America's defence establishment has disclosed that it ordered its fighter jets to intercept all the passenger aircraft hijacked in last week's attacks on New York and Washington, and that two F-15s were just eight minutes away when the second airliner crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre.
A timeline released yesterday by the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) showed that two other fighter jets were 12 minutes away from the third passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 77, when it slammed into the Pentagon.
The data made clear that military intelligence was aware of the hijackings – and possibly the suicidal nature of their mission – before any of the aircraft had hit their targets. It also raised questions about who ordered the fighter jets to undertake their intercept mission and what their instructions would have been in the event that they successfully caught up with a passenger aircraft while it was still in the air.
The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, revealed in a television interview over the weekend that President George Bush had given an order last Tuesday for the military to shoot down any civilian aircraft that disregarded instructions from air traffic control and appeared to be a threat. However, Mr Cheney and Mr Bush explained that the presidential order was given only after the first three planes had hit their targets.
The fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, was thought to be on its way to Washington but crashed in rural Pennsylvania following some kind of altercation between the hijackers and a group of passengers determined to thwart their plans.
The failure of Norad and other defence agencies to protect the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon has caused serious concern. Senior military officials have explained that their defence systems are geared primarily for threats from outside the United States' borders, not attacks launched from inside the country. At the same time, there have been questions about what military intelligence knew and how it reacted.
Last week, rumours surfaced that Flight 93 had been shot down by the military – rumours that have been squashed by the Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to Norad's timeline, the military were tipped off by the Federal Aviation Authority about the first aircraft, American Airlines Flight 11, at 8.40am, eight minutes before it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. At 8.43am a second alert was issued concerning United Airlines Flight 175, also heading for the World Trade Centre.
At 8.46am, Norad ordered two F-15s at Otis Air National Guard Base in Falmouth, Massachussetts, to chase the planes. The jets took off at 8.52am. When the United aircraft hit the south tower 10 minutes later, the F-15s were 71 miles away, equivalent to eight minutes' flight time.
At 9.24am, Norad was told about the third aircraft, the one heading for the Pentagon, and two F-16s took off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia six minutes later. They were 105 miles, or 12 minutes, away when the plane hit.
It was at this point that President Bush is said to have issued his shoot order. F-16s from Langley flew protective patterns over Washington. United Flight 93 crashed outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10.03am.
The rumours that this plane was shot down are based on the fact that debris was found up to eight miles from the crash site, that one of the passengers talking on a mobile phone reported hearing an explosion and seeing a plume of white smoke in the cabin, and that eyewitnesses saw a second aircraft in the sky at the time of the crash. The FBI has said the wide debris field was probably the result of the explosion on impact.
There has been no official comment on the report of an onboard explosion, or on whether a bomb brandished by one of the hijackers was real. The aeroplane's flight recorders have been recovered, but the FBI has refused to divulge their contents.Reuse content