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Otis base 153 miles away { August 30 2002 }

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Friday, 30 August, 2002, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Fighting terror in America's skies

11 September was unlike any other day in American history for the US administration - Gavin Hewitt charts how they responded to the attacks.

America under attack - the very idea was unimagined. On 11 September the country seemed secure within its borders. It had the most powerful military in the world, yet it was unprepared.

Within hours the US was effectively being run from an underground bunker, its forces were on nuclear alert, the skies were cleared of all commercial aircraft and congressional leaders had been taken to secret locations.

That morning Sergeant Jeremy Powell was on duty at a remote military outpost in New York State called Huntress Control. He received a call from the Federal Aviation Administration in Boston warning of a possible hijack.

US defended by just 14 planes

Huntress Control contacted Otis Airforce Base in Cape Cod - they had two of just four fighter pilots on alert covering the North Eastern United States.

In fact, the threat of an attack was considered so small that the entire US mainland was being defended by only 14 planes.

As the first plane hit the World Trade Center the two F15 fighter pilots were taking off, they were still 153 miles from New York.

The pilots flew supersonically and headed for New York, but the US Air Force was unable to identify the second plane. At 0902 the second plane struck, the F15 pilots were just 70 miles out.

One of the pilots said: "It was like you were in the middle of a bad B-movie, flying over Central Park chasing down planes and watching the towers burning."

Shortly after President George W Bush was informed, he immediately called Vice President Dick Cheney on a secure phone. The president put down the phone and declared: "We are at war."

The Secret Service decided the president must return to Air Force One. His motorcade travelled at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour with agents leaning out of the windows, their weapons pointing up in the air.

Kevin Dowd, a policeman with the convoy, said: "I thought they were actually anticipating a terrorist attack on the president while we were en route."

4,000 planes grounded

Cabinet officials began arriving in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center -an underground bunker beneath the White House. They decided that the only way to determine the scale of the hijackings was to order every commercial and private plane to land.

All flight controllers were told to go to Condition Air Traffic Control Zero - to clear the skies. It had never been done before, yet within three hours 4,836 planes had landed.

At 09.38 American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon amid rumours that other hijacked planes were heading for Washington. President Bush and Dick Cheney then decided any hijacked planes approaching the capital would be shot down.

They began tracking a plane heading for Washington. US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was also in the bunker and recalled that a young aide reported the plane was 10 miles out and asked Dick Cheney if the orders to shoot it down still stood.

Mr Mineta told the programme: "The vice-president whipped his head round and said 'of course they do'."

That particular plane turned out to be a false alarm but the fighter pilots now knew they might have to shoot down civilian aircraft.

Colonel Robert Marr was Commander of the North East Defense Sector and remembers the words that came over the secure phone: "we will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground."

Too few armed fighter jets

However, there were not enough planes to patrol the skies. Some had to be diverted from training missions and some were not even armed.

Colonel Marr said they had to contemplate launching their own suicide missions, using the fighters to crash into the hijacked planes.

He said: "It was very possible that they would have been asked to give their lives themselves to try to prevent further attacks if need be."

There were also fears that Air Force One might also be attacked. "There was a lot of discussion," said one person travelling with President Bush, "as to where the president should go, they wanted to keep him moving - a moving target is harder to hit."

By early afternoon the skies had been cleared and the President was advised that it was safe to return to Washington.

President Bush was flown over the Pentagon, he later said: "I saw one of the great symbols of our strength up in flames. And it reminded me that we were in a new war."

Clear The Skies will be broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday 1 September at 2100 BST

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