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Defending America's Airspace

On September 11, America’s air defense depended on close interaction between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).  The FAA is mandated by law to control the safety and security of civil aviation.    Typically that meant maintaining a safe distance between aircraft.  NORAD was established in 1958 between the United States and Canada.  It was created to counter the threat of Soviet bombers and its mission was to defend the airspace of North America and protect the continent.  NORAD reached a high of 26 alert sites, but with the end of the Cold War the number of alert sites was continually reduced, and by 9/11 there were only seven alert sites left.  On 9/11, NORAD’s air defense mission was to “destroy, nullify, or reduce the effectiveness of attacking enemy aircraft or missiles.”  

In 2001, in the continental United States, NORAD was divided into three sectors.  All four of the aircraft hijacked on the morning of September 11, 2001, were in the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), which is based in Rome, New York.  On call that morning for NEADS were two alert sites, each with one pair of fighter jets:  two F-15s from Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and two F-16s from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. 

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