Lt. Col. Scott Reed of the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing took off from Toledo on Sept. 11, 2001, to clear the skies after hijacked airliners had struck.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
Lt. Col. Scott Reed, a Toledo-based fighter pilot, perhaps came as close as anyone ever has to doing the unthinkable: shooting down a civilian jetliner.
And at the time, he didn't even know how close he came.
His story reveals as much about the nation's ruined sense of security as it does about the dramatic events that unfolded on that awful September morning nearly 10 years ago.
At the time, the Ohio Air National Guard's 1,000-member 180th Fighter Wing unit at Toledo Express Airport hadn't seen action since helping to enforce a no-fly zone over portions of Iraq in 2000, and its personnel were beginning a routine day that morning.
Master Sgt. Anthony Garver, a munitions specialist, was outfitting F-16s with missiles and ammunition for a training launch. Master Sgt. Mark Close, who was beginning his first day as a full-time guardsman, was changing a light bulb on a wing tip. And Colonel Reed, a 39-year-old training pilot, was planning for an afternoon training mission.
Then, just before 9 a.m., there was commotion in the break room. Colonel Reed heard the television blaring from down the hall. Not very professional, he thought.
Sergeant Close, who until that day had been a factory worker and weekend warrior, came in from the flight line for a part and saw others watching TV. At that time, only the first plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"I was like, 'Oh that's crazy,'" he said.
When Colonel Reed saw what was on TV, he didn't even consider the possibility that America was under attack. He figured it was a private pilot who made an error and had a tragic accident.
Sergeant Close, meanwhile, dropped off his part on the flight line and returned to see that a second plane had hit the South Tower. Sergeant Garver, who also was watching the television, said it was only then that they realized it was no accident.
Unknown to them, the military response had already begun. The North East Air Defense Sector, part of a special U.S. and Canadian military agency called North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, which is tasked with detecting foreign invaders, ordered two fighter jets from Massachusetts to take off for New York after the first attack.
They arrived eight minutes after the second plane struck the South Tower and began circling the city to prevent further attacks. Two jets from Langley, Va., meanwhile, were 12 minutes away when a jetliner flew into the Pentagon.
At about that time, a fourth plane deviated from its westward flight path near Cleveland.
That's when the phone rang at the 180th's operations desk. It was the first time the unit had ever received a call from NORAD's North East Defense Sector, Colonel Reed said.
"Our folks at the ops desk didn't know how to take the call," he said. The phone was passed around the room. "This guy is saying something weird," people said. At one point, Colonel Reed got on the phone.
"They're saying they need two jets airborne as soon as possible," he said. "I said, 'You do know who you're calling, right? This is Toledo."
The confusion at the unit's operations desk was indicative of a broader problem.
Until then, the nation's air defense system was still in a Cold War posture. Only 14 military jets were on alert at seven locations at 8 a.m. EST -- all along the country's borders -- and the military's radar trackers were positioned along the coasts to pick up outside invaders. That left blind spots in America's interior and forced the military to rely that morning on civilian air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration and jets from Toledo.
"Prior to 9/11, we really thought the threat was coming from outside of America," said Col. Steven Nordhaus, commander of the 180th. "We learned after 9/11 that threats could come from inside."
Thus, the 180th was not assigned to NORAD's regular defense network -- as it is now -- and wasn't supposed to expect a call. Everyone was improvising. Colonel Reed's superiors told him to grab a wingman and take off.
"Neither of us knew what the tasking was, where we were going, what they were asking us to do," he said.
Jets from Toledo took off at 10:17 a.m., according to a 2001 Air Force briefing.
By then, President George W. Bush had issued an order to shoot down the fourth hijacked plane before it hit any potential targets. Had Flight 93 stayed in the air, chances are high that Colonel Reed would have reached it first.
Instead, passengers of Flight 93 took matters into their own hands and the plane crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Air traffic controllers advised the North East Air Defense Sector of the crash at 10:07 a.m.
It's unclear whether the call to the 180th came before or after military officials knew that Flight 93 was down. Colonel Reed doesn't remember exactly when the call came in, and base officials said they don't have a call log dating that far back.
What is certain: Colonel Reed knew nothing about Flight 93.
After takeoff, he presumed he would receive further instructions. Instead, he found himself on the radio with a confused air traffic controller from Cleveland.
"They said, 'Well where do you want to go?' I said, 'Well, I thought you were going to tell me that.' After a bit… they turned me east."
An F-16 fighter jet is capable of speeds in excess of 900 mph, but Colonel Reed flew east at much lower speeds.
"We were flying at what I would consider a normal speed -- 400 mph ballpark, which isn't particularly fast… We could have gone supersonic easily and gone at a much faster speed, but we weren't being sent on any specific tasking at that time."
All nonmilitary air traffic had been grounded and Colonel Reed spent the next three hours helping to clear the skies. By that time, most commercial aircraft had landed. Only small planes flown by amateur pilots were left, Colonel Reed said.
Air traffic control would pick them up on radar and ask Colonel Reed to investigate. What ensued resembled something like a comic moment in a Hollywood blockbuster: an F-16 pulls up alongside a surprised crop duster and points to the ground through his cockpit window.
"Nowadays, if an F-16 showed up on the wing of your airplane, you would recognize, 'I'm probably someplace I shouldn't be,'" Colonel Reed said. "I would say the folks at that time didn't feel particularly threatened by us. It was more of a curiosity, like, 'Wow, I've never seen that before.' Probably they were confused and surprised."
He escorted about three planes to the ground, refueling over Lake Erie at one point. Then he returned. Not until he got home that night did he learn about Flight 93.
"That night, I don't know that I immediately made that connection -- that this particular airplane was our tasking," he said. "But then, yeah, over the weeks and months that followed, because [Flight 93 was] flying essentially westbound, it made more sense that they would call Toledo because we're kind of on the route of flight."
Before that day, the possibility of shooting down an airliner with innocent civilians on it had never occurred to him, he said. "Now it is obviously something you have to consider as a possibility."
Asked if that weighs on him -- a man who began his career with the Air Force in 1984 -- he said he resolved such issues a long time ago.
"Once you've chosen to wear a uniform as a profession, that's when you answer those questions for yourself," he said. "That fundamental question you're asking is not a question that needs to be asked in an F-16 as you roll up behind a civilian airliner. That's not the time to agonize over that."
If given such an order, he would carry it out, he said.
"Whether it's an American family on an American airliner over the United States or it's an Afghanistan Taliban member halfway around the world, the morality doesn't change. It's still a human life and it's precious," he said. "When we get to that worst-case scenario I trust that it is the last option and I've got a job to do at that point."
That morning's events can still be felt at the base 10 years later. In the intervening time, the 180th has flown missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. One of its pilots, Lt. Col. Kevin Sonnenberg, died in a crash in Iraq. A building at the base is named after him. The 180th also flies alert status missions for NORAD now.
Colonel Reed, who lives in Waterville, is still with the unit. He has been promoted to maintenance group commander and says he doesn't often think of his role that day, though its significance is undeniable.
"I look at it as a sort of watershed event in making the world a smaller place," he said. "Oceans and miles don't necessarily equate to security. We've had to, in the intervening 10 years, spend an enormous amount of money and an enormous amount of attention ensuring our security. We kind of took it for granted before."
Contact Tony Cook at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.