A lot of people seem to have misconceptions about what NORAD is and what they do. Prior to 9/11 they spent most of their resources looking at external threats, as their original purpose was to monitor potential incoming ballistic missiles from the former Soviet Union. Their mission as far as aircraft went, was to monitor incoming aircraft, and intercept them if they were a perceived threat. Even today, their number one priority is to defend America against incoming threats, especially from nuclear missiles.
There is also a gross misconception about hijackings in the United States. The last hijacking to occur in the United States happened in 1991; even so, since then the air marshal program had been downsized prior to 9/11, with only 33 in 2001, and none on domestic duty on September 11th.
The protocols in place on September 11th for both the FAA and NORAD to respond to a hijacking presumed several things:
When NORAD "scrambles" fighter jets, what that means is establish a presence in the air, keep the plane in sight at a distance of around five miles, following it until it lands. If necessary, show themselves to provide visual contact, and if necessary force the plane to land.
As we discussed in the previous section, the protocols in place on 9/11 were not suited for the situation at hand. In fact, it is safe to say that they were completely incompatible for nearly every aspect for what was about to happen. As was implied in the previous section, prior to and on 9/11, the defense of US airspace depended on two separate federal agencies, the FAA and NORAD.
The FAA and other air traffic control centers alerted NEADS (the Northeast Air Defense Sector, a part of NORAD) of the four hijackings, though with little or no advance notice for NEADS or NORAD to mount a response:
Adding to the problems, the terrorists on 9/11 turned off the transponders on three of the four aircraft that were hijacked. While it is possible to track a plane with the transponder off, it is extremely difficult. Radar, unlike transponders, do not return the aircraft's identity and altitude. Air traffic controllers rely very heavily on transponders, so much so they do not show primary radar returns on their radar scopes, however they can change it to show them. They did do this on 9/11 when the transponder signals for the three hijacked planes disappeared.
Prior to September 11th, it was not uncommon for commercial aircraft to go slightly off course or for the FAA controller to lose radio contact for a short period of time. A controller could also briefly lose a commercial aircraft's transponder signal, but this was less common. It should be noted that the simultaneous loss of radio and transponder signal was something to be alarmed about, and controllers and near-by aircraft would attempt to contact the plane. Alarms do not sound until these effects, which could take five minutes or more, were all tried and failed. This is enough time to lose track of the airplanes almost completely.
A common recording from both NORAD and FAA sources is of various officials asking "Is this exercise or real-world?" when being notified of the hijacked aircraft. This proves that they were waiting for the real thing to happen.
This doesn't prove anything. They always have to ask "real-world or exercise", because if it is not real-world and they really send out jets and disrupt air-service and the like, they'll have some real-world problems.
Noted crazy person David Ray Griffin:
"Skeptics about the official account believe that the attempt to crash an airliner into the WTC could not have been successful under normal circumstances. The basic problem, they argue, is that there are standard procedures for situations such as this and that, if they had been followed, Flight 11 would have been intercepted by fighter jets within 10 minutes of any sign that it may have been hijacked"
It seems a bit hard to believe that 10 minutes is enough time to suit up a pilot, prepare his plane, take off, and fly to the target. It's as if the conspiracy theorists believe that air traffic controllers pick up the phone and dial the nearest airbase and the plane is instantly in the air. Reality doesn't really work like that, especially before 9/11. First the Air traffic controller must determine there is actually a problem with the plane, which we discussed in the Protocols sections, then report the issue to his supervisor and go through the entire thing all over again, pretty much. If the supervisor agrees, he will contact the FAA directly, and speak to the hijack coordinator (he's the person who deals with NORAD).
After that NORAD still does not scramble the planes. Here is a quote by Major General Larry Arnold during his 9/11 Commission Testimony, explaining what happens next:
...hijacking is a law enforcement issue as is everything that takes off from within the United States. And only law enforcement can request assistance from the military, which they did, in this particular case. The route, if you follow the book, is that they go to the duty officer of the national military command center, who in turn makes an inquiry to NORAD for the availability of fighters, who then gets permission from someone representing the Sec. of Defense. Once that's approved, then we scramble aircraft.
To clarify, the FAA hijack coordinator calls NORAD and explains the situation. The hijack coordinator finds an airbase with an available plane and puts them on alert, but then must also get permission to scramble from "someone representing the Secretary of Defense." When he finally has all that in order, they finally scramble the plane.
As for the jets, there's no telling how long that could take. We do know that NORAD fighters were on 15-minute alert prior to 9/11, but even now it might be around 8 minutes. Also at the time, there were only 14 jets on alert in seven cities in the continental United States.
If we put all this together, it is a considerable amount of time, making the "10 minute" intercept time impossible. It takes longer than that to go from Air traffic control to NORAD, longer than that to get the planes to scramble, then the planes must locate them on regular radar because the transponders are turned off.
In 1999, Payne Stewart's plane drifted off course and did not respond to radio calls, it took 76 minutes for it to be intercepted. Even after 9/11 things are still slow, in January 2002 Charles Bishop took off in a Cessna without his instructor, flying dangerously low over a military airbase, and the time intercept would have been about 55 minutes if the plane wouldn't have crashed. Even with beefed up intercept procedures after 9/11, planes only 10 minutes from Washington, the time to scramble was 18 minutes, and the intercept several minutes later. Then there is this little piece of news from the Washington Post:
...another federal official said that two years ago [in 2002], military jets could identify and intercept only about 40 percent of intruders in training drills.
Before or on 9/11, or even today for that matter, 10 minute scrambling and intercept is completely impossible.