General: Fighter jets should’ve been airborne over Minneapolis

Now that Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbit has answered the question that even Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano wouldn’t touch — why were homeland security officials frozen out of the Flight 188 situation? — the mea culpas are coming from the military… sort of.

The Associated Press reports that Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, said he learned of the incident just four or five minutes before the Federal Aviation Administration regained contact with the Northwest Airlines pilots, who were out of touch with air traffic controllers for more than an hour as their jet sped toward Minneapolis St. Paul.

Renuart says fighter jets should’ve been airborne. He says Northern Command is conducting an “internal review.”

Coincidentally, Gen. Renuart’s command is hosting 4,500 military and civilian personnel from around the country next week to take part in a training expercise simulating a terrorist attack in the United States.

(h/t: Sara Meyer)

Meanwhile, the safety woes for the airlines continue. The FAA says a Midwest Airlines jet came within 82 feet of the nose of a departing Northwest Airlines jet at Los Angeles on Sunday, violating rules designed to prevent collisions on runways.

It’s not easy being the air traffic controller in charge of preventing these things as this situation in New York a few years ago revealed:

  • http://http:healthygopher.blogspot.com Elizabeth T

    Bob, you’re a pilot … did the first 30 seconds of this clip make any sense to you? Yet another point clearly demonstrating the level of concentration required to land an airplane. Especially if the person on the other end of the channel has a strong accent different than your own.

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Bob Collins

    The clip from YouTube? All of those people are already on the ground, they’re just taxiing. The controller was basically just asking a plane where he was on the airport, what taxiway.

    Since several runway problems (remember the crash because a plane took off on the wrong runway a few years ago), pilots are required to read back the instructions they’re given and the controllers are required to pay attention to it.

    I’d be interested in hearing the tape from the Northwest-Midwest incident in Los Angeles to see whether the Midwest pilot read back his/her instructions not to cross a point and whether the controller paid attention to it.

    Humans They’re the weak link in the safety system.

  • bsimon

    “Renuart said fighter jets were taxiing to the runway and should have been airborne.”

    Thanks for the followup. Sounds like a breakdown before the military got involved, but once they did, things happened quickly.

  • kennedy

    Does anyone have a map showing time and plane position along with the security actions?

    If the military was contacted five minutes before ground control reestablished contact, wouldn’t that put the plane well past the Twin Cities and somewhere near Eau Claire, Wisconsin?

  • Bob Collins

    Go back to the post I wrote last week “Making it Add Up.” I did all the calculations based on the statements of officials at the time at where the likely intercept could have occured based on the slow response and placed it roughly south of Highway 212 in Glencoe.

    BTW, it’s funny how often Eau Claire gets mentioned in the flight path of this plane. I’m not sure why. EC is southeast of the Twin Cities while the plane was flying northeast.

  • cynical

    // “Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, said he learned of the incident just four or five minutes before the Federal Aviation Administration regained contact with the Northwest Airlines pilots …” //

    Perhaps I’m just a little too cynical. The general said “he learned of the incident just four or five minutes …”. My follow-up: When was the first time someone in his command learned of the incident?

  • GRD

    “BTW, it’s funny how often Eau Claire gets mentioned in the flight path of this plane. I’m not sure why. EC is southeast of the Twin Cities while the plane was flying northeast.”

    That is an interesting statement considering Eau Claire is directly east of Cottage Grove and Bloomington, Twin City suberbs. When is the last time you have looked at a map? Nevertheless, it is not funny (strange) at all that this would be mentioned considering the newspapers illustrated the path the plane took as circling EC.

  • Bob Collins

    //Nevertheless, it is not funny (strange) at all that this would be mentioned considering the newspapers illustrated the path the plane took as circling EC

    I take it you’re not a regular reader of news Cut because I was the first to post the radar track and also the first to point out on it that the plane actually began it’s turn over Ladysmith.. It circled down toward Thorpe and came back up north north of Eau Claire.

    This plane was not flying over Cottage Grove, GRD, it flew over Redwood Falls (which i also pointed out here last week). You cannot be flying on a northeasterly heading (presumably heading toward the Gopher beacon west of Anoka-Blaine) west of Minneapolis and end up in Eau Claire.

    That’s an 073 heading and would require a turn somewhere to the southeast to end up over Eau Claire.

    Go to my earliest posts on the subject (which by the way, were much more informed than the newspapers) and you’ll see a link to page with a map of the track. Overlay that track over an aviation sectional map (you’ll see link) and you can what the plane passed over.

    Even at that turn, which well after the overshoot) they were never over Eau Claire.

    You can’t fly the approach that the pilots were flying, not change course, and end up over Eau Claire. I’m sorry, that’s simply a fact.

  • Bob Collins

    // My follow-up: When was the first time someone in his command learned of the incident?

    There’s a journalism lesson here. The other day, when I heard DHS secretary Janet Napolitano was going to be interviewed on Morning Edition, I suggested the question be asked.

    When they asked me how to word the question, I said, “At what time were military/homeland security officials notified by the FAA of the problem with the flight?” My figuring was I could take that answer and determine how long it took the FAA to get in the game.

    But the question got changed to, “Why weren’t the planes sent up to take a look?” That in itself is not a bad question, but it allowed Napolitano to take the usual Washingtonian/politician tack to avoid answering it.

    IF, as you suggest, there was a chain of command problem at NORAD, then the conclusion is the same as before — that the pre-911 system is still in place. Recall that the intercept possibility on 9/11 depended on someone being able to make a command decision.

    Instead, it ended up in the hands of some guy in Rome New York who instead said something like, “The people who could do something aren’t in the room at the moment.”

    For all the technology in the world, we still haven’t invented a common organizational model that encourages efficient decisions.

  • kennedy

    // I did all the calculations based on the statements of officials at the time at where the likely intercept could have occured based on the slow response and placed it roughly south of Highway 212 in Glencoe.

    OK, the plane went over Ladysmith instead of Eau Claire. I still don’t see the time line allowing for any intercept until the plane was over Wisconsin.

    Ground control reestablished contact at 8:14pm. Gen. Renuart says he learned of the incident five minutes prior to that (8:09pm). The plane was already well past Saint Paul. Did you mean that a more timely response would have allowed an intercept?

    My original question should have been, “What was happening on the security front as the plane approached the Twin Cities?” All I am aware of is several types of radio contact being attempted, until 8:09pm when the General was made aware.

    Surely more was being done behind the scenes.

  • Bob Collins

    //Did you mean that a more timely response would have allowed an intercept?

    Yes, of course. If you’re interested in providing a degree of protection for a major American city. It would only have taken about 15 minutes to the plane if it was to be intercepted before reaching the Twin Cities.

    At the time Renuart was notified

    //Surely more was being done behind the scenes.

    I wrote something about it in the very first post. At the time TSA said they were “monitoring it with our federal partners.” Later I saw a claim — I can’t remember where — that claimed the White House was monitoring the situation, too. I find that utterly implausible.

    They were also comparing the passenger list with the list of “no fly” people to see if there was any indication that something might be amiss.

    At 8:09, the plane was over US 63, just east of the New Richmond, WI airport. My calculations are that if the military were to intercept the jet before Redwood Falls, there would have been about a half hour window, during which the FAA would’ve had to notify NORAD.

  • kennedy

    Too bad the buzz for this story seems to be fading in the mainstream media. We really need to shine a light on the security failure(s) to encourage fixing them. Tying into another thread, bringing issues to light is the role of the media (whose attention seems to be diverting before the complete story is told). My compliments on your work.

  • Jim

    IF that plane was hijacked, it could have taken half the Minn skyline out. We appear to have learned nothing since 9.11 and I wonder why so few are talking about it.

    The questioning by the media of the military and FAA seems out of touch.

  • Bob Collins

    //The questioning by the media of the military and FAA seems out of touch.

    I’m guessing you haven’t read any of News Cut on this subject because I was weeks ahead of any other media in the questioning and analyzing the data. I was asking these questions the next day.

  • Chris

    Just wanted to comment on this issue. I believe two fighter jets were sent up from Selfridge air base here in Michigan. I was standing out side when they flew over my house Macomb County extremely low so low I could see that both were extremely armed and if I were to freeze time read there serial numbers. I happen to be on the phone with a friend in Bloomfield Hills Michigan and within a minute or two she had seen the fighter jets fly over her house as well, for about 10 seconds even the phones cut off. She lives about 35 to 40 minutes away. After I got off the phone I turned on the news and heard what was going on with the plane in WI. I’m positive that these two fighter jets were going to assist.