9/11 there was no domestic ADIZ,"...

So what Popular Mechanics are saying is that there was one intercept of a “civilian plane over North America” in the decade before 9/11, because all other intercepts were offshore. There’s no direct contradiction with the Douglas Martin quote, as he doesn’t say whether the intercepts were offshore or over the continental US.

It’s not just Popular Mechanics saying this, either. The October 2005 edition of “Plane & Pilot” magazine essentially did the same:

Terms like Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and temporary flight restriction (TFR) quickly came into widespread use among the general-aviation pilot group. Those terms had been around for years. Military fighters and the ADIZ protected American coasts from intrusions by Russian Bear Bombers throughout the Cold War. TFRs were used for presidential security and other extraordinary events. But they weren’t part of a pilot’s everyday life. You didn’t get intercepted and forced down if you flew through a TFR.

Today, things are different. There’s an ADIZ that surrounds Washington, D.C. In the four years after 9/11, it was violated over 1,000 times. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has scrambled fighters for intercepts within U.S. borders over 1,600 times. In the year previous to 9/11, NORAD intercepted airplanes in the ADIZ only 67 times, none of which occurred within the U.S. borders.

The Popular Mechanics claim still seems quite absolute, but then that just means it wouldn’t take much to disprove it. Just find a media report of an intercept, an interview with a pilot who was intercepted when they accidentally flew too close to the White House, anything like that... How difficult can it be? After all, if these 67 scrambles in 9 months were typical, and we’re equating scrambles with intercepts, then that suggests 893 of these events over 10 years. Even if only 10% were intercepts over the continental US, then surely there must be an unquestionable, rock-solid record of one of them, somewhere? 

Well, uh, no, it seems not. At least not from the various Popular Mechanics debunking pieces. Alex Jones, for instance, tells us this:

I've talked to pilots who've had radio problems and F-16's fly up next to them. Everybody knows this, not just Maj. Douglas Martin the Public Affairs Officer. ...We have the public record, everybody knows this, this is public knowledge.

No names, no references, nothing you can check, you just have to take his word for it.

Peter Meyer uses the Douglas Martin quote, then quotes an email as supporting evidence:

...Here is the "Key" to unlock the door: The extensive flight logs for 20 years from the 3 military bases in the area and Port Authority responding to air threats is exemplary.

Thousands of sorties run in response to threats, practice runs, false alarms, done weekly or daily over 20 years....

This is a little better as the person making the quote is named, but again, you’re still basically just taking their word for it. (There’s a little more to the email and their argument, but we don’t want to reproduce the entire page here, so zip over to the above site and check it out for yourself. We’ll wait.)

On balance, then, the “intercepts are routine” claim is far from proven, at least in conjunction with intercepts over the continental US. And if there really were so many, then it seems a little odd there’s not more concrete, solid documentation to show it. 

What’s more, even if we ignore Popular Mechanics and just consider the Douglas Martin quote, it’s far from clear as to what this actually means. Note that he was talking about the number of times jets were scrambled (and possibly diverted). Could some planes have been recalled soon afterwards, perhaps because radio contact had been re-established? Absolutely, scrambling is only the first step. We don't know how many actual intercepts actually took place.

Another complication is that in the first figure Martin refers to scrambling jets or diverting combat air patrols, while in the second he mentions scrambling only. Is the quote literally correct, or does the “67” figure also include combat patrols that were diverted to a particular target?

Regardless of that, it’s worth bearing in mind that intercepts may not always be successful.

...another federal official said that two years ago [in 2002], military jets could identify and intercept only about 40 percent of intruders in training drills.

Some claim intercepts always happened if planes travelled into restricted or prohibited areas, but this isn’t true at all. An FAA rule change from September 28th 2001 makes this clear.

WASHINGTON - The FAA today alerted civilian pilots of their responsibility to avoid restricted airspace and the procedures to follow if intercepted, in light of the Department of Defense announcement that pilots near or in restricted or prohibited airspace face a forced landing, or as a last resort, use of deadly force by military aircraft...

Earlier, pilots who flew in restricted or prohibited areas received a warning from Air Traffic Control and then faced suspension or revocation of their licenses or a fine. Now a pilot faces interception by military aircraft and then a forced landing at the first available airport. The Department of Defense has stated that deadly force will be used only as a last resort after all other means are exhausted.

So prior to 9/11 it seems that even flying in restricted or prohibited airspace wouldn’t necessarily result in an interception. This impression appears to be confirmed by a 1998 story of an American Airlines jet flying directly over the White House, which fails to mention NORAD, fighters or intercepts:

An American Airlines jetliner flew directly over the White House two months ago, through some of the country's most sensitive restricted airspace, apparently because of a mix-up at Reagan National Airport's radar control facility.

The July 16 incident presented no danger to President Clinton or anyone else on the ground or in the air, and the aircraft was flying high enough that likely no one even noticed, other than air traffic controllers, the pilots and the Secret Service.

But it was one of a rapidly increasing number of White House airspace violations, which have more than doubled each year since fiscal 1996, despite precautions taken after a small plane struck the White House in 1994. The trend has concerned the Secret Service and the Federal Aviation Administration, leading to new warnings to pilots and a recommendation by a task force to update maps and make other changes at National. The American Airlines incident alone apparently has prompted the FAA to consider changes in procedures for one National landing pattern.
Original article (go read for additional guesses at Security Service precautions and the 1998 understanding of possible dangers from the air)

Could it be that intercepts of flights within the US weren’t so routine after all?

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