After The Call, Cape Cod Fighter Pilots Patrolled The Skies


Sept. 7, 2011

by Sean Corcoran

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE — Ten years ago, the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod was 1,000-people strong, with 15 fighter jets, and a few spares. Two jets stood on Alert 24-hours a day for more than 25 years. Today, grass grows out of cracks on runway ramps. And there's rust on the control tower.

Col. Anthony Schiavi is commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis. He explains that how those fighter jets were transferred to Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield, Mass., four years ago.

An F-15, the same plane used by Col. Duffy and Col. Schiavi on Sept. 11, takes off from Otis Air National Guard Base Friday morning in 1999. The plane in this photo was bound to patrol a no-fly zone in Iraq. (AP)

"The alert complex is gone. We had a two-million gallon fuel facility, that's gone. A lot of our old hangers are being torn down," Schiavi said. "But new buildings and new things will take their place that will make our base more modern. We'll really be the new face of the 102nd going into the future."

The 102nd has a different mission now. An intelligence mission. So Otis sits quiet, but it's full of history.

"There's a lot of feelings in those old buildings," Schiavi said. "I spent a lot of nights on those lumpy mattresses and lumpy pillows and getting woken up at 2 a.m. because the scramble horn went off."

That scramble horn sounded on September 11, 2001.

"I think the horn went off at 8:46, which is the same minute that American Flight 11 hit," said Col. Timothy Duffy. He was a first-responder on Sept. 11, arriving at the Twin Towers in one of Otis's F-15 Eagles, along with his wingman, Major Daniel Nash, or Nasty, as he's called by other pilots.

Duffy knows people wonder why they couldn't have gotten to New York faster.

"People don't understand the legalities of what you do," Duffy said. "And they don't realize it's not my plane."

And he says people often ask Duffy, if he had arrived in New York sooner, would he have shot down a hijacked airliner?

"I tell people all the time we absolutely would have done it," Duffy said. "I mean, we were told to be prepared to shoot down the next hijacked track. If it came as a lawful order, we would carry it out. I'm sure it would have had a significant impact on the rest of my life. But that's what you deal with."

In addition to asking about what they would have done, critics also ask what they did do, trying to find holes in their account of where they went, how fast they traveled, and how far away they were when the World Trade Center was struck.

"People have picked me apart for saying we were 80 or 100 miles out, or whatever," Duffy says. "And they will say, 'See, in one interview he said 80 in another he said 70.' I don't know exactly how far out we were. When you're going a mile every four to five seconds, by the time you get done with the radio call you've eaten up five miles. There's no conspiracy, there. No, I wasn't paying attention to times and that sort of thing, I was concentrating on the mission."

Duffy is 50 years old, and although he stopped flying six years ago, he keeps his white hair flight-captain short. He's a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. And on Sept. 11, at age 40, he had about 350 hours of combat flying experience in the first Iraq War.

But it wasn't the scramble horn on Sept.11 that first alerted Duffy that something was going on. In a breakdown in procedure, Otis first received a phone call from the FAA about the hijacking of American Flight 11 — a call that should have gone directly to the Northeast Air Defense Sector.

"That's not the way this is supposed to go down. I had a radio in my pocket that we carry with us when we're on alert, and I just picked it up and said, 'Alpha Kilo One and Two suit up,'" Duffy said. "And that was basically just an order for myself and Nasty to go in, get our G-suits, helmets, harnesses, grab all our stuff and start moving to our jets."

Col. Timothy Duffy. (Sean Corcoran/WGBH)

Duffy took off at 8:51, he says, with Nash right behind him. They did a right-hand climbing turn out of Otis and started heading due West. Within minutes of taking off, Duffy decided to break regulations.

"Going through about 18,000 feet Nasty called me and said, 'Hey, you're going supersonic.' And I said, 'Yeah, I got it.' I figured we were high enough, it wasn't going to hurt anything. I wanted to get there quickly."

Pilots are restricted from breaking the sound barrier because the boom it generates is loud enough to break windows. But with Duffy in charge, Nash took his plane supersonic, too. The 9-11 Commission wrote that Duffy made a good decision.

"In hindsight it warranted it. If it was a false alarm there would have been a little wrist strap for that one," Duffy said.

Duffy says he knew much less about what was going on in New York than the folks at home watching CNN. Traveling at about 14 miles a minute, he was bent over his radar screen trying to find American Flight 11 when the radio came alive.

"They came back on at that point and said, 'The second air craft just hit the World Trade Center.' And that was a surprise to both Nasty and I because we had no idea there were two of them. And so I kind of at that point looked up and we were somewhere between 80 to 100 miles out from Manhattan, and you could see the towers burning, the smoke coming from them. I think I even called out to Nasty and said, 'Tell me that's a cloud.' And there were no clouds in the sky."

Within a few minutes Duffy received a new order: Go directly to New York City and patrol the skies.

"You know it's a bad day when you're going to set up combat air patrol over a US city. Because I don't think we had ever had to do that before," he says.

For the next five hours, Duffy and Nash took turns intercepting an estimated 80 to 100 airplanes and helicopters. Duffy was escorting a Delta flight into Kennedy when out of the corner of his eye he saw the South Tower fall. Twenty-nine minutes later, Duffy flew over the North tower to inspect it.

"As I'm flying over the top of it, I'm kind of looking down and I'm looking at the roof. And I was just looking to see if it was leaning or twisted or anything like that, and it looked perfect. I was just ready to call them and say, 'Hey, it looks good, I think you might be able to save the building.'" Duffy said.

"And as I'm looking at the square of the roof if just starts getting smaller. And I realize that as I'm looking at the roof it's falling away from me. And that's probably the most horrifying thing I witnessed that day," Duffy said.

When Nash and Duffy were relieved by two other F-15s and returned to Otis, the world had changed. There were eight jets lined up on the runway, all fully fueled, armed and ready.

"We took off on a beautiful Tuesday morning in peace time," Duffy says. "We land 5-and-a-half, 6 hours later and it looked like wartime."

Today, with the jets gone and the alert hanger demolished, the work at Otis mostly happens behind doors that only those with clearance pass through. There, members of the 400-person intelligence wing analyze data from satellites and unmanned vehicles as they assist in America's wars.

The F-15 Duffy flew on Sept. 11, was recently pulled out of the Arizona desert, from what's called the Boneyard, where old planes are left to rot. It's been restored to how it looked on Sept. 11. As of today, it's on display at the Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa, California.

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