The two F-16s, part of the 113th Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base were visible in the sky above the Pentagon as it was evacuated after being struck by American Airlines Flight 77, Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley, a commander in the Air Force told the panel.
McKinley is in charge of the division of the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- known as NORAD -- responsible for protecting the continental United States. He was one of a number of federal officials who gave evidence on the second day of public hearings held by the commission to find out what went wrong and why on Sept. 11.
The picture that emerged was one of military and federal agencies scrambling desperately to respond to an attack for which they were completely unprepared, but officials said much had been to improve the nation's readiness since.
The F-16s -- which were not tasked to NORAD -- had been launched at the request of the Secret Service after the first two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, McKinley explained. But they had just returned from a training exercise and were not equipped with any weaponry they would have needed to shoot down either Flight 77 or the remaining hijacked airliner, Flight 93, which was thought headed for the White House.
The two pilots showed "incredible bravery," said Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.
NORAD also scrambled F-16s from Langley air force base in Virginia, he said. They were in the air within six minutes, which he said was "exceedingly quick." But they were still 12 minutes away from Washington when Flight 77 crashed in the Pentagon.
Moreover, the man who had McKinley's job on Sept. 11, retired Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, told the panel that he could not have ordered the hijacked airliners shot down even if either set of F-16s had been able to make it to the capital in time.
"To my knowledge, I did not have the authority to shoot it down at that time," he said, adding later of Flight 77, "even if we were there, I don't think we would have shot it down."
He said that he only learned President Bush had made the decision to give him that authority five minutes after the last plane, Flight 93, crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania because passengers who had learned the fate of the other airliners apparently stormed the cockpit.
McKinley admitted that NORAD was utterly unprepared for the attack.
"Our mission was at that time ... to look outward, as a Cold War vestige ... to protect against Soviet long-range bomber penetration of our intercept zone," he said.
Arnold added that NORAD commanders had no radar cover in the United States -- relying instead on civilian air traffic control radar data relayed to them over the phone -- and could not even talk directly to their pilots while they were in the air.
"Would you agree," asked Ben-Veniste, "that on the basis of the information available there could have been better preparedness by NORAD?"
"In retrospect, sir," the general replied, "I think I would agree with your comment."
McKinley explained that many changes had been made since then.
"I believe at the present time we have (the capability to defend the United States)," he said in response to one question.
He said that the authority to designate civilian aircraft as "hostile targets" in U.S. airspace -- which had never been used before Sept. 11, and previously rested solely with the president -- has since been delegated to Gen. Eberhardt, the man in charge of NORAD. He also said that there were "emergency procedures" which could give officers even lower on the chain of command the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft.
"We call it the 'Kill Chain,' and it's been shortened and tightened," NORAD spokesman Maj. Don Aries later explained to United Press International.
McKinley told the panel that these procedures were used "eight to 15 times a week," not as exercises, but in what he called "real world situations."
"In an emergency situation, we can now take the appropriate action," he said.
Another retired NORAD commander, Col. Alan Scott, explained to UPI after the hearing that a minor occurrence like an air traffic controller believing he had heard something odd in a pilot's voice and reporting it up the line of command would now trigger a response. "We open our lines of communication," when that sort of thing happens, Scott told UPI.
Such a plane immediately becomes "a target of interest," added Aries, and fighters might be scrambled to look at it.
"The interagency process works very well," McKinley told the panel, referring to NORAD's improved liaison with the Federal Aviation Administration, "the way they're lashed up with us now."