Otis - right base in wrong place

The most recent victim of Sept. 11

By Jack Coleman

By the time the Pentagon announced its list of recommended base closings earlier today, a list that includes Otis Air National Guard Base, a specific rationale for keeping Otis open had been recited like a mantra by politicians and military officials.

We can't close Otis, the mantra went - its F-15s were the first military planes to defend America against the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 
Otis AFB in 1991. If you click the image it goes to a Google aerial where you can zoom into 6 F-15's sitting on the tarmac or zoom out to see surrounding areas at will.

"We were right on the front line and we have been there ever since," Senator Edward Kennedy told The Cape Cod Times on May 8.

"Kennedy noted that on Sept. 11, the jets from Otis were the first to respond to New York, within minutes of the attack," the story read.

But the more one examines the actions of the military on Sept. 11, the tougher it becomes to cite Otis's response that day as a rationale for keeping the base open.

From the final report of the 9/11 Commission

For example, the military was first notified of a hijacked plane en route to New York by the Federal Aviation Administration at 8:37 that morning, nine minutes before Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, according to the final report of the 9/11 commission.

The crews at Otis were not "scrambled" until 8:46, just as the first plane struck the World Trade Center, and did not take off until 8:53 a.m

The call from the FAA was received by the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), which "ordered to battle stations the two F-15 alert aircraft" at Otis, 153 miles from New York.

"The air defense of America began with this call," the report states.

But the crews at Otis were not "scrambled" until 8:46, just as the first plane struck the World Trade Center, and did not take off until 8:53 a.m., according to the report.

Had the F-15 pilots made a beeline to Manhattan, and flown at the planes' top speed of Mach 2-plus, the fighter jets should have reached New York by 9:03 a.m., when the second plane hit.

If the planes reached New York in time, the pilots lacked authorization to shoot down any hijacked plane.

They didn't head for New York City, followed Cold War strategy

The F-15 headed first to a point 115 miles east of Long Island

But even lacking this authorization, common sense dictates that the fighter planes should have been sent directly to New York - since no one knew for certain how many planes had been hijacked and the authorization to shoot them down could come at any minute.

But rather than fly directly to New York,  the F-15s were diverted to military airspace 115 miles east of Long Island, an area where military pilots frequently train, according to the report.

"Lacking a target, they were vectored toward military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast," the report states. "To avoid New York area air traffic and uncertain about what to do, the pilots were brought down to military airspace to 'hold as needed.' From 9:09 to 9:13" - 10 minutes after the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center - "the Otis fighters stayed in this holding pattern."

Ten wasted minutes spelt failure

The F-15s were finally diverted to New York and arrived over lower Manhattan at 9:25 a.m., according to the report - more than a half-hour after they took off from Otis.

The pilot of one of the F-15s, identified only by his call name "Nasty," told the The Cape Cod Times in September 2002, that he did not "even recall hearing that the first plane hit."

The pilot of one of the F-15s, identified only by his call name "Nasty," told the The Cape Cod Times in September 2002, that he did not "even recall hearing that the first plane hit."

"And by the time he heard about a second hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 175," the story said, "it had already smashed into the second tower before the horrified eyes of millions on TV."

The 9/11 report is unclear as to whether the pilots from Otis knew about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, but the ambiguity about this in the report and in media accounts is puzzling.

Why would the pilots from Otis have not been made aware of this critically important piece of information - especially considering that Flight 11 crashed into the north tower at 8:46, seven minutes before the F-15s took off from Otis, with another 10 minutes to pass before the second plane hit.

Situation at Pentagon even worse

The military's response is even more troubling when one considers what happened at the Pentagon. Even after the first two hijacked planes had struck the World Trade Center, and with the FAA tracking at least two other possible hijackings, fighter pilots Langley Air Force Base did not receive orders to scramble until 9:23 - and were not airborne until 9:30, according to the report.

Due to the confusion of that morning, the planes from Langley headed east and were 150 miles from the Pentagon when it was struck at 9:37, the report says.

Military commanders briefly considered diverting the Otis planes to Washington, but decided to keep them over New York.

In retrospect, and with the substantial benefit of hindsight, the military appears to have made an all too common mistake that day when confronted with an unfamiliar threat - it responded as if still fighting the last conflict.

Classic examples of this tragic miscalculation include

  • British Redcoats marching in formation up Bunker Hill,
  • The doomed full frontal assault of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg,
  • US commanders trying to defeat guerrilla foes in Vietnam with conventional tactics.

Yes, the British prevailed at Bunker Hill, but they went on to lose the war, as did the combatants cited in the other examples.

Still fighting the Cold War

The orders given to the pilots from Otis and Langley were what one would expect if the attack on Sept. 11 had come from Russian bombers heading across the Atlantic.
An F-15 like those in the 102nd at Otis. You can see six lined up just off the runway by clicking here.

The rationale for keeping Otis open in the aftermath of Sept. 11 also assumes that the next attack will be made in the same way, with commercial aircraft commandeered and converted into guided missiles.

But even if that were to happen, does it make any sense for the air defense of New York to come from fighter planes 153 miles away on Cape Cod?

And what if the next attack takes the form of a dirty bomb exploding in a rental truck, or suicide bombers attacking shopping malls?

As for conventional military threats, residents of the East Coast might consider themselves fortunate that we are not confronted with any, at least for the time being (and many times in our history, the threat was all too real).

The way geopolitics is evolving in the new century, the potential threats from other nations loom from a rogue regime, North Korea, and China, a communist giant of boundless ambition, and an Islamic Iran appearently intent on arming itself with nuclear weapons.

A case could be made that the military bases slated for closure in New England are needed against these potential adversaries, but officials at the Pentagon obviously think otherwise.

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