Things To Do
Pilot Adds Perspective To Sept. 11 Attacks
Published: June 8, 2008
The late U.S. Army Col. Milton "Bud" Halsey once shared his thoughts on how Cold War air defense units would have responded in an attack on the United States.
"You never know how individuals will react in combat," said Halsey, a Bronze and Silver Star-decorated veteran of two wars. "You have to wait until they take some hits. You won't know how well they will perform until you learn how they respond to casualties."
Halsey's remarks turned prophetic during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when hundreds of individuals in military and civilian aviation relied on improvisation to retake the U.S. skies.
In "Touching History," which Simon & Schuster affiliate Free Press released Tuesday, first-time author Lynn Spencer focuses on the harried yet innovative responses of those who flew and controlled military and civilian aircraft amid the chaos on Sept. 11.
Spencer applied her background as an airline pilot and her belief the 9/11 story had not been told completely to undertake three years of research that enable her book to succeed on multiple levels.
Foremost, "Touching History" provides a narrative of events from the perspective of the participants who responded to the attacks, mostly without guidance from senior government officials.
The book also adds fresh detail to myriad stories of Sept. 11, and at some points challenges previous accounts, including parts of The 9/11 Commission Report.
And while the author wisely narrowed her focus to the hands-on operators of the nation's aircraft and airspace during Sept. 11, "Touching History" is likely to inspire some readers to further consider the nation's homeland defense strategy since that fateful day.
Spencer's book follows the familiar chronology of the clear September Tuesday that began with the terrorists' takeovers of commercial airliners.
The narrative recounts the struggles to figure out what was going on as the terrorists crashed four aircraft and their occupants into symbolic buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., and an empty field in western Pennsylvania.
The nation's sparse air defense forces - with 14 interceptors on alert among just seven locations along the periphery of the United States - played a role in preventing the military from "taking lives in the air to save lives on the ground," as Spencer quotes military commanders.
Also at play was a radar and control network vastly downgraded from the Cold War era, when command posts could guide fighter planes to targets by electronic data link, if necessary.
One in-depth account in "Touching History" focuses on how a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller in the Boston sector took the initiative to become the sole provider of information to military commanders about the hijackings early in the day. His technology: an outdated radar console and a telephone.
However, one report the controller relayed was erroneous - he could have heard it wrong or passed on incorrect information from another source, Spencer writes - that indicated American Airlines Flight 11 was headed toward Washington when it already had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
When 9/11 Commission researchers learned of the mix-up, after military commanders had failed to report it during 2003 hearings, they alleged some officers covered up details and provided incorrect timelines for how they responded to the hijackings.
A 2005 Department of Defense Inspector Generals report, originally classified "Secret," stated in a redacted copy that the inaccuracies in part stemmed from inadequate recording capabilities and insufficient actions to ensure complete reporting.
Another illustration of the detail Spencer provides is the account of scrambling a backup F-16 from Langley Air Force Base at Hampton, Va., along with the two F-16s on alert there, in the mistaken effort to intercept American Flight 11.
The pilot of the spare F-16 originally was assigned as the day's Supervisor of Flying to relay initial target information from the Northeast Air Defense Sector(NEADS) headquarters in upstate New York to the two alert pilots if they were called upon to fly.
When the supervisor - who was the only remaining officer at the unit - took off in the third F-16, it left no one to help coordinate a flight path for the scrambled interceptors to the Washington area or to relay crucial information about the scramble order
The three F-16s were out of radio range with NEADS in Rome, N.Y, where weapons controllers could not relay correct instructions because the air sovereignty supervisor was flying.
So it was left for NEADS to work through the military and civilian air traffic control bureaucracy, ultimately reaching a U.S. Navy controller who said, "I'll get back to you."
"I'm going to choke that guy," a NEADS enlisted weapons director said in response.
That mission eventually put the F-16s in position to intercept the last of the hijacked airliners to remain aloft, United 93, military commanders, pilots and air traffic controllers told Spencer, contrary to what 9/11 Commission researchers claimed.
"In some cases, the facts published in this book, as told to her in interviews with airmen and airline pilots who were involved, differ markedly from the account in The 9/11 Commission Report," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, the commander of 1st Air Force in Panama City on Sept. 11, said in "Touching History."
"After reading this book, you decide," Arnold wrote.
In an interview with the Tribune, Spencer credits her ability to gain access to key sources to the fact that she did not have an agenda but was seeking to understand and fill the gaps of knowledge that, as an airline pilot, she recognized. The Duke University graduate and mother of three flies for ExpressJet Airlines, a Houston-based carrier that operates more than 250 regional jets, including flights for Continental and Delta Air Lines.
Originally the book was to be titled "Clearing the Skies."
"I became aware after talking to hundreds of people I had various pieces of the puzzle, and I could see how they fit together," Spencer said recently. She told her editor she felt like she had "touched history," which became the title.
"You look at 9/11, and you see how the actions of those people saved lives and averted a much huger catastrophe," Spencer said. "Pilots train to methodically respond to every emergency - just respond, react.
"But many pilots on 9/11 became frightened and felt vulnerable. That just doesn't happen, yet they performed flawlessly."
Ted Jackovics is a Tribune business reporter who covers transportation. He interviewed Col. Halsey in 1999 as a visitor to a Nike missile site in California that Halsey restored during his retirement. Halsey died in January 2001 and is buried in Arlington