9/11 Stories: The Fighter Pilots Who Got The Call
This story re-aired on December 29, 2011.
WBUR is remembering Sept. 11 through the stories of men and women from around Massachusetts whose lives were touched that day — those who lost loved ones, those who responded and those whose lives were affected in more unexpected ways.
That morning, two fighter pilots were on alert at Otis National Guard Base on Cape Cod. When word of a possible hijacking came, Lt. Col. Dan Nash and Col. Tim Duffy flew at supersonic speed to Manhattan. The same minute they left, the first plane struck the towers.
Click to hear “Nasty” and “Duff” tell their story, or read it below.
DAN NASH (NASTY): I’m Lt. Col. Nash, Dan Nash, call sign is “Nasty.”
TIM DUFFY (DUFF): I’m Col. Tim Duffy and my call sign is “Duff.”
Around 8:30 or so, a call came in and Sgt. Mark Rose was behind the desk and he picked up the phone and he said, “Colonel, you got a phone call.”
NASTY: We got that phone call at 8:37.
DUFFY: I asked him, I said, “Well who is it?” Because I didn’t think anybody even knew I was on alert, except for my wife, so I figured she might be calling down for something. And he said it’s Otis Tower — something about a hijacking.
So at that point, I had a radio in my pocket and I just picked it up and said, “Alpha Kilo 1 and 2, suit up.” So that was for Nasty and I to start moving.
NASTY: So as we were walking through the door after getting suited up, the horn went off for battle stations. Battle stations is the order to go to the jets and sit in them and wait to start.
DUFF: Actually Nasty was going to be No. 1, I was going to be No. 2, for the mission. I was going to be the wingman and as we were getting suited up, I just mentioned to Nasty, I said, “Have you ever done a hijacking before?” He said, no, I said, “I have.” Years before I had intercepted a hijacked Lufthansa jet. So at that point Nasty passed me the lead, he said, “OK, you take the lead, I’ll be No. 2.”
NASTY: Right, so we got into the jets for battle stations, the green light went off to give us the scramble order.
Duff taxied out as No.1 While we were taxiing out, I followed him and we got the words to climb to a certain altitude and a certain heading in the direction of New York City.
DUFF: We’re going down there. We’re accelerating to (Mach) 1.3, 1.4, so we’re doing a mile every three, four seconds. We’re kind of hauling the mail getting down there. And actually Nasty even called me up at one point and said, “Duff, you going supersonic?” And I said, “Yeah, OK.” We’re not supposed to do that, but this time I figured we were high enough, we weren’t going to blow out any windows or do any damage so, we kept the Mach up trying to get there as quick as we could.
NASTY: I remember shortly after takeoff you could see the smoke because it was so clear — the smoke from the towers burning.
DUFF: I think I even said to Nasty, I said, “Tell me that’s a cloud.” And he came back and said, “No, that’s smoke.”
NASTY: And then we were about 70 miles out when they said a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center.
DUFF: Yeah, we didn’t know that the first plane had hit. I guess the first notification of any sort that the towers had been hit was when they said the second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center, which was a surprise to both of us.
NASTY: So my question was, “What happened to American (Airlines Flight) 11?” I’m asking this in my head. We don’t have CNN in the cockpit, so anybody who was watching the news had a better idea of what was going on then we did.
DUFF: And that was the case for pretty much the whole day. People on the ground knew a whole lot more than we did. Our whole world was, basically, New York City and we had our hands full, we were pretty busy.
They came back and told us we had a new mission to proceed direct to Manhattan and set up a combat air patrol. For Nasty and I, we went down and basically we were just going to set up a point defense over ground zero, if you will, and from that point we just draw a ring around the city. We’re just trying to make sure we can identify and escort to land or turn away (aircraft) or do whatever we need to do to keep it from happening again.
NASTY: We had a lot of stuff to do and we’re busy with that and we didn’t really have a need to know exactly what was going on at the Pentagon or whatever. We just needed to look out for another threat if there was one.
DUFF: It was never an order or anything like that. They said it was just one of those, “You may have to shoot down the next hijacked track, understood?” Because they even came back and said, “Do you have a problem with that?”
And I was thinking, “Well, if I have a problem with that, I’m probably the wrong person to be sitting in a single seat fighter,” you know? A lot of taxpayers’ money would be wasted — 20 years later and I can’t do what I have to when the time comes. So I thought it was very unprofessional on their part.
DUFF: When the first tower fell, I was escorting a Delta jet into JFK (Airport). I saw some motion just out of the corner of my eye and I turned and looked and lower Manhattan was like a big tan cloud over it, you know, it was just completely engulfed. But I could see a little bit of one of the towers and I called up and said, “Hey, I think one of the towers went down.” And they called back and said, “Yeah, we got it on CNN, South Tower just collapsed.”
I said OK and just kind of went back to work. I think that’s what Nasty and I were kind of trying to do all day. You had to keep refocusing, you can’t get emotional. It was like, you flip a switch and you kind of go into that combat mode where you’re like, “OK, people are dying right now.” It’s all focus, no emotion, as best you can.
So that’s where I was for the first one.
NASTY: The second tower we were both in formation relatively close to each other and, I guess, directly above when the second tower collapsed.
DUFF: So we flew right up over the top of it and we were looking down at it. I was looking at the square and I remember thinking, I was just going to make a radio call saying, “Hey it looks good because it’s not leaning or twisted or anything.” And as I’m looking at the square, the roof, it starts getting smaller. All of a sudden I saw the plume coming out of the bottom, it was falling away from me when we’re looking at it.
I could say that’s the one time during the day where, you know, I was just getting ready to tell them, “I think you can probably save the building,” and I’m thinking, “Well they’re probably thinking the same thing, sending guys in.” And from an emotional standpoint, I think that was the hardest part of the day — watching that go down.
You give yourself a little bit of time — 10, 15 seconds, whatever it is — to kind of be horrified, and then you have to just kind of push it out of your mind. Not that you won’t deal with it at some point, but just not now.
NASTY: I can tell you that my biggest emotion was anger and frustration, that we were not in a better position to prevent it.
If you think back, nobody was going to give us an order to shoot down American 11, even if we’d been scrambled at the right time.
DUFF: It didn’t matter if we had gotten there 15 or 20 minutes earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered, just the way the scenario was playing out. We wouldn’t have been cleared to shoot. It wasn’t until the second plane hit that it became clear we were under attack.
So I think the frustration comes in that way, that it was a no-win kind of situation. And, you know, here we are with very capable planes, we’re trained pilots in them, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I think that kind of frustration was tough to deal with. You’re kind of going through that, because there’s nothing you could do.
It’s not a happy story. But it is an important story and you want to make sure that people understand what we did and why we did it. Because whenever we start telling it, I get questions all the time, people have all kinds of questions around what we did and why we did what we did. And when you start explaining to them whatever limitations we had — whether it was flying, or knowledge of the situation, or whatever it might be, or even legalities — then they go, “OK, that makes sense.” Without that, they don’t.
NASTY: I don’t want there to be misinformation out there and I want the public to know that we’re doing everything we can and we are more ready now. And we’re here to protect you.