Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado –
On Sept. 11, 2001, Brig. Gen. Wayne L. Schultz, was the commander of the 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard.
The 140th Wing is armed with F-16 Fighting Falcons, and in the minutes following the terrorist attacks, Schultz received the presidential authorization for his pilots to shoot down civilian aircraft, if necessary.
I was in my office catching up on correspondence before heading to operations for a morning flight. I think it was Chief Master Sgt. Barbara Maldonado who stuck her head in the door and said there was something I needed to see.
She had the TV on and we watched the continuous replay of the first aircraft impact on the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had occurred at 6:46 a.m. MST.
I tried to imagine a scenario that would make it an accident, but the weather was perfect, and incapacitation of the crew or any conceivable malfunction just didn't fit. Hijacking seemed probable, but since historically those had been isolated situations, I still didn't envision this extending beyond a single tragic event.
I walked over to the fighter operations hoping to fly, but suspecting things might change. Shortly after I arrived, the second collision, on the South Tower at 7:03 a.m. MST, was being shown on TV and a call came from NORAD directing us to get aircraft airborne as soon as possible.
We launched two fighters immediately, armed only with guns since there was no time to load missiles.
Gradually we learned of the Pentagon attack at 7:37 a.m. MST and the Flight 93 crash at 8:03 a.m. MST and now knew this was a planned and far-reaching attack of unknown magnitude.
As time went on, we launched more fully-armed aircraft and coordinated with tanker and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft that soon arrived on station. Procedures for aircraft radio communications and orbit locations were initially arranged ad hoc, but were eventually refined and the rules of engagement clarified, the most significant being presidential authorization to shoot down aircraft if necessary.
Before long, all commercial aircraft were on the ground but not all general aviation airplanes had gotten the word, one of which was intercepted and instructed to land. For the next 52 hours, our fighters flew 62 sorties and 188 hours keeping four aircraft airborne, performing three intercepts and remaining ready to respond as necessary.
The 200th Airlift Squadron also played a central role in providing critical transportation support during these uncertain days.
My initial thoughts for the first few days were of course mission related. How do we schedule and sustain tasking? How will this affect our people? What impact will the new alert tasking have on training and mission readiness that might affect our scheduled deployment commitments? What additional security risks are there? Weaponized general aircraft, ground-to-air hand-held missiles, car bombs, etc.?
From a more general perspective, I wondered how things might change now that this attack had expanded the nature of conflict to include direct attack on civilians, battlefields in the U.S., and circumstances that could include "lesser evil" or "no win" choices like shooting down an airliner.
There were, however, some good thoughts and feelings that helped put things in context. In the evening the day after the attacks, I walked out on the flight line and looked around. Normally I would see 15-20 airliners in the sky approaching Denver International Airport. There were none. The only sound I heard was the faint drone of our fighters in orbit over the Front Range. Apparently, I was not alone.
In the weeks that followed, a letter arrived through the governor's office from a father who lived on the Front Range. He told how his small children were unable to sleep after seeing video of the attacks – until he took them outside and told them the noise they could hear was from airplanes that were there to protect them.
He expressed his thanks to the men and women of the Colorado Air National Guard, and so do I.