9-11 Ground Zero Eagles on Station

Lorea Thomson
Posted by Lorea Thomson
Updated on
Published in Arts & Culture

The following account is written by Rick Herter, Internationally Recognized Historical Aviation Artist,  back seat qualified participant of Operation Noble Eagle, and resident of Palm Beach.  Herter actually flew over "Ground Zero" during Operation Noble Eagle (see photo below).  Photography is by Herter, as is painting.  The following account is as it was recounted to him by the first pilots to scramble. Eternal gratitude to all the heroes who protect America and all who reside here.
At Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, the morning of September 11, 2001, was sunny with blue skies and unlimited visibility. For pilots, maintenance personnel, and the Fighter Jets of the 102nd Fighter Wing on Cape Cod it was business as usual. Lt. Col. Tim ‘Duff’ Duffy and Major Dan ‘Nasty’ Nash were in the operations center as the two NORAD Alert Pilots for the day.
At 8:34 a.m. Air Traffic Controller Dan Bueno from FAA’s Boston Center called the duty desk at the 102nd and said he had a problem. Boston Center had heard Mohammad Atta, (believing he was speaking on a P.A. system but actually transmitting over the radio), telling the passengers of American Airlines Flight 11 that they were hijacking the aircraft. This information and Boston Center’s inability to speak with AA11 had convinced Bueno to request F-15’s to find and intercept the airplane. Bueno was then referred to the North East Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome New York, part of NORAD, to make the official request. Overhearing the conversation, Duffy suggest’s to Nash that they suit up with their flight gear and get to their fully armed alert jets, just in case they’re scrambled.
At 8:41 Duff and Nasty are heading to the Eagles when the Battle Stations alarm sounds. Both pilots strap in and start engines. 

At 8:46, NEADS gives the official scramble order. Duffy and Nash already in the cockpits, start engines, hurriedly go through their checklists and quickly taxi for takeoff. The Eagles takeoff in full afterburner, and climb like homesick angels into the skies. Ironically, at the very same moment the fighters received the scramble order, American Airlines 11 slams into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Duff and Nasty are unaware of what’s just happened. As Nasty later said to me, “We didn’t have CNN in the cockpit so throughout the day the average person on the ground knew more than we did.”
The F-15’s are cleared to 30,000 feet and Supersonic to get to NYC as fast as possible. From Cape Cod to New York City it’s 153 miles as the crow flies and at Mach 1.2 the Eagle’s were covering a mile every 3-4 seconds!
As they continued to speed toward the city they could see a high rising plume of smoke against an azure blue sky from 100 miles away but at this point, still didn’t know that flight 11 had crashed. As a matter of fact, at 70 miles out NEADS informs the pilots that a second aircraft has crashed. Nasty asks, “What happened to the first, Flight 11?” ‘He’s down,' NEADS responds.  
At 9:03 a.m. United flight 175 slams at 590 miles per hour into the South Tower creating a fireball that blows out the other end of the building. The force of the impact is so great that parts of the Boeing 767, including one of the engines, are found six blocks away! After being informed a second commercial airliner had been intentionally crashed, Duff told me he realized we were under a deliberate attack and at war.
As the Eagles are now nearing New York. At that moment there were nearly 4,000 aircraft over the U.S. and hundreds in the New York area airspace alone. Rumors and unconfirmed reports by other controllers of additional possible hijackings run rampant. The situation within the FAA and the various Air Traffic Control Centers was chaotic. Personnel manning the ATC facilities were in a constant struggle for real time intelligence to ascertain fact from fiction and pass along accurate info to the military. One example of this fact is the FAA first notifies NEADS that United 175’ appears to also be hijacked, unaware until later that at the very same moment of the FAA report, the jet hits the South Tower!
In an effort to bring order, the FAA orders a ground stop for all aircraft and all aircraft waiting for takeoff are ordered to taxi back to their terminals all around the United States. All inbound international flights are barred from landing in the U.S. and most of them that can’t turn around due to fuel reserves are diverted to Gander, NewFoundland, in Canada. In addition, the FAA orders all airborne aircraft to land immediately at the closest airport on their route. It was thought that getting all of the legitimate aircraft down as soon as possible would give a clearer air picture to the FAA and the military which aircraft still flying could be possible threats.
Shortly after United 175 goes down the FAA gives permission to the Air Force to lock down the airspace over New York City. Duff and Nasty now have a new mission….track, intercept and warn off any additional aircraft entering the airspace over Manhattan.
Eventually, at 10:20 a.m. President Bush officially authorizes the use of military force and the pilots are cleared to shoot down any aircraft that fails to land and is deemed a threat. Over the next 4 and a half hours the two fighter pilots will intercept and escort nearly 100 aircraft flying into the New York airspace from Airliners to Cessna’s. They will also unfortunately witness horror from 6,000 feet above.
Commissioned by the Secretary of the Air Force, my painting, “Ground Zero, Eagles on Station” shows Lt. Col. Tim Duffy as he first arrives over the World Trade Center. I was privileged to have access to both Duff and Nasty in the weeks and months after the attacks of that day. They provided me with their first hand accounts of some of the behind the scenes stories of what they experienced and felt that day.
Perhaps one of the most poignant stories Duff shared with me was the following:
A9:59 the South Tower collapses while he’s escorting an inbound Delta flight to JFK. As he turns to make his way back over Manhattan the area is engulfed in dust and smoke rising high into the sky. The South tower which he saw a moment before is gone.
At 10: 28 both pilots are in a formation turn above the North Tower. As his F-15 is rolled up on it’s side, Duff is looking straight down on the square roof of the North Tower. All of the sudden the square is beginning to get smaller. His first thought is I must be climbing, immediately realizing his jet isn’t climbing in the turn but rather the tower is falling away from him! As the tower implodes he can also see the plume of dust, smoke and debris blowing out the sides of the building and he realizes thousands of Americans are dying at that very moment.
Later that day Duff and Nasty are relieved on station by two other F-15’s from their squadron and thus begins the 24/7 combat air patrols known as Operation Noble Eagle. Noble Eagle missions would be conducted for nearly a year over most of the major cities around the United States.
Photography by Rick Herter


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