In their own words
Q: Tell us a little about your job here at NORAD and USNORTHCOM.
A: My job now is to look after the NORAD equities and the N2C2, the NORAD and NORTHCOM Command Center. Whenever the general officers here in the building provide guidance on how the crews need to operate, I transfer that guidance into checklists and TTPs and that sort of thing so that the crews understand how we need to operate. On 9/11, my job was Chief, Air Defense Operations. I worked up at Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center. I was in charge of the Air Warning Center, which had five crews, and so my job was to maintain the standardization of operations for the NORAD Ops Center.
Q: Now by what could be called a stroke of luck, everyone you would need to be in the Mountain on 9/11 was already there the morning of 9/11. Can you talk about why that was?
A: When people ask me that question, I say, ďWe were lucky,Ē you know, and I get this funny look. We were lucky from the fact that we were in the middle of a NORAD-wide exercise, and that NORAD-wide exercise had been going on since the Thursday prior. What that means to us is all the folks in Building 1470 at the time, all the directorates such as Operations, Logistics, Security, all those folks were up in the Mountain on an exercise posture. The lucky part was that these are the same folks that we would bring up in case of contingencies or in time of going to war. So, in reality, I had all the guys up into the NORAD Battle Management Center that I needed to conduct the exercise as well as the contingency operations that happened on 9/11. So what we had to do was throw the exercise books away and pick up our wartime books and then go to work.
Q: Another spot of good fortune came from a rather unlikely source. You mentioned that the Russians did something significant.
A: Itís amazing. At the same time we were conducting this exercise, the Russians were conducting one of their own. But after the United Flight 93 went into Shanksville, Penn., the Russians notified us that they were stopping their exercise because they understood the magnitude of what had happened to us in the United States. They didnít want any questions, they didnít want us worrying about what they would be doing or entering our Air Defense Identification Zone. So that was amazing to me, personally, the fact that they stopped their exercise and, #2, that they told us that they were going to stop the exercise.
Q: Part of NORADís problem on 9/11 was literally the Commandís outlook. We were looking outward. How did that hamper us and what has been done since to fix that?
A: Itís important to understand that the job of NORAD at the time, on 9/11, was to look for threats from outside our countries. We were to tasked to provide warning of attacks both missile and aircraft as it occurred, coming into the United States and Canada. And because of that mission, all of our radars were located along the periphery of the United States and Canada. We had quite a few radars, numbering over 100 radars looking outward. On 9/11, what we found out was that we needed radar coverage in the interior of the United States. And this was demonstrated when the hijackers turned off the transponders, which is an identification code that the FAA uses to identify these airliners, we couldnít see them anymore, so that posed a big problem for us. We knew the FAA had around 100 long and short range radars in the interior and we had to figure out how to connect to them. Through some fantastic innovation by our Continental NORAD Region personnel, we were able to purchase off-the-shelf software we were able to connect to those interior FAA radars and basically had the same air picture the FAA had.
Q: And itís significant when you talk about the number of aircraft weíre talking about thatís flying at any one time.
A: That number is staggering, especially to the person that doesnít realize the number of registered general aviation aircraft and domestic / international passenger airliners. On one day Ė one given day Ė we have about 2,500 aircraft that fly into the Air Defense Identification Zone of both the United States and Canada. That ADIZ is located about 200 miles from our shores and is intended to give us plenty of time to detect the aircraft and determine its identify. The 2500 number is significant because our NORAD Air Defense Sectors are tasked with determining the identification of all those aircraft entering the ADIZ and if we can't, then we may have to launch an armed fighter to visually identify the aircraft to make sure there is no mal intent. Our partnership with the FAA helps us tremendously with this task. The FAA shares flight plan data with us so we can correlate our radar contacts with expected timings and locations. So weíre looking at all the flight plans of all 2,500 of those aircraft that are flying in to make sure that they are who they are.
Number two, thatís only aircraft flying into the United States and Canada. On the interior of the United States, for example, there could be up to 10,000 aircraft just flying around. Of course, that depends on the weather and how good the weather is or where theyíre flying, but there could be at least 10,000 airplanes flying at one time.
Q: When people think about the NORAD response, their mind automatically goes to the fighters coming up alongside the wings. But NATO stepped up and helped us by contributing another critical asset, and those were the E-3 Sentries.
A: Yes, that was a much needed asset for us. NATO stepped up and loaned us seven, we call them E-3ís, Airborne Warning and Control aircraft. And because we did not have the interior radar coverage inside the U.S., we were able to fly those E-3ís in certain locations and we could not only monitor the Ė the aircraft Ė of civilian aircraft that were flying around the interior of the United States, but they could also control our fighter aircraft that we had flying around over major metropolitan areas.
Q: In the aftermath of the attack, NORAD assets were flying 24/7 and a new operation, Noble Eagle, was started. What is Noble Eagle and why is it still significant today?
A: Thatís true. On the 12th of September, Operation Noble Eagle (ďONEĒ) was born. This new threat of civilian airliners being used as a weapon required a new set of procedures and more assets to defend against. While our mission did not change, our responsibilities had increased. O.N.E. gives Commander NORAD the authority to go and investigate and look at these civilian aircraft that might be attempting to attack the U.S. or Canada.
Q: How has NORAD changed since that day and how have these changes affected the U.S. and Canada?
A: Our changes have been significant. As I mentioned earlier, we were looking outward. We were looking for Cold War attacks, we were looking for bombers, we were looking for air launched cruise missiles, and we were looking for hijacked aircraft that could be heading toward the U.S. and Canada. But, since 9/11, weíre now able to monitor aircraft that are flying in the interior of the United States as well. But we needed more than a radar picture, we needed a way to talk with our interagency partners in real time. In the months after the Sep 11 attacks, the FAA developed a communications system called the domestic events network. The D.E.N. allows us, NORAD, to communicate with the FAA and other inter agency partners in real time. In the past, typically if there was an issue onboard an aircraft, whether it was a fight or it was someone who was drinking too much, that type of thing, those types of incidents were worked by the airlines and the airline headquarters, and we were not notified; sometimes the FAA wasnít notified. But now with this new Domestic Events Network, the pilots will call in issues that they have on their aircraft. If they have somebody thatís getting into a fight or somebody thatís trying to get into the cockpit, he will call his FAA controller who will forward that information on the DEN and, on the DEN, everybody is listening. Letís just say itís AIRLINE 101. We could dial in the AIRLINE 101 code, look on our new system, figure out where that aircraft is in relationship to air bases, and decide if we needed to scramble fighters or we needed to monitor that aircraft. We didnít have this prior to 9/11. Now we do, we have almost near instantaneous situational awareness of where these aircraft are and what their problem is. It is important to note that it is the synergy of all of our interagency partners that make the skies safe to fly. It is not just NORAD.
Q: Now youíve made it a point to go out and talk about 9/11 at universities. What do you tell these students and why do you do this?
A: Well, both personal reasons and Ė and professional reasons. Iím asked to go speak at Denver University. They want me to talk about my personal observations of 9/11, and Iím happy to do that. They want me to talk about how NORAD has improved since that point. For my personal observations, I just like to point out that, on 9/11, we had about 50 individuals working in the NORAD Battle Management Center in Cheyenne Mountain and watching those individuals react to the airliners impacting the World Trade Center is something I will never forget. I saw a full gamut of emotions in that room. I saw some folks that were normally talkative as quiet as can be. I saw people that normally donít talk just start to be jittery, walk around, not knowing what to do with themselves. I saw people reacting that normally donít react that particular way. It was amazing to me to see that. But what I did see was a team coming together. They were professionals...They went to work to defend their nation and they were able to work together as a team. As far as speaking to the graduate level course at Denver University, on my last lecture, I looked around the audience and I saw kids in there that I imagined to be somewhere around 12 years old on 9/11. And so my thought was, ďI hope we donít forget.Ē I hope we donít forget what happened on 9/11 and how we have to work as a team, not only as a team in that room on 9/11, but as a team to include our interagency partners. And to that end, we have developed a great working relationship with partners such as FAA, weíve developed a great working relationship with TSA and all those folks that support this nation's defense. Because really, NORAD should be considered the last resort. If all of our partners have done their job, then thereís no need for us to get airborne and be prepared to intervene in a hijacked aircraft. So my point there to these students is: Itís teamwork. Itís on everybody working together with their own piece of the pie to make the nation secure. And thatís what Iím trying to teach them.
Q: What stands out the most about that day to you?
A: Everybody has their own memories of that day. I will never forget driving up to Cheyenne Mountain that day and I remember looking out at the weather, and it was the most beautiful day Iíd ever seen. There wasnít a cloud in the sky, and I was thinking, ďWell, I sure donít want to be at work today.Ē And getting in and going and riding on the bus a third of a mile into the Mountain and getting off the bus and walking into the NORAD Battle Management Center to assume what I thought was going to be a normal day, which changed almost immediately. But what stands out, again, is the ability of 50 individuals to come together as a team and Ė and do their job and Iíve got to tell you, they didnít want to go home. These folks were in there early, like at 6:00, and they didnít want to go home. Our Commander at the time stuck his noggin into the room and said, ďHey, weíve gotta send these guys home because I need Ďem fresh for tomorrow.Ē And thatís one of the thoughts that stands out to me. Nobody wanted to go home. They wanted to get the job done, but they had to be told to go home.
Q: Itís 10 years later. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda, the argument is, is in ruins. Do you think the changes that have come to NORAD and the United States security apparatus, do you think those are still necessary?
A: Oh, most definitely. The attacks on 9/11, that was a slap. That was a slap to us. That was an attention getter for us that we had to be more aware of what was going on in the air. We had to be more aware of people out there that are that want to kill Americans. They want to kill, you know, Canadians as well. And so I think what weíve done in building relationships with our federal interagency partners, building relationships with the local law enforcement, is only for the better. I know that going through the airport and having to go through all the TSA security is sometimes a pain in the you-know-what, but Iíve gotta tell you we need it. We have to have that done if we want to keep the skies secure and Ė and safer not only for yourself, but for your family.
Q: If you could leave this interview with one message to Americans and Canadians who fall under the NORAD umbrella, what would it be?
A: Maintain your vigilance. Maintain your professionalism. Weíre here for a reason. Weíve evolved over the last 10 years to develop into an air defense organization that has a job not only in defending from attacks from the outside, but also for defending asymmetric threats like we Ė that occurred on 9/11. Just maintain your professionalism and I think everything will work out.