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Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK
US considered 'suicide jet missions'
US fighter pilot
Some fighter pilots had no weapons on 11 September
US Air Force commanders considered crashing fighter jets into hijacked planes on 11 September because of a lack of armed planes, a BBC investigation reveals.

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks US fighter planes took to the skies to defend America from any further attacks.


It was very possible that they [US pilots] would have been asked to give their lives themselves

Colonel Robert Marr
Their mission was to protect President George W Bush and to intercept any hijacked aircraft heading to other targets in the US.

But, as a new BBC programme Clear The Skies reveals, the threat of an attack from within America had been considered so small that the entire US mainland was being defended by only 14 planes.

As a result unarmed planes were diverted from training missions in a desperate bid to increase the number of fighter planes patrolling American airspace.

Colonel Robert Marr was Commander of the North East Defence Sector and remembers the words that came over the secure phone "we will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground".

US military unprepared

However, at the time of the attacks the US had just four fighter pilots on alert covering the north eastern United States.

Colonel Robert Marr
Colonel Marr: Too few planes to defend the US
US pilots were forced to take to the skies without any weapons and might have had to deliberately crash into a hijacked plane to prevent casualties on the ground.

"I had determined, of course, that with only four aircraft we cannot defend the whole north eastern United States," he said.

"Some of them would have just gotten in the air possibly without any armament onboard.

"If you had to stop an aircraft sometimes the only way to stop an aircraft is with your own aircraft if you don't have any weapons.

"It was very possible that they [the pilots] would have been asked to give their lives themselves to try to prevent further attacks if need be."

Colonel Marr said: "That was the sense of frustration, of I don't have the forces available to do anything about this, we've got everything up that we can get up and still can't do anything."

Two of the pilots patrolling north east America told the programme how they struggled to get to New York as fast as possible after the first plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Pilots "Duff" and "Nasty" recalled they were only minutes away when the second plane hit the towers.

Pilot Duff said: "For a long time I wondered what would have happened if we had been scrambled in time.

"We've been over the flight a thousand times in our minds and I don't know what we could have done to get there any quicker."


Clear the Skies - presented by the BBC's special correspondent Gavin Hewitt - was broadcast on BBC Two on 1 September.
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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"America was wholly unprepared"
Colonel Robert Marr
"Sometimes the only way to stop an aircraft is with your own aircraft if you don't have any weapons"

New York despatches

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29 Aug 02 | Americas
29 Aug 02 | Europe
28 Sep 01 | Americas
27 Sep 01 | In Depth
28 Sep 01 | Americas
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