News: In their own words - NORAD members recall September 11: Jeff Ford
Story by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Doscher
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Jeff Ford is the Aviation and Security Coordinator for the NORAD and USNORTHCOM Interagency Coordination Directorate. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was an Air Force lieutenant colonel assigned to the NORAD Current Operations Division. He was working at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, in the NORAD Battle Management Center/Air Warning Center when the attacks began.
Q: Tell us a little about your job here at NORAD and USNORTHCOM.
A: I do various coordination efforts between law enforcement folks that work for FBI, Secret Service, other law enforcement agencies, and NORAD/NORTHCOM. And then I work a lot with NORAD and USNORTHCOM various meetings in the interest of getting the right people from different interagency organizations working together for the best solutions.
Q: And on September 11, 2001, you were an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel?
A: Yes, I was – I was an officer in the NORAD J-33, which is Current Operations. We had an exercise going and I was a Deputy Division Chief for Current Operations. I was in the Air Warning Center in Cheyenne Mountain that morning when everything started happening.
Q: And, not only that, you had put in paperwork to retire.
A: Yes, I had paperwork in to retire, and that all got pulled within the next month after 9/11 and I was able to retire the following spring.
Q: J-33 Colonel, back then on Sept. 11th, what did your job entail?
A: Well, as I said, I was Deputy Division Chief, so all the Current Operations issues from all the different branches of the Current Operations were all being handled within J-33. We didn’t really have as well a developed J-35 as what there is now for Future Operations Planning. The intermediate planning functions have moved from the J-33. And so Current Operations handles stuff out to about 72 hours versus the longer-range orders and the various events that are planned for further out.
Q: Can you walk us through the morning of September 11th up to the point of the attack? What was the day shaking up to look like?
A: Well, it was supposed to be an exercise, as I said. The big event that day was supposed to be a B-1 bomber that was flying out of Fairchild Air Force Base and going out over the Pacific and it was planned to be in about the same airspace as a Bear bomber near the Aleutian Islands. So that was – that was the planned big event for the day.
Q: In the exercise?
A: Yes. And the Russians happened to be flying an exercise at the same time, so that was all sort of interesting to watch how that was going to shape up. And then there were other things going on as part of the exercise, air exercise events and then some scripted inputs that we were reacting to there in the Air Warning Center, whether it be unknown aircraft that we scramble aircraft for to intercept--or whatever. That was the standard fare for the exercises at that time. So this was quite a bit different. I came in about four that morning for a shift change, and then around six that morning is when we started seeing the TV inputs from CNN on the aircraft, the first aircraft that had hit the Twin Towers. And we knew something was wrong because there really wasn’t any reason for any navigational problems for that aircraft. There might have been a malfunction or something on the aircraft that had taken place, but we really didn’t have any indications of what was going on yet. So we knew that something was definitely wrong. And then we started getting inputs from the Eastern Air Defense Sector that they had scrambled off fighters for another aircraft, and were watching with interest as the Sectors were handling their business and scrambling off aircraft trying to run intercepts and, hopefully, intercept aircraft before anything else happened.
Q: Now what was happening in the Command Center at this point? I mean, the Sectors were scrambling fighters. What was the Center doing?
A: Well, we were watching – the timing issue is key there. What happened was that the FAA and the Eastern Air Defense Sector reported that something was amiss. An aircraft has turned, descended, not answered his radio, turned off its squawk, various other things. And they’re starting to report this and so the region is scrambling aircraft trying to find out what’s the problem with that aircraft, as Eastern Air Defense Sector was doing, and we were waiting, timing-wise, on what was going to happen, if there was going be an intercept on the second aircraft. And, as we now know, they couldn’t get there in time. Just the time and distance problem between Cape Cod up in Massachusetts and New York City made it so that we didn’t have the reaction time to be able to get there before the second one went into the tower.
Q: Now this was an unprecedented type of attack. NORAD was designed to look out and, all of a sudden, we have attacks from within. Was there any way NORAD could respond to an event like this back on September of 2001?
A: Well, yes, we could with enough notice. The issue was that our eyes were more focused toward threats coming in from outside, as you mentioned. The issue of an attack coming from within - we’d practiced that type of thing before, not as a concerted attack against the United States, but as standard “no-radio” type exercises where an aircraft is a derelict aircraft, or something like that. Those things happen within our own airspace, and we’ll send our fighters to go help out the FAA and other agencies in trying to figure out what’s going on. Drug runners along the southern border or various other things that there are so far as unknown aircraft and aircraft with problems that aren’t answering, either through their squawks or the radio, or else they’re off their flight plan in some way. Those types of things are indicators that something’s wrong and, yes, we can send off fighters and take care of those in that we’ll go intercept the aircraft, come up beside it, and divert it in the right direction toward an airfield or find out what the problems are in order to assist, that type of thing. There are various ways to communicate that in the air. But so far as a concerted attack from within the United States, we had really never practiced that, per se, and that’s what was different. And so the timing and the type of reaction time we needed to be able to properly react to an airliner that takes off and has bad intent against the United States, we had not really practiced that, to my knowledge.
Q: What was the big fear for those of you in the Command Center and what were you doing to try to mitigate it at this point in the attack?
A: Well, the biggest fear after the second one hit, of course, was: Were there more? And if there were, where were they and how can we keep the same thing from happening? And then the third one hit the Pentagon. We knew – we had gotten reports that there was an aircraft that had not checked into Cleveland Center that was heading west out of the Washington area, and it had gone missing, and so we were trying to find those aircraft---those that the Sectors were working with the FAA. And then we were trying to come up with the bigger solutions, such as: What can we do with the airspace, with the FAA and the airspace, in order to try to get people on the ground and get threats out of the air and make sure we knew who was on all these aircraft? Was there anybody that might have bad intent against us that was still airborne? And so that was the biggest concern. We needed everybody to get on the ground safely that was airborne and then start sorting through passengers and cargo and making sure we didn’t have any other threats airborne. And the FAA, over the hotlines, volunteered to take that one on and they would get all the airplanes on the ground as soon as possible. Then we, at all levels, would start the vetting process, as it were, of going through and making sure there were no other bad actors onboard any other aircraft. And that’s what the concern was at the time. How fast could we do that, and in order to really get an idea of who’s in the air that might have bad intent. That there were more and, after two or three hits like that, we had no idea. I mean, real time there could’ve been many, many more and we really did not know.
So far as fighters airborne, yes, initially there were aircraft taking off from all over the country, fighter aircraft, Guard, reserve units, active duty units, setting up combat air patrols over their cities, over their infrastructure, whether it be power plants or cities or communities. There was one base commander from down in Florida, I remember he called a number of times because he was absolutely positive that the Space Shuttle was a target because it was on its way out to the launch pad, and that Space Shuttle is just basically a big gas tank more than anything. It just so happened that Space Shuttle was supposed to have the first Israeli astronaut onboard, so he was absolutely positive that that was going to be a target, and he wanted something airborne right now. We managed to scramble off some aircraft out of Jacksonville, set him up in an immediate CAP and, later that week, we were able to move a Navy picket ship down to the area to stay through that whole time prior to the launch of that shuttle mission.
So it was a very interesting time. Just for numbers-wise, there were about 14 aircraft on alert that morning. By the next morning, within 24 hours, we had 332 aircraft calling in on alert or airborne. And that was a heck of a problem for us because we didn’t have a lot of the standard things that alert aircraft have on all those aircraft, you know, authenticators and the training that those pilots are supposed to have because many of those aircraft and units normally flew and trained on other missions. They weren’t assigned to perform Air Defense missions, so how to get them airborne in a safe manner and have them protect the airspace against similar threats--that was what our challenge for the next few days. It was very busy. Let’s put it that way. And everyone was wanting AWACS type of radar coverage and anything else that would help in protecting airspace---so as to keep the same thing from happening in a Chicago or L.A. or Houston or Atlanta.
Q: How long was it before you could breathe again, before you to started to think maybe it was over?
A: Well, we were so busy that day, we had no idea if there were more attacks that were going to be launched. We started feeling a lot better and more in control of the situation once people had landed, once all the commercial aviation and general aviation had pretty much landed later that day. It was probably between noon and 3:00 that day, we pretty much had everything on the ground, and the only thing airborne were military aircraft or those that were on an Air Defense-related missions or Air Evac / medical type aircraft that had reasons for being airborne. Otherwise, everything else was pretty much on the ground. So we felt better that afternoon once we had good knowledge of what was airborne.
Q: What struck you most about the attacks, and what in your mind stands out most about how the people – the military people, other Americans – reacted to it?
A: Well, I think there was a lot of suffering that day, and a lot of people stepped up to the plate. I mean, we’re talking hundreds and thousands of folks who either directly did something like the firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers, or the heroic passengers on the United 93 flight that crashed near Shanksville. There were so many brave people that were trying to do good things in order to make sure the same thing didn’t occur again. And it was sad to see what happened, but, at the same time, it was encouraging and assuring to know that the American people, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, whatever, were willing to stand side-by-side and help out in some way because an unknown threat had quickly overrun what we could handle. And so, whether people were physically and directly helping, or people who were on their knees praying, it was a phenomenal uprising of support throughout the country that I’m sure has changed the lives of a number of people since that event. And from my standpoint, it was a real hopeless feeling after that second aircraft went in. It was a feeling of being powerless to do anything about it and, of course, hoping and praying that that threat would go away, that that was all there was and there wasn’t any more. And then, of course, the one hit the Pentagon and then we were just constantly aware after that for any more that might be airborne. So it was very heartening to see the American people pull together behind the victims, the victims’ families, the military, the law enforcement, the firefighters, everybody in the way of first responders that had anything to do with being able to help out in the situation, really did a phenomenal job and it showed me the basic spirit of America and how this country will come together in a period of crisis in a way that is just really encouraging. And I think a lot of folks, older generations, have seen that in other conflicts; but when this happened real time, right here, right now, it was – it was just wonderful to see the American people pull together like they did and lay all differences aside and move in the right direction to help those who were in need. And it was extremely encouraging, even in light of the bad events that had occurred that morning. It was phenomenal to see a lot of great people react quickly to do the right things. It was wonderful to see that - - especially given the evil that had happened.
Q: You stayed on afterward due to stop loss, and you retired again the next spring. What was your role during that time when you were still on active duty?
A: Well, actually, because of my role in the Air Warning Center and because – maybe because of where I was career-wise, I was selected to help out the CX organization in the building and help put together a briefing for and with General Eberhart that he then took to Senate and House Armed Services Committees and various other places in order to report on what the NORAD response had been, what his assessment was---- not how we became vulnerable, but why. Why could this occur in our country? And the message basically was the same as what we already talked about in that we were more geared toward threats from the outside versus a threat that would take off from one of our own airfields and turn around and hit us. And General Eberhart did just a phenomenal job of going around to the various civil groups, civil organizations, as well as all the government organizations all the way from I think the President on down explaining where NORAD was and what our role was in the whole situation.
Q: When you retired, did you come right back to NORAD as a civilian?
A: No. I went into the private sector. I worked for a couple of contractors doing other homeland defense-related type of work, and I’ve since come back in the last few years to NORAD/NORTHCOM in this Interagency Coordination Directorate. I’m there because I feel like I can contribute to keep this type of thing from occurring again. Obviously, the big play now from our standpoint is that, yes, NORAD still plays more or less a goalie for these types of events; however, moving the timeline to the left for decision-makers to be able to give them more information so that you could head a bad actor off at the pass before he either gets onto the aircraft or before he’s able to take control of an aircraft, those types of steps that have been taken by law enforcement and other civil agencies in order to keep the same thing from occurring. Everything from your intelligence type of efforts, your law enforcement, your no-fly lists to keep them off aircraft, there’s been a whole infrastructure of security layering put together since then.
Q: And when you came back, was it a shock to come back and see how much things have changed for the Command? Actually, at that point, the Commands.
A: Well, NORAD is still functioning as it had to protect the North American airspace from attacks, but better integrated information-sharing wise. There was a different mindset so far as what the threat could consist of, of course. And the coordination with other agencies was probably the biggest change in my mind - in that we regularly, on a day-to-day basis now, work with other agencies in order to take care of security matters - no longer are we, NORAD, working in more or less a vacuum doing our little piece of the pie as far as air defense is concerned. We are very much talking about synchronized actions with – with law enforcement and the FAA, and now in the maritime world as well in order to make sure that those threats are taken care of prior to getting to the point where they can do harm to us. And it’s heartening to know that there are so many good people who are involved in that effort.
The only other thing I can add is that I hope and pray that we never become complacent as a country about these threats, and for the benefit of our children and those who come after us, I hope they are not held hostage to these types of threats in the future because of some preparation that we haven’t done. And I feel like we need to be prepared for those types of threats, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I hope I in my small way, have been of some help in turning that around.