PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — On the morning of September 11, 2001, as planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, most locals were frozen in horror as they watched the shocking tragedy unfold.

Others were huddled in a Tyndall Air Force Base command center with their commander, Gen. Larry Arnold, trying to find out why it was happening and how to put an end to it. The men and women of the 1st Air Force’s North American Air Defense Command were originally scheduled for something different.

“Yeah, we were right in the middle of a NORAD exercise,” said Gen. Arnold during a zoom interview from his home. “It involved Canada, and states Lower 48 and Alaska as well.” 

That’s when Gen. Arnold says he received a message about a possible hijacked airliner. He ordered the launch of several jets from the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York.

“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.”

At the time, General Arnold could not confirm this was a terrorist attack.

“In fact, I didn’t know it was an airliner,” he said.  “I thought maybe a light plane crashed in there.  It wasn’t until the second airplane hit and then we suddenly know this is not a coincidence.”

That set off a chain of events that saw the 1st Air Force rushing to get jets in the air to intercept potential threats over Washington D.C. and scrambling to identify other possible hijackings.

“We already launched airplanes out of Otis (AFB),” said Arnold. “The next closest airplanes that we had were at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.”  Gen. Arnold launched those jets.

“Those airplanes headed out over the Atlantic. They had to talk to the Navy who controlled 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 D.C.”

That’s when the next plane, American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

“It cost us some time”, says Arnold.  “Could we have stopped them?  I don’t think so.” 

By now, Gen. Arnold’s team was tracking no less than 22 airliners that were in his words ‘acting strangely or being hijacked’.  They turned their attention to a blip on the radar screen heading south towards Washington D.C. It was United flight 93.

“We said, ‘Okay, when it gets 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 turned out, the United Flight 93 passengers overpowered the hijackers and the plane crashed near Shanksville.

A lot has been made of the handful of people who have the authority to order the downing of an airliner.  Gen. Arnold was one of those people.  And he was preparing to use it if necessary.

“We’re going to intercept this airplane if it comes with 100 miles”, he said. “We’re gonna try diverting, using standard signals that pilots give to airliners. If he doesn’t respond, if they don’t respond, we’ll fire warning shots.  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.”

Communications suffered during the chaos that took place that morning. Vice President Dick Cheney was in the basement of the White House with U.S. Secret Service and ordered the District of Columbia National Guard to scramble their F-16’s.

“Little did he know we already had airplanes overhead D.C., SAID Arnold.  “F-16s out of Langley were over D.C.  We were not in contact with the Secret Service.”

And President George W. Bush was on Air Force One, leaving Sarasota, Florida, for what turned out to be Louisiana. It’s unclear if Gen. Arnold ever had permission to shoot down flight 93.

“I think the 9/11 Commission believes that we’ve got that authority by the last time, just before United 93 went down,”  Gen. Arnold said. “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.”

Arnold says he’s glad he didn’t have to make that call.

“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.” 

The Air Force was tracking one more airliner, a USAir flight leaving Spain and heading to the United States. By this time, President Bush was on-board Air Force One, talking to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over secure communications. Gen. Arnold was listening in.

“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.’”

That marked the end of what is the single most deadly attack on America.  But over the following days, weeks, months, and years, there were the questions. Could we have prevented this?

“No, we were not prepared for the scenario,” Arnold said. “I’d like to think we were. We had many exercises that may have, even included intercepting hijacked airplanes. But usually not hijack airplanes 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.”     

And what have we learned?  Gen. Arnold believes the military has adapted its procedures to better monitor domestic airspace.  Communications and technology have also improved significantly. But he believes the biggest differences are on the ground, TSA, and tougher airport security measures.  Even so, Gen. Arnold believes we can never let down our guard. 

“Al-Qaeda still exists, Isis still exists,” he said. “And there are plenty of people out there that would love to replicate what happened on that day.”

Gen. Arnold says he has no plans to mark this 20th anniversary of 9-11. No speeches or gatherings, maybe phone calls with those who were with him that day. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about all those people. Some gone, some still here. Some familiar, others complete strangers.

“In the aftermath of 9/11, I was just so proud of the work that our people did all over the United States.” 

DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE – General Arnold Extended 9/11 Interview