First in the Air

Sean Corcoran
September 9, 2011


photo: Sean Corcoran
 Colonel Timothy Duffy (Sean Corcoran/WCAI)

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. Four years ago, he says, the fighter jets were transferred to Barnes Air National Guard base in Westfield, Mass.

"The alert complex is gone," Schiavi says. "We had a 2-million gallon fuel facility, that's gone. A lot of our old hangers are being torn down. 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. Otis airfield sits mostly quiet and still.

"There's a lot of feelings in those old buildings," Schiavi says. "I spent a lot of nights on those lumpy mattresses and lumpy pillows and getting woken up at 2 am 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."

That's Colonel Timothy Duffy. He was a first-responder on 9-11, 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.

"So as we tell the story," Duffy says, "I think people are very interested in what we were thinking. Because there are a lot of misconceptions on what you would have done. People don't understand the legalities of what you do. I think people look at it and say, 'Well, if you had gotten there earlier would you have done this or that?' And they don't realize it's not my plane."

People often ask Duffy if he'd 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," he says. "I mean, we were told to be prepared to shoot down the next hijacked track. Um, yeah, you know, 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."

But 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 4 to 5 seconds, by the time you get done with the radio call you've eaten up 5 miles. There's no conspiracy, there. No, uh, 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 9/11, 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 9/11 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," he says. "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." 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."

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

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," he says, "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." … 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."

When Nash and Duffy were relieved by two other F-15s and returned to Otis, the world had changed. There were 8 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 9-11, recently was 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 September 11, and as of today, it's on display at the Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa, California.


Extended Interview with Colonel Duffy: Part One



Extended Interview with Colonel Duffy: Part Two