Photo above of Captain Dean Eckmann
Fifty to 60 miles from Washington, the sky was so clear that 9/11 morning the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots could see almost everything.
“It was almost like a North Dakota day,” Col. Brad Derrig said.
That morning, Derrig, then a major, and Capt. Craig Borgstrom were flying behind Capt. Dean Eckmann and were scrambled over Washington in response to the 9/11 attacks. All three fly with the “Happy Hooligans” in the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Squadron, which stationed pilots at an alert detachment at Langley Air Force Base, Va. At that time, the detachment was one of North American Aerospace Defense Command’s seven alert sites designed to protect the nation against an attack.
As he approached the city, Eckmann saw black smoke rising above the Potomac River. But because the smoke was blowing his direction, he couldn’t see exactly where the fire was. He didn’t know it was at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed at 9:40 a.m., killing about 180 people, not including the hijackers. Before long, Eckmann would be looking back at his F-16’s missiles and wondering if he would be firing them sometime that day.
“Normally, in cities when you see smoke, it’s going to be gray or white – industrial-type smoke,” said Eckmann, who is now a lieutenant colonel with the Fargo-based squadron.
“From my years of experience in the military, black smoke is bad because it usually means fuel or explosives are burning.”
The detachment squadron was scheduled to fly a sortie against a couple of other Langley F-15 Eagles on 9/11. It was a typical alert, with the pilots mainly trying to be airborne with a less than five-minute notice. Derrig wasn’t scheduled to fly at all, although he was trying to work his way into the training sortie.
A klaxon horn sounded to let the pilots know they were on battle stations, so Eckmann and Derrig headed to their planes. The lights in the hangar changed from yellow to green to let them know of the scramble order at 9:24 a.m.
Borgstrom, the squadron’s director of operations at the time, ran to Eckmann’s plane as he was awaiting the scramble order and said he was supposed to fly as the third pilot. This surprised the other two pilots because in a scramble order for the detachment’s two F-16s, Borgstrom would serve as the supervisor of flying and would be responsible for keeping the pilots informed on the mission. With him in the air, there would be no operations officer left at the detachment. Eckmann directed Borgstrom to the detachment’s third F-16, which was unarmed because it wasn’t on alert status with the other two planes.
“Normally, the East Coast is filled with airplanes, big and small, on a daily basis. Flying that afternoon, the only airplanes that were up were basically military fighters and tankers. It was almost eerie, how quiet it was.”
The tower controller gave the order from the Northeast Air Defense Sector for the pilots to fly east for 60 miles, and the three F-16s took off 15 seconds apart by 9:30. As they flew, one of Eckmann’s wingmen learned their new coordinates, which meant they were headed to Baltimore.
“What it meant was we pretty much have priority over everyone, and civilian air controllers need to move people out of our way,” Eckmann said. “That was my first indication something serious was happening.”
Soon they were given new coordinates – to set up a combat air patrol over Reagan National. They set up the patrol over Washington by 9:45, and air traffic controllers notified Eckmann about a “couple of unknowns heading north on the Potomac River toward the White House.” From 25,000 feet, Eckmann headed straight to the aircraft, but quickly learned they were just a military and police helicopter headed to the Pentagon to assist.
Before long, Borgstrom relayed a NEADS message to Eckmann that the formation was directed to provide a battle damage assessment of the Pentagon. Earlier, Eckmann was suspecting a cruise missile attack from Russia, which had a long-range aviation exercise scheduled that week. Now he began thinking it was a truck bomb, similar to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in 1995. Because of all of the smoke, it wasn’t until he was 1,000 feet directly above the Pentagon that Eckmann could see the building sustained a direct hit.
“We saw something that day that very few saw from the air,” Eckmann said. “That’s because once that happened, [the Federal Aviation Administration] shut down the airspace, and we were the only ones airborne.”
After flying over the Pentagon, Eckmann reported to NEADS that the building’s two outer rings were damaged in the attack. When asked his opinion of what happened, his best guess at the time was a large tanker truck because of the amount of flames and smoke. The pilots wouldn’t learn it was an airliner until after they landed back at Langley that afternoon.
They spent the next five hours intercepting unidentified aircraft above Washington. To intercept, the F-16 pilot approaches the suspect plane on the left wing since the captain on an airliner normally sits on that side. He makes visual contact with the pilot and gives him signals, then flies by and rocks the wing to signify for him to follow.
At one point, when Eckmann was on the radio with civilian air controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Washington Center, Secret Service agents asked to speak to him. He received a short message: “We need you to protect the House.”
“I’m assuming that means the White House,” Eckmann said.
About 45 minutes after they set up the combat air patrol, Derrig saw a second view of the Pentagon on fire when he escorted a Lear jet carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft into Reagan National after the FAA had shut down all civilian air traffic nationwide.
“I had to fly over the Pentagon at a relatively low altitude, and I could see people on the ground working,” Derrig said. “Once I got back into the [combat air patrol], it was a sense of ‘All right. Now, we’ve got to protect these people.’ Our focus was on future attacks if future attacks were planned.”
Eventually, the pilots worked with F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., which set up a low combat air patrol over the city while the Langley formation maintained the high patrol. The normally crowded East Coast skies were uncharacteristically quiet, Derrig remembers.
“Normally, the East Coast is filled with airplanes, big and small, on a daily basis,” he said. “Flying that afternoon, the only airplanes that were up were basically military fighters and tankers. It was almost eerie, how quiet it was.
“When Andrews [Air Traffic Control] put out the statement that any aircraft into Andrews Class B air space will be shot down, I was thinking we’ve got the missiles. It wasn’t like we were out on a combat air patrol over Iraq or somewhere in Europe – it was within the United States. So that was kind of a gut-puller for me.”
The combat air patrol operation Eckmann and his wingmen started on 9/11 continued until the following April, when they went to more of a scramble and peak type of patrol, he said. When the morning began, seven sites were on alert with 14 airplanes, as there had been since NORAD reduced the number of alert sites in 1994. By nightfall, there were 40 to 50 sites with 200 planes, Eckmann said.
In a day filled with sights and sounds they thought they would never experience in their own country, one more remained when the pilots returned to their squadron.
“I remember I landed at Langley and taxied by the three squadrons of Eagles, and they were arming every flying F-15 on that base,” Eckmann said. “I’ve never seen so many missiles in one spot being put on airplanes. They were putting eight missiles on each F-15 at Langley. That’s another sight you just don’t forget.”
As Eckmann reflects on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the memories of the images he saw from his F-16 in a day that began with such a clear sky remain fresh and painful.
“Has it been 10 years already? For me, it will always seem like it wasn’t that long ago. I’ll have those pictures burned in my mind until the day I die – seeing the Pentagon burning from the air when I flew over it, and you knew people were dead inside, and people were suffering,” he said.
“Ten years later, we are still fighting the global war on terrorism. For me, it’s very personal that not only 3,000 people died in New York, but also approximately 180 people died right beneath me. I think about that often.”