Toledo Fighter Pilots Talk for the First Time About Their Role on 9/11

Pilots from the 180th Fighter Wing were called to service on 9/11/01.
Pilots from the 180th Fighter Wing were called to service on 9/11/01.

Editor's Note: This story was done on September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on New York.

TOLEDO EXPRESS AIRPORT -- From coast to coast, Americans paused on Monday to remember those who died in the worst terrorist attacks on US soil, when terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an empty field in Pennsylvania.  On a day of remembrance, there's a story finally being told that couldn't be told in the days immediately after 9/11.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 killed more than 2,700 people, and left several American landmarks in ruins.  Mourners observed four moments of silence Monday at Ground Zero where the World Trade Center once stood - the first at 8:46 a.m., to coincide with the time the first plane hit. Three more pauses followed: at 9:03 a.m., when the second plane hit, and at 9:59 a.m. and 10:29 a.m., when the towers collapsed.

At the Pentagon and on a windswept Pennsylvania field, and in simpler, quiet events, Americans held moments of silence, rang church bells and illuminated the sky with red, white and blue lights.

In those first tenuous minutes and hours after the terror attacks in 2001, a couple of pilots based right here at Toledo Express Airport were told to go up.  All civilian aircraft had been ordered to the ground, and the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing's jets were ordered to make sure every aircraft complied.  And if they found a rogue aircraft?  Those consequences are daunting and something those pilots finally talked about with News 11's Jerry Anderson on Monday.

They were preparing to fly with the 180th that day five years ago, but they were planning training missions.  The mission in Toledo is not normally to intercept hijacked airplanes.  "Generally our mission is dropping bombs, laser-guided bombs, precision guided," said Lt. Col. Scott Reed, a pilot with the 180th.  "That's what we practice most of the time."

Reed has flown military jets for more than 20 years.  He flew in Operation Desert Storm, later over the no-fly zone in Iraq, and in Kuwait.  He's been in the enemy's gun sights, and dodged bullets many times.

So has Lt. Col. Keith Newell, who on the morning of 9/11 shared pilot Reed's belief that the first plane into the Trade Center tower was an accident.  "How is that possible?" asked Reed, "How could you get that screwed up in an airplane?  Not thinking terrorism at all."

But a second plane into the second Trade Center tower made it clear this was no accident.  The phone call confirmed it.  "One of the most striking things was overhearing some one say, 'NORAD's on the phone,'" said Col. Carol Allan, executive officer of the 180th.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command wanted two jets up.  Newell and Reed were the pilots.  180th maintenance guys had gotten a call, too, and had loaded up their F-16's guns with 500 rounds of 20-caliber ammunition.  The pilots call the M-61 cannon "The Vulcan," which fires about 100 rounds a second.

And if the Toledo-based jets encounterd a commandeered commercial jetliner, would they have shot it down?  "We detach ourselves as much as we can and look at it as a technical problem to be solved," said Reed.

That was a scenario the Toledo-based pilots were ready to face, but didn't have to on 9/11.  During the mission, "I felt pretty good about what we were doing simply because it was the first time in my whole life that I was going to get to do what I thought was protect the homeland," said Newell.

"I think we had the opportunity on that day at the 180th to show that we are a premiere unit," said Allan.  "Ready to go.  We can adapt to any situation that comes up and can respond to protect this nation."

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Posted by AEB