The Andrews Air Force Base Stand Down: How the 'Capital Guardians' Failed to Guard the Capital on 9/11

"Thank God that guy's there! Where has he been?"

- Firefighter Mike Smith, upon seeing the first military fighter jetarriving over the Pentagon, 10:40 a.m., September 11, 2001

At the time the 9/11 attacks began, many of the pilots with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) were in the headquarters of the 121st Fighter Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. They had been suspicious upon learning of the first crash in New York, but when a second plane hit the World Trade Center the emergency became obvious. "We're under a terrorist attack!" someone yelled. One DCANG officer at the base exclaimed, "Well, holy shit, if this is a terrorist attack, we need to get something in the air!" According to Lt. Col. Steve Chase, who was at the operations desk there: "People just launched into action. There was a buzz in the unit." [1]

Andrews Air Force Base is located just 10 miles southeast of Washington, DC, and has been described as "one of the most modern bases in the Air Force." [2] Yet the first fighter jet did not take off from there until well after the time the Pentagon was hit--possibly as late as 10:38 a.m.--and this was armed only with training ammunition. [3] The first properly armed jets took off at 10:52 a.m. [4]

Why did the units at Andrews perform so badly? Why did this base fail to protect the nation's capital and prevent an attack on the nearby Pentagon? Despite the absence of any serious official investigation of these questions, evidence already available indicates that a number of subtle but effective measures may have been used to deliberately sabotage the emergency response and render the DC Air National Guard useless.

Andrews Air Force Base is a huge military installation in Prince George's County, Maryland. [5] It is the home of the 113th Wing and associated units of the DC Air National Guard, including the 121st Fighter Squadron. [6]

According to a book published by the 1st Air Force, the 113th Wing "is not part of the NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] air sovereignty force and did not have an alert mission" in 2001. [7] However, evidence clearly indicates it still should have been involved in defending the Washington area in response to the 9/11 attacks. Shortly before September 11, the "DC Military" website stated that the 113th Wing's mission included providing "capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency." [8] The day of 9/11, Knight Ridder reported, "Air defense around Washington, DC, is provided mainly by fighter planes from Andrews Air Force Base." [9] Indeed, the DC Air National Guard was known as the "Capital Guardians." [10] And while he has said, "We've never been an air defense unit," Lt. Col. Phil Thompson--the chief of safety for the 113th Wing--admitted, "We practice scrambles [i.e. taking off as fast as possible, to inspect enemy aircraft], we know how to do intercepts and other things." [11]

Why then didn't Andrews AFB successfully defend Washington? The following five key pieces of evidence suggest its ability to respond to the attacks may well have been sabotaged:

The 121st Fighter Squadron had recently participated in a massive training exercise in Nevada. "Red Flag," an exercise held four times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, ran from August 11 to September 7, 2001, and the 121st FS only returned from it on September 8. [12] Most of the DC Air National Guard pilots are involved with the unit on a part-time basis, while flying commercial jet planes in their civilian lives. [13] Apparently as a result of Red Flag, most of the 121st FS's pilots were back at their usual airline jobs, and the unit only had seven pilots available on September 11. [14] Prior to taking off in response to the attacks, some of these pilots had been uploading onto disks the flight data they would need once airborne, such as navigational waypoints, maps, and frequencies. Reportedly, these disks "still contain[ed] all the Nellis data from the Red Flag training exercise they just returned from." [15] This raises the question of whether the job of replacing the exercise data delayed the takeoffs.

Furthermore, when the 9/11 attacks began, three F-16s belonging to the 121st FS were 207 miles away from base, flying a training mission in North Carolina, where they'd gone "to drop some bombs and hit a refueling tanker." [16] Therefore, three of the squadron's seven pilots were unavailable to respond to the attacks. Critically, the F-16s were out of radio range with the base. So when weapons officer Major Daniel Caine wanted to recall them, he had to contact a tanker refueling plane they were scheduled to meet and ask its pilot to pass on an urgent "return to base" message. [17] The three fighter jets did not arrive back at Andrews until after the Pentagon was hit. [18]

Unlike other Air National Guard units, the DC Air National Guard reported to the president rather than a state governor. The president, in turn, had delegated that authority to the Department of Defense. Also, because of its responsibility to protect the president, the Secret Service had a level of authority over the DCANG, and 121st FS officers had a close relationship with Secret Service agents who worked at Andrews Air Force Base. [19]

After the second attack in New York, at 9:03 a.m., Daniel Caine called a contact in the Secret Service that he was friends with. He asked: "Do you have any additional information? Are you guys going to need some help?" Even though it was now obvious the U.S. was under attack and that Washington was a likely target for terrorists, the agent responded, "No, but I'll call you back if that changes." Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville, the commander of the 121st FS, has claimed: "At that time, we weren't thinking about defending anything. Our primary concern was what would happen to the air traffic system." [20]

It wasn't until after 9:34 a.m., when the Secret Service learned of an unidentified aircraft approaching the White House, that an agent at the White House Joint Operations Center called Caine to request help. He asked: "Can you guys do anything? Can you get some fighters in the air as soon as possible?" [21] This was more than half an hour after the second plane hit the WTC. However, the emergency response was delayed even further. Caine has recalled, "Then [the Secret Service agent] told us to stand by and that somebody else would call." The 113th Wing's maintenance section started getting several F-16s armed and ready to fly. Finally, in a subsequent phone call, the Secret Service ordered Andrews AFB, "Get in the air now!" [22]

The DC Air National Guard's ability to respond to the attacks may also have been hindered because it was being denied the information it needed about what was happening, and had to rely instead upon CNN. At around 9:30 a.m., its intelligence officer went onto the SIPRNET--the Department of Defense's classified version of the Internet--in search of pertinent information, but to no avail. He phoned anyone he could think of who might be able to help, including the Air Combat Command Intelligence Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, the 9th Air Intelligence Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, Washington's FBI field office, and the White House Joint Operations Center. Yet he was unable to find out anything more than what he'd learned from television. Author Lynn Spencer has claimed, "As DCANG is a general purpose F-16 unit, no one [was] specifically tasked with keeping the squadron informed." [23]

The question to be investigated is whether this apparent agency-wide information blackout can be dismissed as the result of mere confusion, or was it due to sabotage?

The actions of Brigadier General David Wherley Jr. are particularly notable. As the commander of the DC Air National Guard, Wherley surely had a crucial role to play in responding to the attacks. However, although accounts are vague and sometimes contradictory, descriptions of what he did give us serious cause for concern.

Wherley was in the headquarters of the 113th Wing the morning of September 11. Yet reports indicate he only started taking action after 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon was hit. According to the Washington Post, Wherley's "first inkling that the attacks would go beyond New York was when one of his officers, whose husband worked at the Pentagon, saw on television that the building had been hit and began shrieking." [24] After taking a moment to comfort the officer, he "raced out of his office and ran several hundred yards to the headquarters of the DC Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron." But then, upon learning that the Secret Service wanted Andrews to launch fighter jets, Wherley told squadron officers he wanted more explicit authorization, saying: "We have to get instructions. We can't just fly off half-cocked." [25]

Wherley talked over the phone with the Secret Service, which wanted the DCANG to establish a combat air patrol (CAP) over Washington. Yet he seemed reluctant to help. He told the Secret Service agent, "I would feel more comfortable receiving such an order from someone higher in the chain of command, preferably in the military." He was given the number for the Presidential Emergency Operations Center--a bunker below the White House--which he then called. The Secret Service agent who answered implored Wherley: "We want you to put a CAP up over the city. We need some fighters now." Yet Wherley was "not very comfortable taking orders from a Secret Service agent. That's just not how things are done." He asked, "Is there anybody else there from the military available to talk?" As there was not, he asked, "Is the vice president available?" The vice president was on the phone with the president. Only after further reflection did Wherley finally agree to help, saying: "Okay, then. What exactly do they want me to do?" [26]

Wherley then had to wait for the Secret Service to determine "exactly" what it wanted. According to the Washington Post, the instructions came "within a half-hour." Again, another delay. [27] The Secret Service agent who got back to Wherley said he had received instructions that came from the vice president. The guidance was "to send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol." If the 9/11 Commission is correct, these instructions were not passed on to the first fighter jet that took off from Andrews, but instead only to "the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward." By that time, of course, the attacks were long over. [28]

Taking into account these five pieces of evidence (and presumably there are other relevant details that we are as yet unaware of) it is unsurprising that the DCANG was so slow in responding to the 9/11 attacks. The first fighter jet to take off from Andrews Air Force Base in response was an F-16 piloted by Major Billy Hutchison--one of the aircraft that had been away on a training mission in North Carolina and had just returned to the base. Hutchison's was the only one of the three returning jets with enough fuel remaining to take off again immediately, though he had just 2,800 pounds, which is equivalent to one-eighth of a tank in a car. He had no missiles and only training ammunition. He took off "without afterburner to conserve fuel, go across the White House over the Georgetown area and continue northwest up the Potomac." [29]

The time when Hutchison took off is unclear. Different accounts have said he did so "Within minutes of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon," [30] some time roughly around 10:00 a.m. [31], or "about 50 minutes after the Pentagon was hit." [32] According to 113th Wing operations desk records, he did not take off until 10:33 a.m. [33], and, according to the 9/11 Commission, he was not airborne until 10:38 a.m. [34]

Hutchison has recalled that he circled low over the Pentagon some time after taking off. [35] Many witnesses who were on the ground have recalled seeing the first military jet arriving over the Pentagon following the attack there at around 10:40 a.m., or "closer to 11" o'clock, according to the New York Times. In other words, the first Andrews jet to reach the Pentagon in response to the 9/11 attacks only arrived an hour or more after it had been hit--far too late to have been any use in preventing the attack there. Understandably, upon seeing the F-16 above, one firefighter exclaimed: "Thank God that guy's there! Where has he been?" [36]

The next two F-16s to launch from Andrews took off at 10:42 a.m. These also had no missiles, and only non-explosive training rounds for their Gatling guns--"hardly enough to bring down an airliner," the pilots have conceded. Finally, at 10:52 a.m., the first fighters armed with live ammunition and AIM-9 air-to-air missiles took off. [37] Their pilots were instructed to establish a combat air patrol over Washington and intercept any incoming aircraft. [38]

So, although the DC Air National Guard is meant to have realized, "We're under a terrorist attack!" when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and immediately to have "launched into action," its first properly armed fighters did not take off until more than an hour after the Pentagon was hit, and more than two hours after the first attack in New York.

The information currently available on Andrews Air Force Base and what happened there on 9/11 is vague, often contradictory, and only serves to raise new questions. For example, we know that, as well as the 113th Wing, there were other units at the base with fighter jets available. These included Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321, which flew the sophisticated F/A-18 Hornet, and Naval Air Facility, Washington, DC, which provided "Naval air operations support for the Naval District of Washington," and also had F/A-18 Hornets available. [39] Yet little is known about these units' activities on September 11 and what they could have done to defend the capital.

It seems logical to assume, however, that fighter jets from Andrews should have been in the air protecting Washington and the Pentagon long before the Pentagon was hit. The question of why they failed to do so needs to be part of a serious and unrestrained new investigation of the 9/11 attacks.

[1] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital." Washington Post, April 8, 2002; Lynn Spencer, Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11. New York: Free Press, 2008, p. 123.
[2] "Andrews AFB, Maryland.", March 3, 2002.
[3] NBC Nightly News. NBC, September 11, 2001; Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital"; 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 44.
[4] Steve Vogel, The Pentagon: A History. New York: Random House, 2007, p. 446.
[5] "Andrews Air Force Base: Welcome.", Summer 2001; "Andrews AFB, Maryland."
[6] "Andrews Air Force Base: Partner Units.", Summer 2001; "113th Wing.", October 21, 2001.
[7] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America: Sept. 11 Alters Face of Air Defense Mission. Tyndall Air Force Base, FL: 1st Air Force, 2003, p. 76.
[8] "Andrews Air Force Base: Partner Units."
[9] Steve Goldstein, "Focus of Training for Terrorist Attacks has Been Chemical, Biological Warfare." Knight Ridder, September 11, 2001.
[10] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 122.
[11] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93." Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 9, 2002.
[12] "Photo: Exercise Routine." Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 22, 2001; Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital"; William M. Arkin, Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2005, p. 476.
[13] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital."
[14] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 156.
[15] Ibid. pp. 236-237.
[16] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 79.
[17] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 124.
[18] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 79; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 216-218.
[19] Steve Vogel, The Pentagon, p. 445; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 122-123.
[20] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 124.
[21] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 9; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 156.
[22] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 78.
[23] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 79; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 155-156.
[24] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital."
[25] Steve Vogel, The Pentagon, pp. 445-446.
[26] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 184-185.
[27] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital."
[28] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 44.
[29] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, pp. 79-81.
[30] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93."
[31] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 216-220.
[32] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital."
[33] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, pp. 81 and 89.
[34] 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 44.
[35] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, pp. 81-82.
[36] David E. Sanger and Don Van Natta Jr., "In Four Days, a National Crisis Changes Bush's Presidency." New York Times, September 16, 2001; Patrick Creed and Rick Newman, Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11. New York: Presidio Press, 2008, pp. 130-131.
[37] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, pp. 82-84; Steve Vogel, The Pentagon, p. 446.
[38] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 238.
[39] "Andrews Air Force Base: Partner Units."


"The order still stands . . ."

After watching how fast F-16's

fly @ a recent air show, it's mindoggling to think they couldn't get over DC from anywhere in a matter of minutes.

Long established instincts...

As the investigation into NORAD's role in 9/11 grows, one of the most interesting things to look for will be the "instincts" that the "players in the scramble game" will come to shed the light upon regarding how NORAD was institutionally shut down on 9/11.

We have "Duff" straining at the bits in his interceptor at Otis...we have some military guy down in Florida who was the head of NORAD or SEADS or something [forgot his name] automatically flopping back into "old reactions" which has him give an "unapproved" authority to get some interceptors in the air and then get approvals from the Pentagon afterwards [the usual]...we have Sliney feeling that the FAA had told the military everything that it needed AND in a timely manner for interceptors to get airbourne...we have distant interceptor bases getting engaged without being asked...and now we have this testimony.

Well, its just the tip of the iceberg once we can protect the whistleblowers...

ALL of this establishes how "automatic" the system was ingrained in first responders BEFORE the June change...

Had the June change not happened...the airliners would have been intercepted...its really just that simple!

And many players in the game are telling us this without overtly telling us this...because its always been just presumed that one takes action when its needed, requested or both...its just the way it is...not WAS...IS!

There is a solid reason that NORAD was being considered to be investigated for lying to the "O"mmission...

Just keep your eyes out for the "fire truck thing"...even if there is no real fire, a timely "scramble" out of the firehouse makes sure that at least the fire trucks were there...just in case!

Robin Hordon

Even if all of the above is true

and Major Daniel Caine at Andrews knew what was going on in NYC by 9:03 AM, how come even after a National Ground Stop had been issued, why was Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien allowed to take off from Andrews AFB in his C130 at 9:30 AM? How can O'Brien claim that he didn't know anything about the attacks that were in progress? Even after he chased Flight 77 and saw it crash into the Pentagon, instead of going back to base to report what he had just witnessed, he continued on his merry way to MN and claims he still didn't know about the events in NYC until he was flying over PA.

And even if Andrews AFB didn't have the equipment or personal ready to launch a response, there are only about a hundred other AF Bases in this country. By the time the Pentagon got hit, why wasn't every piece of available equipment launched not just from Andrews, but from some of these other bases as well? What about all of the pilots who were already in the air either participating in the war games or just out on regular practice runs, why weren't any of them redirected to NYC or DC? The POB's have a bucket full of excuses for why they couldn't launch fighter jets from Andrews in a reasonable amount of time, while they ignore the fact that there should have been numerous other options to get fighter jet cover over NYC and DC.

Excellent analysis

Thank you. It's unbelievable that these questions have been able to get ignored.

The tip of a huge iceberg

Yes, the case of what happened at Andrews AFB epitomizes the entire problem with the September 11 attacks: Very little is really known about what was going on, and what has been reported is vague, contradictory, and highly suspicious. I couldn't find a single thing about what Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321and Naval Air Facility, Washington, DC did on 9/11--not one sentence. Yet these units had fighter jets available, and were just 10 miles away from Washington!

I am convinced that what has so far been reported about 9/11 is just the tip of an enormous iceberg.


Good work

Shoestring -- always a useful contribution.

As for the "orders still stand," I have an article, which I will post shortly, which argues that these "orders" are most-likely the June 1st "Air Piracy(Hijacking)" procedures issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

After all, the question to Cheney was "Do the orders still stand?" This means standing orders. Like the June 1st instructions.

The fact that this question, Cheney's answer, and Mineta's talking too much, were disappeared from history is a clue, a glaring clue. This is something they want covered-up, despite how guilty it makes them look to us.

70 Disturbing Facts About 9/11

John Doraemi publishes Crimes of the State Blog

johndoraemi --at--