Fighter Speeds
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The story...

Fighters flew suspiciously slowly to their 9/11 targets, and so had no real chance of reaching them in time.

Our take...

9/11 Research provide some commonly-repeated math to prove this point.

The first base to finally scramble interceptors was Otis in Falmouth, Massachusetts, at 8:52, about a half-hour after Flight 11 was taken over. This was already eight minutes after Flight 11 hit the North Tower, and just 9 minutes before Flight 175 hit the South Tower.

According to NORAD, at the time of the South Tower Impact the two F-15s from Otis were still 71 miles away. Otis is 153 miles east-northeast of the WTC. That means the F-15s were flying at: (153 miles - 71 miles)/(9:03 - 8:52) = 447 mph 
That is around 23.8% of their top speed of 1875 mph.
At 9:11 the F-15s finally reached the World Trade Center. Their average speed for the trip was: 153/(9:11 - 8:52) = 483 mph 
That is around 25.8% of their top speed.

This calculation does not accurately reflect the times or actions of the fighters as concluded the 9/11 Commission, who have the fighters going out over the sea, staying in a holding pattern, then arriving over the scene at 9:25 am. (For more on this, and other conflicting accounts, go here before you read any further).

It seems to us the real story lies in addressing those conflicting accounts, however as some people refer to the 911Research-type speed calculations then they’re also worth looking at. So let’s do just that.

The first problem with these figures is the misleading comparison with maximum speed.  1875 is the fighters top speed, yes, but only if you’re using full afterburner. The maximum level speed is actually 1650 mph, and normal cruising speed is far less at 570 mph ( ).

Another complication is that fighters weren't supposed to fly at supersonic speeds (over around 760 miles per hour). The pilots heading for New York said they did beat this (without authorisation), but they were still a long way from the theoretical maximum.

As we're climbing out, we go supersonic on the way, which is kind of nonstandard for us. And, and Nasty even called me on the, radio and said, Duff, you're super. I said yeah, I know. You know, don't worry about it.

I was kind of wondering why he going so fast. We really didn't have verbal authorization to go supersonic.

(VO) The fighters are hurtling toward New York at mach 1.2, nearly 900 mile per hour. They are 153 miles from the World Trade Center.

I just wanted to get there quickly.

We're going as fast as we could.

“Nearly 900 miles per hour” is still much faster than illustrated by the 911Research calculations, but there are other reasons for that. As a basis for calculating fighter speeds, for instance, the 911Research article tells us that “Otis is 153 miles east-northeast of the WTC” (presumably based on the figure quoted in the Jennings interview above). The 9/11 Commission would later quote the same figure...

NEADS ordered to battle stations the two F-15 alert aircraft at Otis AirForce Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts, 153 miles away from New York City.
Page 20
911 Commission Report

...but note they refer more generically to “New York City”. We decided to check the actual distance from Otis to the WTC with Google Earth and came up with a very different figure of 189 miles.

Was this correct? We cross-checked by finding the latitude and longitude for Otis (41.66, -70.58, and the WTC (40.69, -74.04, then used a calculator ( to come up with a distance of 309km (192 miles). The runways appear east of this Otis location, too, suggesting the real distance may actually be a mile or two further.

It seems the planes had further to fly than most people are allowing, then, and of course even this is a simple point-to-point distance. Is that necessarily what they’ll fly?


Are the fighters going to fly supersonic speeds over Manhattan? Or is it possible that they might take a route that’s not so straight, but goes out over the sea instead?


We are not suggesting that’s what they did fly in any way, the above is just an example to show what might happen to the overall distance if the fighters take a different path for reasons of safety, to avoid other aircraft, whatever it might be.

By way of a real-life comparison, though, the Langley fighters scrambled later in the day initially went out over the sea rather than head towards Washington. Larry Arnold and Craig McKinley stated in testimony to the 9/11 Commission that this was to ensure they stayed out of the way of civilian aircraft, so it seems at least possible that Otis would follow similar procedures:

John Lehman, Commissioner
Why did they head out to sea first?

Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold
Our standard, we have agreements with the FAA. And by the way, we are looking outward, this is an advantage to us. And so we have agreements for clearance. When we scramble an aircraft, there is a line that’s picked up and the FAA and everyone is on that line and the aircraft take off and they have a predetermined departure route. And, of course, it’s out over water because our mission, unlike law enforcement’s mission is to protect things coming towards the United States. And I might even add in all of our terrorist scenarios that we run, the aircraft, if we were to intercept an aircraft, it is usually always from outside the United States coming towards us. So, our peacetime procedures are (garbled) to de-conflict with civil aviation so as to not have, endanger civil aviation in any particular way.

Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley
Secretary Lehman, also if I may add, the complexity of the air traffic over the Northeast corridor is so complex that to just launch fighters, as you know Sir from your background, into that air traffic system can cause potential damage or mid-air collisions. So we rely on the FAA to de-conflict those corridors. And that is another reason why it vectored east originally.

Let’s put this together and see how the average speeds look now. Here’s the original calculation.

At 9:11 the F-15s finally reached the World Trade Center. Their average speed for the trip was: 153/(9:11 - 8:52) = 483 mph 
That is around 25.8% of their top speed.

As we’ve seen, the minimum point to point distance is actually 189 miles, giving us a 596 miles per hour average. This is already above the normal cruising speed

The fighters would clearly have longer to fly, though. They may initially take off in a direction that’s not straight towards the target. They have to reach cruising altitude. They may vector around civilian aircraft, fly around their airspace rather than through it. 

If, as a result of that, our 225 mile distance is more accurate than the average speed rises to 710 miles per hour. The real distance could easily be longer. 

The flight time could easily be shorter, also boosting average speed (we’re taking the 8:52 time to be 8:52:00; later the 911 Commission said the fighters were in the air by 8:53.  Small difference, but then we’re only talking about a 19 minute flight time overall: an 11.4 second error changes the average speed by 1%).

In our view, there are questions to be asked over the different accounts of the Otis journey. The math that suggests average fighter speeds of around 25% of their maximum, however, is inaccurate, misleading, and an over-simplistic diversion from the real issues.

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