PANAMA CITY Fla. (WMBB) — Air Force General Larry Arnold sits down with News 13’s Tom Lewis to discuss the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.
ORIGINAL STORY: Air Force Gen. faced life and death decisions on 9/11
I appreciate you taking the time to get a talk to me. We’re doing some interviews and leading up to the anniversary this week of 9/11 and I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that day. If you could share what you can with me. I don’t know how much of the stuff is still classified for you. I guess you know that. So, if I ask you something that’s classified you just tell me, okay?
Yeah, there’s nothing classified. I’ll talk about anything.
OK, all right. So, folks understand you were in charge of the First Air Force which was mostly air National Guard is that correct.
Yeah, the Continental United States NORAD region which is one of the three regions of NORAD North American Air Defense command and it is First Air Force. So you wear several hats. The current commander is commander of First Air Force the Continental United States CONRAD region and AF north which is a component of northern command.
Tell me what your responsibilities were as Commander of First Air Force?
Well, our responsibilities were for the air defense and for the air sovereignty mission of the United States of the lower 48. And that was our job and by 911 out ability to respond had been reduced to about seven sites around the country. but we tracked any unknowns coming into the United States, intercepted them. We Followed the President regularly as part of our job. And we exercise in case there was an attack in the United States, which most people thought was extremely remote at that particular time. Less so now, even though there are many ways to do that.
I happened to read an interview you did with somebody else for the national archives maybe like two months after the attack and picked up some interesting information about that for background information for folks. At this point in time, we were…the Cold War was more or less over and that it always been our threat. Our radar was pointed towards Russia and way up in the atmosphere and not low level correct?
Tell me how that played into what happened on 911.
Well, kind of interesting. One of the things that were changing at that time technology-wise was the advent of non-state players and there their ability to attack places that you would think that a non-state player could not do. And then less powerful states like Iran and others had the ballistic missiles as well and we thought about the capability to launch missiles from off of ships, boats, airplanes, drones, you name it. And one of the things that we have been working on, in particular, was an ability for us to provide surveillance not only along the coast but out at sea and be able to connect into the Navy ship apparatus, which we didn’t have that capability before. And one of the things we also worked on was the ability to connect different types of analog radars with digital radars which played an important part in the immediate aftermath of 911. Because I know unbeknownst to me the FAA high altitude structure of the time was all digital and the lower altitude structure for the radars was all analog and if you were not using a transponder, you know what transponders are of course. The airplane sends out a beacon where it is, If the transponders were off these two types of radars cannot communicate with one another. Interesting.
Tell me about that morning. Now obviously you were aware that the President was in Sarasota. He was in the state of Florida that day. Tell me how things unfolded. I understand you guys you were in the midst of like a four-day exercise of the time things started going kinda wrong?
Yeah, we were right in the middle of a NORAD exercise. It involved Canada and states lower 48 and Alaska as well. But as that was happening the Russians had decided to fly up past the Aleutian Islands up into the Arctic and Alaska was pulling out of that exercise. So we were in a video conference with NORAD with Alaska, Canada at that particular time, just discussing that and getting ready for the exercise and what kind of scenario we would have and how we’re going to interact, and just as that conference ended my executive officer a lieutenant colonel Kelly Duckett handed me a note and said there’s a note from Col Bob Marr from the Northeast air defense sector up in Rome New York which controls the northeastern part of United States surveillance, said we have a possible hijack going on. Call me. So I immediately went downstairs to our operations center and called him. He had airplanes on called runway alert. They started the airplanes are sitting at the end of the runway waiting to get cleared for takeoff on the hijack. And I told him to go ahead and launch the airplanes and we’ll get clearance later because the way that’s is supposed to work is that if there is a hijack in place, the airlines report to the FAA, the FAA goes to the department of defense, the DOD comes down to NORAD, and see if they’re any airplanes available to be launched. And it just turns out the moment they got airborne, the first airplane I think it was American 11 crashed into the north tower of the world trade center. And that was so kind of interesting later talking to the pilots during the airplane that was on the airplane. One of the pilots had been, this was some time ago you know, he had been on the last airplane of been hijacked in the United States he had been intercepted that airplane many years before 911. Just happenstance.
Unbelievable. So you get the call, the message that the first one had been hijacked and hit the World Trade Center. No, actually, the one you got the call about being hijacked was one out of Boston. Is that correct?
Yeah. The two airplanes that hit the world trade centers were both out of Boston. One was American 11 the other was United 175 I believe. Yeah well, that even the way that transpired was the FAA controller really didn’t know who to call at all, yet knew there were airplanes on alert in Cape Cod Massachusetts. And he called the tower, the control towner, they connected into the alert shack where our pilots and people are sitting and they said you got a call Northeast air defense sector up there in the middle of New York. And that’s kinda how that transpired. But I did not know that this airplane to hit the tower I was in our command post and literally watching the news channel CNN at the time and I saw this airplane crash I like everybody else we didn’t know what had happened. In fact, I didn’t know it was an airliner. I thought maybe a light plane crashed in there. It was hard, the perspective at that particular time. So, it wasn’t until the second airplane hit and then we suddenly know this is not a coincidence and of course, that’s when we tried, we were trying to get any airplane up in the Northeast airborne. We still had we already launched airplanes out of Otis. The next closest airplanes that we had were at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. And we got a call I was a little confused myself at this particular time but we got a call that American 11 was headed south well in fact American 11 had crashed into the building but sometimes the tracks with the FAA continue to move where the airplane should be as opposed to where it actually is so that particular once we saw that that airplane was moving south, we launched the airplanes out of Langley Air Force Base. Later during this whole thing as it goes along, we would’ve set up to intercept United 93 they actually did get on station just a little bit before you United 93 crashed. But in the meantime, you may remember American 77 crashed into the Pentagon. And it crashed into the Pentagon about three or four minutes before airplanes were on station. Because I am so it bothers me a lot to this day but we had set-up during peacetime methodologies for the scramble to ensure that we would not have mid-air with an airline or anyone. And those things were still in place so when we scramble the airplanes on the Langley Air Force Base and in Hampton Virginia those airplanes headed out over the Atlantic they had to talk to The Navy who control the air space out there. They got handed over to the Northeast air defense sector. By then they’re 75 to 100 miles out over the ocean had to turn around and come back to DC so that was it it cost us some time. Could we have stopped them? I don’t think so. But it was interesting. So we get up. American 77 had hit the Pentagon. I felt like I’m an old guy so I was in Vietnam and I was at Da Nang. It’s called rocket city and I remember when rocket attacks were coming in I said so when is this going to end and our outgoing fire is going to begin? That’s kind of why you feel combat mentality. But we finally hit airplanes over DC. But you gotta know that we had many airplanes being called acting strange or being hijacked in fact the number, we kinda lost count. It was either 21 or 22 airplanes that were the unknowns. Anyway, our airplanes were over Washington DC three airplanes have already crashed into the buildings, two into the world trade center, one into the Pentagon, and I told him, Col. Marr, we need to push this airplane out towards this blip coming south which turned out to be United 93. we didn’t know it was United 93. and then he suggested to me said, maybe we ought to hold off there could be something coming from a different direction and we don’t even know what it is. We said OK when I get to be 100 miles we will push out and intercept that airplane. Shanksville Pennsylvania is 105 miles from the Reagan airport which was the center of our attention as it turns out. So they, the people on that airplane brave men and women on that airplane rushed the cockpit we believe everybody thinks that’s true and forced the airplane down to keep it from crashing wherever it was intended to go.
A lot has been made out of the authority to shoot down an airliner and as head of the First Air Force you basically had that authority. But there was some confusion at the day as to whether you should you could or should engage in and take down the airplane. Is that correct or am I misreading that?
I’m on the phone with the vice commander of NORAD who happens to be Canadian Rick Findley he was a three-star general officer, Gen/ Findley. In fact, the building shares his name out in Colorado Springs to this day. But Rick and I were talking and I said Rick, here’s what we’re going to do we’re going to intercept this airplane if it comes with 100 miles we’re gonna try to diverting using standard signals that pilots give to airliners, Airliners are supposed to know the signals and they do. If he doesn’t respond if they don’t respond will fire warning shots and I said Rick is under emergency authorization in our tech order that we follow if we don’t have anything from the president by then we’ll order that plane to be shot down to save lives on the ground. And Rick said we’re trying to get authority from the President. And of course, it’s a long story in and of itself as you know the vice president in the basement of the White House Secret Service was talking to the district of Columbia national guard for some reason unbeknownst to them Norred is trying to run an operation. We were diverting AWACS to follow the president launching F-16s out of Texas to intercept the President wherever he was going, wouldn’t tell us where he was going during this time frame. So we never actually received authority to shoot that airplane down till very, very late. And I think the 911 commission believes that we’ve got that authority by the last time, just before United 93 went down. But I really don’t recall whether we had it or not. But that was our intent, under emergency authority we decided that’s all we had to do. I’m glad we didn’t have to do that by the way It would’ve been something that I would not care to have lived with, nor the pilots who would have to have carried it out. And I believe they would have.
I don’t think anybody would have. Like you said I think we have a huge debt to those passengers on that plane who decided to take matters into their own hands. You mentioned Dick Cheney in the basement the White House with the with the Secret Service or the CIA. There were things going on that you didn’t know about obviously it would’ve been nice probably for you to know about would have known how to carry out what you need to do. But there was there was other moves going on. I read where you said that I think the vice president of Secret Service of the CIA and ordered the Jets out of Langley to go do some intercept.
Actually, the district of Columbia Air National Guard had F-16s they were coming back from a mission and they landed they had live ammunition on board in the Secret Service by orders of a vice president Cheney said get airborne and protect the White House. Little did he know we already had airplanes overhead DC, F-16s out of Langley were over DC. We were not in contact with the Secret Service. We were on the red switch, we had one red switch. Now we have a first Air Force they have many, many, many different red switches so people can talk in a very highly classified manner to their agency really there. But those people believe that they were gonna have to get airborne and do something and there’s a lady talks about that she was prepared to ram United 93. But by the time she got airborne United 93 was on the ground half hour before. So there was lots of confusion and meantime we had these airplanes circling overhead we later had F-15’s and well as F-16’s. We’d moved an AWACS, not only was there an AWACS an airborne warning and control aircraft you know what an AWACS is of course. We had one following the President, that we diverted from a training mission. We moved one over DC, we had tankers that we diverted over DC. We set up these orbits you may remember by about that time the FAA had ceased all operations, told everybody to land, and the military general Eberhardt declares scatana which means the military is taking over control of the aerospace basically so we’re watching all kinds of crazy things go on. But as this went on when we’re getting up to 21 or 22 of these airplanes are acting funny my executive officer is listening to the red switches, we’re dealing with these things you said you need to listen to this for president is talking to the secretary of defense so I listened and what they were talking about was there was one more airplane that we were concerned about all of us were concerned about that it was a US air flight coming from Spain to the United States and apparently there was some communication gaps and no one was exactly sure what that airplane was going to do. And the president said let me know what happens because I want to come back to the White House and I got a phone call right here on the exact same time from Bob Marr, col. Marr, Northeast air defense sector, said we just heard from the airline and the airplane is turned around and in fact, it is already landed back in Madrid and so I’ve only time I talked on the red switch there, I said Mr. President we have confirmation that that last airplane is down. And he said I’m coming back to Washington I’m going to Washington.
As you look back on these events, it’s been 20 years now hard to believe it’s been that long but if you look back on this is, what are the lessons learned. Have we been able to make improvements in the way we respond to things like this because again this was not a scenario that we had planned for as a nation?
No we were not prepared for the scenario. I’d like to think we were. We had many exercises that may have even included intercepting hijacked airplanes. But usually not hijack airplanes with full of passengers. It would be a hijacked airplane that was stolen from someplace and had bombs on-board, and they were going to crash your plane someplace. But the things that really changed were more in terms of security on the ground. you know people still don’t like going through the long security lines but we didn’t have a security line as you know. And the hijackers were able to get aboard are these airplanes with the knives and the box cutters and use them lethally on those airplanes. Couldn’t do that today. I think that our surveillance, our surveillance stuff with video. If you and I were there someone was looking for us today in an airport we walk through that airport they would find us with the video clip equipment that’s out there these days. The stand-up of NorthCom, what we’ve done with that is to integrate some of the other agencies to allow them to work more effectively as well and the military first Air Force was a very small command because you may remember those days we received quite a bit of money from our congressman Allen Boyd at the time. It was called an earmark at the time, it’s was a good earmark. And built a state-of-the-art operation center which is tremendously capable with many very classified capabilities that integrate them totally into the security apparatus of the United States government. So, the military as well much better prepared the military recognizes his responsibilities within the United States we have communications capabilities that are far better than we had that day we had absolutely no way to look inside the United States other than to look outside the United States of those days and that’s changed as well, Tom. So yes we are better but we cannot let our guard down. Al-Qaeda still exists, Isis still exists, and they are plenty of people out there that would love to replicate what happened on that day when 2,996 people I believe it was close to that they died most of ever died in one attack on the united states.
What will you do this Saturday? Anything to mark this anniversary?
No. You know it is always a day when I receive a lot of messages and phone calls from people who worked with us that day. But I don’t know that I’ll do anything special. I’m kind of overgoing out giving speeches, Tom, these days. But it’ll always be in all of our memories just as our parents and grandparents always remember December 7th when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
The first thing I thought of when I watched that happen that day was this is Pearl Harbor all over again.
And of course it was.
General appreciate your time. Is there anything else you wanna add?
I don’t think so Tom other than the fact that in the aftermath of 911, I was just so proud of the work that our people did all over the United States. Not once, not once, these missions flying orbits you know we had orbits over 15 locations over the united states, for quite a while. And over Washington DC for over a year. Not once did we ever get a complaint about this we deployed we can deploy people to the centers, New York center, Boston center, all around the country so that if a military order had to be passed they could pass that order. And we did that for a long time. No complaints. Everyone knew that this was their job and they had to do it and I’m very proud of our military men and women as well as the civilian, cause I can’t tell you how much the FAA helped everybody during that time frame and afterward.