On Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Col. John R. “Buck” Buckingham was an F-16 pilot in the Colorado Air National Guard. That night, he flew his first combat air patrol over Denver.
Prior to 9/11, he’d already completed four Southwest Asia deployments in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.
His final Southwest Asia deployment was as the 455th vice wing commander at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where he oversaw the operations of 288 combat sorties per day.
He retired as a colonel in September 2009.
Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, was a beautiful clear day. It was the first workday of the week for the Colorado Air National Guard. I was the chief of safety and arrived at work at 6:15 a.m. MST and was busy on the computer and getting settled in after a long weekend. The phone rang and the angered voice on the other end was Brig. Gen. Wayne L. Schultz, commander of the 140th Wing, asking me to come to his office immediately.
I walked in his office and everyone was glued to the TV watching the first tower being engulfed in smoke. Only minutes later we all watched live the second tower being struck with a second airliner, and then we knew this was no accident.
The commander’s phone started ringing and the boss was getting directions from the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. Brig. Gen. Schultz convened the Battle Staff and we immediately went to work. All we could say initially was, “Why?”
The Battle Staff was his key senior leadership to discuss the situation, make a plan and see that it is carried out as soon and as safely as possible.
Maintenance, get the aircraft ready to fly and as many as possible.
Weapons, how many birds have bullets in the gun and how many air-to-air missiles do we have and how long before they are loaded?
Intelligence, tell us what you know other than what we just witnessed by the media.
Operations, devise a plan to have half the pilots here and half at home on crew rest. …
Everyone had a task and was excused to implement that task. I was sent home to go into crew rest and was to report back at 9 p.m. that evening to lead a two-ship combat air patrol mission over Colorado Springs and Denver. Obviously there were a lot of questions and a never-ending amount of guidance from the Guard Bureau and NORAD.
At home I could not separate myself from the TV now learning about the other two cowardly attacks on the Pentagon and the purported attempt on the White House ending in a field in Pennsylvania. I could not believe what I was seeing. I knew I had to try to sleep so to be rested for the four-hour flight later that evening. A few cat naps and a lot of television later I arrived at the squadron at 9 p.m.
During the day, all the professionals at the Guard had done their job. Initially, F-16s were in the air soon after the attacks first with just a gun and then later with heat-seeking Aim-9 missiles and finally with long range AMRAAM missiles. At takeoff time, my two-ship was airborne, fully loaded for bear.
During the day SCANTANA was implemented. This was the first time it had ever been used and very simply meant: During a time of war, all non-military aircraft are grounded.
On any given day or night, as soon as the F-16 is airborne, the air-to-air radar starts sweeping and detects hundreds of aircraft flying along the Front Range. This particular evening – and for the next two days – the only birds in the air were our F-16s and a tanker so we could refuel midair. I remember well how eerie it was to look into my radarscope and see nothing! It was completely blank. We considered this mission so critical that our standard operating procedure was to leave one aircraft on station while the other would go to the tanker and fill up. Once he was back the next would fill up. After four hours of protecting the Colorado citizens and certain points of interest, the next two-ship was airborne and it was time to relinquish control of the sky to them.
Wednesday night was a repeat of the first night, and by Thursday afternoon SCANTANA was lifted and civilian aircraft were being able to fly again. The F-16s were no longer airborne 24-hours-a-day but rather on alert.
Maj. Jerome Dyck, call sign “Needle,” and I arrived at the Squadron at 6 p.m. Thursday evening and were on alert through the night until 9 a.m. Friday. A lot of creative minds had been working overtime constructing makeshift rooms in the hangar with beds for the aviators and ground crew. Communications had installed a “bat” phone connected directly to the Command Post and the birds were poised and ready right outside the door.
Needle and I spent about two hours briefing on the new procedures. This was brand new to the Guard so we wanted to make sure if scrambled, we did it right. Lt. Col. Keith Rimer, call sign “Rooster,” was the flight incident duty officer located in the Command Post. He was going to handle all calls and be our eyes and ears so Needle and I could get some rest.
September in Colorado is a beautiful time of year with Aspen turning, blue skies and cooler nights which makes for a great night‘s sleep. Needle and I turned in around 10 p.m. thinking about all of the losses that occurred that week and would be relieved the next morning by two more pilots.
Around 3 a.m. EST on Sept. 14, a civilian Falcon 50 business jet took off from North Carolina, destination: Aspen, Colo. Two and half hours into his journey over central Kansas, he checked in with Denver Center at FL 390 (approximately 39,000 above sea level). Aircraft are supposed to maintain altitude plus or minus 100-feet. This aircraft was plus or minus 10,000-feet and turning left and right at will – a pretty cavalier attitude considering the previous week.
The controller called the business in North Carolina and informed them that their aircraft and pilot were not abiding to Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations. The company informed Denver Center that they did not have any of their aircraft airborne. Bells and whistles started going off at Denver Center and the next call was to the 140th Wing Command Post. Rooster answered, got the information and picked up the bat phone. It was now 5:30 a.m. MST and Needle answered.
“Scramble!” the Command Post alerted.
Almost immediately we were dressed and running for the jets. The ground crew arrived at the same time and both jets were running in minutes. We performed our pre-flight checks, climbed in and radioed in to the Command Post and awaited orders.
“Contact Denver Departure,” came the next direction from the Command Post. “Cleared for buster (supersonic) climb.”
“Buckley tower Redi 11 number one for takeoff,” I responded.
We were cleared immediately.
“Ten-second trail departure,” I told my Wingman. “Cleared buster.”
Less than 10 minutes after answering the bat phone we were airborne, heading east at supersonic speed toward Goodland, Kan.
Because of the configuration of the jet, 1.6 mach was our limit. Denver Departure handed us off to Denver Center and we received a vector of “095 degrees climb and maintain FL 390, your contact is on your nose 135 miles.”
We have UHF and VHF radios. We talked with and remained with Rooster on VHF and talked with Denver on UHF. Denver wanted us to intercept the contact as far away from the Denver metropolitan area as possible. I made radar contact and did a stern conversion intercept arriving at 6 o’clock, 1 mile behind the Falcon 50.
The airplane was climbing and descending, turning left and right. Rooster told me that NORAD wanted me to stay at 1 mile and monitor. Denver was talking to him on VHF and to me on UHF using simulcasts, which meant that when Denver Center talked both of us heard. The Falcon 50 was equipped with a Terminal Collision Avoidance System, which, in this case, detected me behind him. He obviously said something like, “I have a TCAS alert 1 mile behind me, what is going on?” because the next thing I heard was Denver Center say, “You now have two fully-loaded F-16s at 6 o’clock, do you want to start doing what you’re told?” The Falcon 50 immediately started flying straight and level.
The next 45 minutes were uneventful as we headed for Aspen getting ready for a descent. It was now 7 a.m. and full daylight at FL390. The Falcon 50 started down into a much darker valley in the Colorado Mountains. Rooster advised me that NORAD now wanted an identification of the aircraft and tail number. I instructed Needle to stay at 12,000 feet over the airport while I flew close enough to get a tail number and ID. As the Falcon 50 was turning a 10-mile final, I flew up on his right wing and identified the aircraft.
At 12,000 feet looking down in the Aspen Valley, I could not believe my eyes. I had no idea that there were that many red and blue lights in the state. Every emergency vehicle from hundreds of miles away was at that airport waiting for that aircraft. The plane landed and was instructed to taxi off the runway, park and shutdown, and not open doors. The aircraft was then surrounded and finally doors were opened and our job was done.
Needle and I pushed the power up, put Denver on the nose and settled our birds back on the runway at Buckley Air Force Base at about 7:30 a.m.
It was time for a cup of coffee.
Return to 9/11 in their own words