The ‘what if’ scenario

Following up on my extensive napkin-calculations of earlier today (See, “Making it Add Up“), I was invited on MPR’s All Things Considered on Friday evening to put some context to the larger question of Flight 188 as the first major test of the U.S. ability to protect American cities from the possibility of another attack by commercial jetliner.

This was the first significant test of a revamped air defense structure since 9/11. We failed.

Here it is:

After this discussion, I got this interesting message from a reader/listener:

It doesn’t make a huge difference, but the speed estimates that you gave for the F16 seem to be a little bit on the low end. While the pilots you have spoken to may not have flown faster than 800 mph or so, by the book the F16 should cruise around 500 MPH and top out at over 1200 MPH in a hurry for any of the engine variants. This changes your estimated Madison-Minneapolis time to about 10 minutes.

I didn’t use the sender’s name because I don’t have his position but he’s right, an F-16 can fly as fast as about 1300. I deliberately used more conservative numbers because a jet flying at 1300 doesn’t have a lot of fuel left to fly around with an Airbus and because I thought it best to be conservative when questioning the timetable of the NORAD spokesman.

But, for the heck of it, let’s assume the fighters were 10 minutes from here and they waited until the last possible minute to launch — which, of course, they did. That means they could’ve launched as late as 7:54 to arrive here at 8:04. At 8:04, the plane was directly over the Mississippi River, just south of the Lake Street bridge.

The point remains the same: By waiting as long as they did, NORAD (or the FAA) assured that if it had been hijacked by terrorists intent on harming the Twin Cities, the jets were not in a position — for whatever reason — to get into a position to stop it.

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