Coffee, Cigarettes, and the Fog of War: Air Force One on 9/11

One of the untold stories of 9/11 has been a comprehensive telling of what it was like for the President, his staff, the Secret Service, members of the military, guests and the traveling press corps who were aboard Air Force One that day. Bits and pieces have come out. For example, Chief of Staff Andrew Card talked at some length about being caught in the middle of President Bush's insistence he return to Washington, DC and the Secret Service's insistence that either the sky or the hardened bunkers at U.S. Strategic Command outside Omaha were the safest place for him to be for on the Discovery Network's  The President;s Gatekeepers.

In We're the Only Plane in the Sky, Politico talked to over two dozen of the people on Air Force One that day, as well as Air Force officers and pieced together a narrative that uses only the words of those who were there. The voices include people from Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, to the commanders of Barksdale and Offutt Air Force Base where Air Force One stopped to refuel, to the White House stenographer tasked with keeping the official record of his scheduled appearance, to the Air Force pilot who took the presidential plane to the edge of its performance envelope, to members of the same Air National Guard unit President Bush had once served in, who escorted Air Force One from over the Gulf of Mexico back to Washington DC.

Here are some of my favorite parts of the story.

From the commander of Barksdale AFB.(Home base of 2d Bomb Wing, the B-52H Stratofortress bombers).

Lt. Gen. Tom Keck: We were already in a practice THREATCON Delta, the highest threat condition. I said lock her down for real. My deputy came in, Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets—his grandfather was the pilot who flew the Enola Gay [which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima]. He told me that at THREATCON Delta, general officers have to wear sidearms. I tried to refuse, but he insisted. So I was wearing my sidearm, which I never do.

We got this radio request—Code Alpha—a high priority incoming aircraft. It wanted 150,000 pounds of gas, 40 gallons of coffee, 70 box lunches, and 25 pounds of bananas. It wouldn’t identify itself. It was clearly a big plane. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the Code Alpha was Air Force One.

 The pilot of Air Force One tells of this incident at Barskdale AFB.

Col. Mark Tillman:  I went down to the tarmac to see about having the plane refueled. We could carry 14 hours of fuel. I wanted 14 hours of fuel. I was worried that they weren’t going to have enough fuel trucks, but it turned out we’d happened to park over a hot refueling tank they used for bombers. This civilian is arguing with our crew, “The fuel pits are only authorized for use in time of war.” This Air Force master sergeant—God bless him—overhears this and roars, “We are at war!” He whips out his knife and starts cutting open the cover. That defines to me what the day was like.

The F-16 fighter escort pilot from the 111th Fighter Squadron, (Texas Air National Guard) relates this,

Maj. Scott Crogg: All the rules that fighter pilots spend their lives living by were now out the window. When we landed [at Offut] we got more gas and picked up maps for the rest of the country. There are always maps and approaches for the country in base operations, but all the maps always say, "Do not remove from base operations." We just took all of them and stuffed them in our bag.

Colonel Tillman walked into base operations and we finally started to get some information. The president was actually an alumni of our unit in Houston. Colonel Tillman told us, “he feels comfortable with you guys and wants you to continue us.” We told him we’d sit back about five miles—you don’t get that close to something that valuable, for all sorts of reasons—but if something happened, we can eat up that range real quick.

The White House stenographer assigned to keep the official record of the President's trip that day was the only smoker on the plane when it left Washington DC,  By the time it landed at Barksdale AFB some of the other passengers were bumming cigarettes from her.   By the time it reached STRATCOM at Offutt Air Force Base, with its hardened, underground bunkers, it seems she had lots of company.

Ellen Eckert: When he [President Bush] went into the bunker, wow. That’s still a scene in the movie in my head all these years later. Clearly the only way to go was down. We just stood outside, waiting. We smoked a million cigarettes, all my new chain-smoking friends.

All the while, the policy makers aboard Air Force One were struggling with the fog of war.  The President could communicate with the Vice President in the White House command center and military channels were functioning.  But many other communication channels were swamped by the sheer volume of signals, as every American tried to make cell phone contact with loved ones and Air Traffic Control was in constant communication with every commercial plane in the air that morning.  In addition, Air Force One at that time had no satellite TV or Internet feeds. Those aboard Air Force One found themselves viewing glimpses of what the rest of America was watch in shock and horror as Air Force One, eight miles above the ground, cruised over broadcast TV stations at maximum speed.

One of the untold stories of 9/11 has been a comprehensive telling of what it was like for the President, his staff, the Secret Service, members of the military, guests and the traveling press corps who were aboard Air Force One that day. Bits and pieces have come out. For example, Chief of Staff Andrew Card talked at some length about being caught in the middle of President Bush's insistence he return to Washington, DC and the Secret Service's insistence that either the sky or the hardened bunkers at U.S. Strategic Command outside Omaha were the safest place for him to be for on the Discovery Network's  The President;s Gatekeepers.

In We're the Only Plane in the Sky, Politico talked to over two dozen of the people on Air Force One that day, as well as Air Force officers and pieced together a narrative that uses only the words of those who were there. The voices include people from Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, to the commanders of Barksdale and Offutt Air Force Base where Air Force One stopped to refuel, to the White House stenographer tasked with keeping the official record of his scheduled appearance, to the Air Force pilot who took the presidential plane to the edge of its performance envelope, to members of the same Air National Guard unit President Bush had once served in, who escorted Air Force One from over the Gulf of Mexico back to Washington DC.

Here are some of my favorite parts of the story.

From the commander of Barksdale AFB.(Home base of 2d Bomb Wing, the B-52H Stratofortress bombers).

Lt. Gen. Tom Keck: We were already in a practice THREATCON Delta, the highest threat condition. I said lock her down for real. My deputy came in, Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets—his grandfather was the pilot who flew the Enola Gay [which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima]. He told me that at THREATCON Delta, general officers have to wear sidearms. I tried to refuse, but he insisted. So I was wearing my sidearm, which I never do.

We got this radio request—Code Alpha—a high priority incoming aircraft. It wanted 150,000 pounds of gas, 40 gallons of coffee, 70 box lunches, and 25 pounds of bananas. It wouldn’t identify itself. It was clearly a big plane. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the Code Alpha was Air Force One.

 The pilot of Air Force One tells of this incident at Barskdale AFB.

Col. Mark Tillman:  I went down to the tarmac to see about having the plane refueled. We could carry 14 hours of fuel. I wanted 14 hours of fuel. I was worried that they weren’t going to have enough fuel trucks, but it turned out we’d happened to park over a hot refueling tank they used for bombers. This civilian is arguing with our crew, “The fuel pits are only authorized for use in time of war.” This Air Force master sergeant—God bless him—overhears this and roars, “We are at war!” He whips out his knife and starts cutting open the cover. That defines to me what the day was like.

The F-16 fighter escort pilot from the 111th Fighter Squadron, (Texas Air National Guard) relates this,

Maj. Scott Crogg: All the rules that fighter pilots spend their lives living by were now out the window. When we landed [at Offut] we got more gas and picked up maps for the rest of the country. There are always maps and approaches for the country in base operations, but all the maps always say, "Do not remove from base operations." We just took all of them and stuffed them in our bag.

Colonel Tillman walked into base operations and we finally started to get some information. The president was actually an alumni of our unit in Houston. Colonel Tillman told us, “he feels comfortable with you guys and wants you to continue us.” We told him we’d sit back about five miles—you don’t get that close to something that valuable, for all sorts of reasons—but if something happened, we can eat up that range real quick.

The White House stenographer assigned to keep the official record of the President's trip that day was the only smoker on the plane when it left Washington DC,  By the time it landed at Barksdale AFB some of the other passengers were bumming cigarettes from her.   By the time it reached STRATCOM at Offutt Air Force Base, with its hardened, underground bunkers, it seems she had lots of company.

Ellen Eckert: When he [President Bush] went into the bunker, wow. That’s still a scene in the movie in my head all these years later. Clearly the only way to go was down. We just stood outside, waiting. We smoked a million cigarettes, all my new chain-smoking friends.

All the while, the policy makers aboard Air Force One were struggling with the fog of war.  The President could communicate with the Vice President in the White House command center and military channels were functioning.  But many other communication channels were swamped by the sheer volume of signals, as every American tried to make cell phone contact with loved ones and Air Traffic Control was in constant communication with every commercial plane in the air that morning.  In addition, Air Force One at that time had no satellite TV or Internet feeds. Those aboard Air Force One found themselves viewing glimpses of what the rest of America was watch in shock and horror as Air Force One, eight miles above the ground, cruised over broadcast TV stations at maximum speed.