Andrews Air Force Base

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Fighters on Alert

On 9/11 NORAD attempted to protect Washington by scrambling fighters from Langley Air Force Base. This was ineffective, though, and questions were raised almost immediately about the decision. Why, it was asked, didn't they launch fighters from the much closer Andrews Air Force Base, instead?

The 9/11 Commission provided a simple answer: Andrews was not a NORAD base. The closest fighters on alert in the area were based at Langley.

Airman (the “magazine of America’s Air Force”) offers some confirmation that Andrews wasn’t always on alert, at least when this article was published back in December 1999:

During one Commission hearing we were told that the Secret Service had requested alert aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, but this had never happened:

However, it's been claimed that Andrews may have had other fighters on alert, just not for NORAD use. This doesn't seem to fit with the above story, that says "the Air National Guard exclusively performs the air sovereignty mission in the continental United States", but it's worth considering the evidence put forward.


Some of the first researchers into this story noticed that the Air Force said Andrews had "combat ready" aircraft. The phrase quickly appeared in many claims, presumably because the authors believed this meant "on alert":

But we immediately thought it unlikely that Andrews would keep two squadrons of fighters on permanent 15 minute alert. And sure enough, a Google search for the phrase reveals it doesn't mean "available to launch within minutes" on an emergency intercept. It's a far more general term, and rather more obviously just means "ready for combat". Here's an example:

They can do "homeland defense" and doubtless they have pilots around most of the time, but there's nothing here about having fighters on permanent 15-minute alert because that isn't what "combat-ready" means.

Highest state of readiness

Andrews Air Force Base is the home of DCANG (District of Columbia Air National Guard). Soon after 9/11 it was noticed that the DCANG mission, at least according to the web site, was "to provide combat units in the highest possible state of readiness".

Andrews was the home of the 113th Wing, which included the 121st Fighter Squadron (mission: to provide "capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency". And there was also the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 321, supported by a reserve squadron providing "maintenance and supply functions necessary to maintain a force in readiness".

These last two mission statements don't strike us as particularly relevant, however the first has grabbed the attention of many researchers. In The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions, for instance, David Ray Griffin wrote:

That may be Dr Griffin's opinion, but it's not ours.

"Readiness", in the military sense, isn't just a word or vague concept. It's a detailed measurement of whether the military resource in question is able to carry out the tasks it was designed to perform. So the readiness of a tank regiment might take into account the number of men assigned to it, their training levels, the condition of the tanks, whether there are enough spare parts available, and so on. This 1996 GAO report provides some useful background:

To talk about "combat forces in the highest state of readiness" is really just a longer way of saying "combat-ready", then, and in itself says precisely nothing about how long it might take for a force to become available.

Another aspect to this story appeared when Jared Israel noticed that the DCANG mission statement disappeared from the site, at some point between April 19th and September 13th 2001. David Ray Griffin suggested in The 911 Commission Report: Distortions and Omissions that this may have been "an attempted cover-up on the part of the US military", however as the statement doesn't mean what Griffin claims this would seem very unlikely.

Defends Washington

Dr Griffin explains that Andrews Air Force Base must have fighters on alert at all times, as it has the primary responsibility for defending the nation's capital:

Did a National Guard spokesman really say this, though? We looked at the original article and it's not exactly clear:

There's no use of quotes here to tell us which information came from the reporter, and which was sourced from the spokesman. From the way it's written we'd say "equipped with F-16 fighter planes" definitely came from the National Guard spokesman, while "The D.C. Air National Guard is also based there" probably did. But the first sentence could well be the voice of the reporter, and it's certainly just an assumption to say otherwise.

There's also nothing in the original article that tells us the reporter meant Andrews had forces that could have prevented the attacks. Quite the opposite, in fact. It begins:

Go read the whole thing: it's worth it.

We have three problems with Dr Griffin's use of this quote, then.

First, we don't believe it can be unambiguously sourced to the National Guard.

Second, we're not fully clear on what it means. Saying "The D.C. Air National Guard is also based there" appears to imply that the fighters performing this air defence are not part of DCANG, for instance: so who are they? What do they mean by "air defence"? Why do they say "mainly" - which parts of this air defence do they not carry out? It seems an unwise assumption to say it means "have fighters on a permanent NORAD-like 15 minute alert".

And third, we don't know their justification for the quote. If this was simply a line written by the reporter, say, then did research it? If so, where? Or did he simply write down what he believed to be true, but was actually a mistake?

And this matters, especially in view of the quote we mentioned earlier:

If the Air National Guard exclusively "performs the air sovereignty mission in the continental United States", then that would appear to contradict the idea that Andrews did something similar, too. Of course you could then raise similar objections to this article - we don't know where they got that line, either - but still, we'd expect Airman Magazine to have a better handle on this than the average US reporter.

There's an even more significant contradiction in what Lt Col Phil Thompson told Aviation Week and Space Technology, in 2002, about his Andrews pilots:

"Never been an air defense unit".

Overall, then, Dr Griffin's quote does not clearly show that there were fighters on alert at Andrews on 9/11, and more authoritative sources say this simply wasn't the case.

Scrambled planes

In The 9/11 Commission: Omissions and Distortions, Dr Griffin tells us that the "no-planes-on-alert-at-Andrews" claim is challenged by a fact even mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report, that planes were scrambled from Andrews immediately after the Pentagon was hit. He then goes on to say:

This is a strange claim, and for more than one reason.

The first comes in the apparent creation of a false dilemma: either there were fighters on full-time alert at Andrews, or they had nothing useful at all. But in reality there's another option, that Andrews had some pilots and fighters, just not sufficiently prepared that they could take off in a few minutes. As a result, NORAD went to Langley instead, and while Andrews got some fighters up eventually, it took longer. That's not inconsistent with there being no fighters on alert there, at all.

The second oddity comes in the way Dr Griffin treats the "busy reloading" story as just some convenient excuse. CooperativeResearch, a site he normally favours, provides more details here:

This provides a very reasonable explanation of the delay, then.

But the most bizarre issue comes with Dr Griffin's supposed revealing of a "problem" with the account, based on his "National Guard spokesman". Here's the quote in context:

Dr Griffin tells us that the quote "but the fighters took to the skies over Washington only after the devastating attack on the Pentagon" came from the National Guard spokesman, however it's not directly attributed to him in the copy, and it's written in the voice of a reporter, not someone in a Public Affairs office. (It's hard to believe an official spokesman would have used language like "took to the skies", or described the attack as "devastating", for instance.)

Even if we're wrong about the source, though, we can't help but ask: so what? Is Dr Griffin really asking us to believe that, because an unnamed National Guard spokesman said "but the fighters took to the skies over Washington only after the devastating attack on the Pentagon", omitting the words "because they were busy arming", this somehow counts as convincing evidence that the arming never happened? What about the possibility that he didn't have the full details? Or was a junior officer who had been told that he'd be issued with a statement to provide later, and so was unwilling to comment further?

And how do we get from any of this to it showing that Andrews has fighters on full-time alert? It simply doesn't follow, and in our view this doesn't provide any evidence at all to support Dr Griffin's claims.