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The First 109 Minutes: 9/11 and the U.S. Air Force

The First 109 Minutes: 9/11 and the U.S. Air Force published on

Authored by Air Force History Museums Program

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned cool and clear, with sunny skies all along the eastern seaboard. For Air Force aviators like Lt. Col. Timothy “Duff” Duffy of the 102d Fighter Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, the day held the promise of perfect flying weather, at a time when the U.S. civil aviation system was enjoying a period of relative peace, despite concerns about a growing terrorist threat. More than ten years had passed since the last hijacking or bombing of a U.S. air carrier. That morning, however, the country came under a shocking, coordinated aerial assault by nineteen al Qaeda1 hijackers at the direction of the network’s leader and cofounder, Islamist extremist Osama bin Laden (1957/1958-2011).2 The attack plan carried out by the suicide operatives had been years in the making. It was intended to cause mass, indiscriminate casualties and to destroy or damage the nation’s financial, military, and political centers, four high-value U.S. targets selected by bin Laden, independent operator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and al Qaeda operations chief Mohammed Atef.3 Analysts in the United States immediately recognized the historic nature of the strikes,4 launched without warning against targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., and compared them to another deadly surprise aerial attack against the United States almost sixty years earlier.5 The December 7, 1941, assault by Japanese forces on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor had been the most devastating attack against U.S. territory by a foreign adversary until the morning of September 11, 2001.6

The four al Qaeda hijacker-pilots and their teams commandeered the four fuel-laden commercial jets in which they were passengers and intentionally crashed them into 1 and 2World Trade Center, in New York City; the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia; and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This final hijacking, of United Airlines Flight 93, fell short of its intended target in Washington, D.C., because of heroic efforts by its passengers to take back control of the aircraft. The 9/11 attack, which began with the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 and was followed by the hijackings of United Airlines Flight 175,AmericanAirlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93, would become, over the next two and a quarter hours, the deadliest, costliest terrorist strike in U.S. history. The 109-minute attack period itself began when American Airlines Flight 11 was attacked at or just after 8:14 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). It ended when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 a.m. EDT, but the loss of life did not. By the time 1 World Trade Center, North Tower, collapsed at 10:28 a.m. EDT, almost three thousand people had been killed or were dying; the financial center of the United States had been reduced to burning, toxic rubble; the iconic symbol of the military strength of the country had been severely damaged; the tranquility of a field in Pennsylvania had been shattered; U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard fighter aircraft had set up combat air patrols over Washington, D.C., and New York City; and the administration of President George W. Bush and the Department of Defense (DOD) had begun shifting major resources of the federal government and military services to a new national priority, homeland defense.7

Even while the attacks were underway, it was clear that the country faced an unprecedented challenge. On the floor of the command center at the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, SMSgt. Steve Bianchi, an assistant to mission crew commander Maj. Kevin J. Nasypany, reflected: “This is a new type of war.”8And suddenly, as Vice President Richard Cheney noted a few days after the attacks, the country’s national leadership had to consider a new mission for U.S. Air Force pilots: the possible shoot-down of commercial passenger aircraft filled with U.S. citizens.

Publication Date:
Oct 14 2014
1502822695 / 9781502822697
Page Count:
Binding Type:
US Trade Paper
Trim Size:
7″ x 10”
Black and White
Related Categories:
Political Science / Political Freedom & Security / Terrorism


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