Washington, Sept. 1: As the anniversary of September 11 approaches, two men will relive the agony more than most, as they just might have been able to prevent part of the attack.
Nasty and Duff are the call-signs for two F15 pilots stationed at Otis Air Force base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They were the first fighter pilots to be scrambled on September 11 and flew at supersonic speed towards New York.
For almost a year they have gone over those minutes again and again, wondering whether they could have intercepted one of the hijacked planes.
“We’ve been over the flight a thousand times in our minds,” said Duff, in his first interview, “and I don’t know what we could have done to get there any quicker.”
Duff, a grey-haired pilot in his mid-thirties with wire-rimmed glasses, was standing by the operations desk at 8.44 am on September 11 when the phone rang.
“They said it was the Tower calling and something about a hijacking.” Both pilots ran to get suited up.
They were two of only four fighter pilots on alert covering the north-eastern US. For years the threat of attack from the air had been considered so small that the entire mainland was being defended by just 14 planes.
When the alert came, Col Robert Marr, their commander asked “is this real-life or an exercise'”, repeating: “Is this a no-s*** hijack'”
Nasty and Duff were part-time pilots with the Air National Guard. Thoughtful, earnest men, they bear little resemblance to the Top Gun pilots portrayed in Hollywood movies. “It’s just peacetime,” thought Nasty.
“We’re not thinking anything real bad is going to happen out there.”
Three minutes later American Airlines flight 11 crashed into Tower No 1 of the World Trade Center. The two fighter pilots were 153 miles from Manhattan.
They heard over the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center but did not know it was related to the hijacking.
“When we took off,” said Duff, “we started climbing towards New York city. I was trying to go fast to get there.”
Everything was happening fast and the pilots were not sure what they were looking for. They kept asking for what they call “bogey dope”, details of the target.
“I was just trying to find out where the contact was,” said Duff, “and they told me he’s over Kennedy airport.” That was United Flight 175 turning towards the Tower No 2.
Nasty and Duff continued flying for a couple more minutes but could not find the plane. At 9.05 am the second plane hit its target. “It was quite a shock,” said Duff, “because we both thought there was only one aircraft.
“We were probably 70 miles or so out when the second one hit,” he added, “so we were just minutes away.”
At this point there were no orders to shoot down hijacked aircraft but both men are haunted by whether they could have done more. “For a long time I wondered what would have happened if we had been scrambled in time,” said Nasty in a choked voice.
Within minutes of the second plane crashing they were over Manhattan.
“It was a very surreal experience,” says Duff. “It was like you were in the middle of a bad B movie flying over Central Park chasing down air planes and watching the Towers burning and flying by the Statue of Liberty.”
As they circled, they were told that there were other hijacked planes. In Washington Dick Cheney, the vice-president, had been taken to a bunker under the White House.
In a conversation with President Bush, who was in Florida, it was decided to order fighters to shoot down any hijacked aircraft heading towards major cities. “We will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground,” came the instructions.
“The New York controller came over the radio and said if we have another hijacked aircraft you’re going to have to shoot it down,” said Nasty.
Both men recall the silence that followed as they tried to absorb what the order meant. They also flew commercial aircraft and now they were being told to use their missiles against planes with civilians on board. They had never trained for such a moment.
There were so few fighter planes available that jets were diverted from training missions. Some had no time to arm themselves and might have been ordered to crash into targets.