9/11 Defenders Over Washington by Palm Beach Resident

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

The September 11 attacks, were four coordinated suicide terrorist attacks carried out by the militant Islamic extremist network al-Qaeda against the United States. On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners. The hijackers crashed the first two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the third plane into the Pentagon. The fourth plane was intended to hit a federal government building but crashed in a field following a passenger revolt. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and instigated the global war on terror.

The following excerpt is shared in its entirety with permission from Palm Beach resident and Internationally Recognized Historical Aviation Artist, Rick Herter

9-11 First Pass, Defenders Over Washington 

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Captain Dean Eckmann and Craig Borgstrom were in a briefing room reviewing an upcoming training mission. Eckmann, call sign ‘Otis’, and Borgstrom, call sign ‘Borgy’ were members of the 119th Fighter Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard. The 119th flew the air defense version of the F-16 and were members of a permanent alert detachment from Fargo, ND sitting alert at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

In the Cold War years, North American Aerospace Defense Command was known far and wide for standing watch against nuclear attacks. Hollywood popularized a vivid image of NORAD operators, tense and forever on alert, peering into their radar screens for signs of Soviet bombers or missiles flying over the pole. During that era, Air Force alert fighters sat fueled and armed at over 100 installations around the U.S. When the Cold War ended in the 1990’s the conventional wisdom was we were no longer under threat of attack coming in from outside our borders and the alert mission essentially ended.

On the morning of September 11, there were only 7 Alert sites still operating around the United States. Those sites, scattered along the U.S. coasts covered the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic seaboard and totaled only 14, F-15 and F-16 fighters, fueled, armed, and manned by Air National Guard personnel.

As Otis and Borgy were briefing the training mission the news of the American Airlines Flight 11 striking the North Tower of the WTC came across T.V screens in the alert facility.

The first notification that something was wrong came into the Northeast Air Defense Sector of NORAD at 8:40 a.m. At 8:46 a.m. a fighter scramble order was sent to Otis Air National Guard base on Cape Cod. Otis ANGB was the home of the 102nd Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Only seconds after the scramble order, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower. As much as the alert Eagles were prepped for flight and as fast as the crews worked to launch, the two Otis F-15s didn’t get into the air until six minutes later.

Next, at 9:02 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashed into the WTC south tower. At the time of this impact the Otis-based F-15 Eagles, flying at supersonic speed, were still 71 miles and eight minutes outside of New York City.

Shortly thereafter, at 9:24 a.m., NORAD received reports of additional hijackings. At Langley, the Klaxon sounded and Eckmann, Borgstrom, and a third available pilot, Major Brad ‘Lou’ Derrig sprinted to their F-16s. The Langley fighters took off at 9:30 a.m., but once again the Air Force lacked enough time to avert catastrophe. American Flight 77 out of Dulles Airport hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. The Langley fighters were still 12 minutes and 105 miles away from Washington, D.C. 

As Dean recounted the story to me, they were originally scrambled to help support the F-15s over New York but en route were diverted to Washington after reports that the Pentagon had been hit. While still many miles away the F-16 pilots could clearly see the smoke rising into the cloudless blue sky. As they neared the D.C. airspace, Capt. Beckmann, who was the mission commander, ordered his two wingmen to climb high over the metro area and begin setting up a Combat Air Patrol while he flew low-level reconnaissance of Washington D.C. 

In my painting, “First Pass, Defenders Over Washington” Eckmann makes a low-level, high-speed pass over the South side of the Pentagon. If you remember watching CNN that morning, a film crew captured Eckmann’s fully armed jet streaking above the South parking lot of the building. Eckmann looks over his shoulder at the impact area and the fires raging below. Shortly after this moment in time, he makes a right turn and flies up the Mall, below the top of the Washington Monument, and makes a 360-degree orbit of the Capitol building. He later told me that because the scope of the attack was still unknown the reason for his low-level sweep was to look for the possibility that a large truck bomb might also be utilized and moving toward the Capitol or White House. 

After Eckmann’s sweep, he climbed to altitude and joined his wingmen who would spend the next several hours intercepting and identifying unknown aircraft entering the D.C. airspace and helping lock down the sky from possible further attacks. 

Over the next few days, I’ll share a few more stories as told to me by the crews that flew the first missions on September 11, 2001. For more information regarding Rick Herter Art please visit the website here.



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