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Planes take off from andrews { May 24 2003 }

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Posted on Sat, May. 24, 2003

Order to shoot 9/11 hijackers moved too late
By Chris Mondics

WASHINGTON - The Air Force jets that were scrambled during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks received White House clearance to shoot down the hijacked airliners -- but only after the last of them crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, an Air Force general testified at a hearing Friday.

Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley said the authorization came in the minutes after United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

"The brave men and women who took over that aircraft prevented us from having to make the awful decision (on whether to shoot it down)," McKinley testified at a hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

The independent commission, led by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, was appointed by President Bush and Congress to look into the causes of the attacks and to determine how they might have been prevented.

Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste noted that it took the Federal Aviation Administration 15 minutes to notify the military that American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, was off course and headed toward Washington.

That was after two other hijacked airliners had crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Although military jets were scrambled out of Boston about 8:46 a.m., it was already too late to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center. About the same time, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the trade center's north tower.

Military officials acknowledged other problems in the nation's air defenses but said they had since been corrected.

McKinley testified that both ground communications with pilots and the radar system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command were designed to protect the country from external attack and thus worked only outside the country's borders.

As a result, military commanders were forced to rely on radar information from the FAA during the terror attacks. Moreover, they could not communicate directly with their pilots and had to go through the FAA.

In some of the more unusual testimony at the hearing, McKinley said pilots of two unarmed jets scrambled out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and intended to crash their planes into Flight 93, the Shanksville plane, if they could not get it to deviate from its flight path.

The planes were sent aloft at the request of the Secret Service, which feared that the hijacked plane was headed for the White House.

"It is my understanding that the planes were to crash into Flight 93," McKinley said.

Witnesses testified about the confusion that reigned as the White House, the military and federal aviation administrators rushed to cope with the crisis.

McKinley testified that it wasn't until after the fourth -- and final -- plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field that he became aware of the shootdown order approved by President Bush earlier that morning.

And Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said he learned of the shootdown order only obliquely, after overhearing a discussion between Vice President Dick Cheney and an aide in the White House emergency operations center.

None of the F-15s and F-16s scrambled that morning were in position to intercept the two jetliners that hit the twin towers, the one that slammed into the Pentagon or the aircraft downed in Pennsylvania, said retired Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, who was commander of the 1st Air Force, North American Aerospace Defense Command on Sept. 11.

Dallas Morning News contributed to this story.

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