Intercept Time
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The story...

"Skeptics about the official account believe that the attempt to crash an airliner into the WTC could not have been successful under normal circumstances. The basic problem, they argue, is that there are standard procedures for situations such as this and that, if they had been followed, Flight 11 would have been intercepted by fighter jets within 10 minutes of any sign that it may have been hijacked"
David Ray Griffin, "The New Pearl Harbor"

Our take...

Is "10 minutes" really enough time to scramble a plane, then have it reach its target?
Those who suggest this seem to think the air traffic controller picks up the phone, and calls the nearest airbase themselves, but this isn’t quite right.

First ATC must decide that there really is a problem, for instance, and that radio silence or unexpected changes in course aren’t due to some other cause.

If there does seem to be a problem, then ATC will report the issue to their supervisor, and explain why they’re concerned.

If the supervisor agrees then he’ll contact the FAA directly, and ask to speak to the hijack coordinator. (As this FAA manual says, he’s the person who deals with Norad).

The escort service will be requested by the FAA hijack coordinator by direct contact with the National Military Command Center (NMCC).

Okay. But then NORAD scramble the planes, right? No, not yet -- here’s a piece of 9/11 Commission testimony where Major General Larry Arnold explains what happens next:

...hijacking is a law enforcement issue as is everything that takes off from within the United States. And only law enforcement can request assistance from the military, which they did, in this particular case. The route, if you follow the book, is that they go to the duty officer of the national military command center, who in turn makes an inquiry to NORAD for the availability of fighters, who then gets permission from someone representing the Sec. of Defense. Once that’s approved, then we scramble aircraft.

So the FAA hijack coordinator calls NORAD and explains the situation again. That person finds an airbase with an available plane and puts them on alert, but then must also (hopefully in parallel) get permission to scramble from “someone representing the Secretary of Defense”. Once that arrives, they finally scramble the planes.

Now there’s no telling how long the preparatory steps might take, but what we do know is that NORAD fighters were normally on 15-minute alert, and even post 9-11 scramble time might be 8 minutes.

Norad was instrumental in getting fighter jets -- normally on 15-minute alert -- airborne within eight minutes.

We also know that there were only 7 bases with fighters at this 15-minute alert level on 9/11, which means the fighters you do get may be a considerable distance from the plane they’re after.

On 9/11, Norad has 14 fighters on alert at seven sites in the continental United States

Put all this together and the “10 minutes” intercept time seems astonishingly unlikely. It could take longer than that to go from ATC to NORAD, longer than that for the planes to scramble, longer than that for them to locate and reach their targets. 

Still think we’re being pessimistic? History suggests not.

Elsewhere, for instance, we've discussed the Payne Stewart case (his plane drifted off course and did not respond to radio calls). Time to intercept? 76 minutes.

In January 2002 teenager Charles Bishop took off in a Cessna without his instructor, and flew dangerously low over a military airbase. So fighters obviously caught him, right? Nope.

"It is already clear that NORAD, which has responsibility for protecting the United States from air attack, did not know about the incident until 5:13 p.m., nearly 10 minutes after the crash. At 5:16, NORAD‘s southeast air defense sector branch alerted fighters at Homestead Air Reserve Base, about 270 miles away from Tampa. They took off at 5:21 and established a "combat air patrol" over Tampa by 5:45, Venable said".

Time to intercept would have been 55 minutes, if they hadn't been too late.

In June 2002 two Air National Guard F-16's failed to intercept a Cessna before it passed the White House. The timeline provided was as follows:

7:59 p.m. Cessna enters "restricted" air space
8:03 p.m. FAA notifies NORAD
8:04 p.m. Cessna enters "prohibited" air space
8:06 p.m. Two F-16s get orders to scramble
8:06 p.m. Cessna passes White House "within a few miles"
8:17 p.m. F-16s take off from Andrews AFB. Intercept occurs "a few minutes later."

Even with streamlined intercept procedures and tighter post 9-11 security, and the planes only 10 miles from Washington, the time from problem occurring to takeoff was still 18 minutes, and the intercept "a few minutes" after that.

And other reports suggest that, even once fighters have taken off, identification and intercept isn’t guaranteed.

...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.

On balance, it looks to us like the “10 minute intercept” idea is entirely unrealistic. The procedures involved, and real world examples, suggest typical intercepts pre-9-11 would take considerably longer.

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