Due to the incredible number of coincidences proposed by the official reports on the events of September 11, 2001, it makes good sense for citizens to question any improbable claims related to that day. We have been given at least two such odd stories about flights that left Andrews Air Force Base that morning. One represents a highly improbable flight path and the other has produced a contradiction in official accounts.
The first of these flights concerns a large military cargo plane, a C-130H, called Gofer 06. This plane was from the 133rd airlift wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard. The 9/11 Commission Report claims that the Gofer 06 pilot and crew were first-hand witnesses to the demise of both Flight 77 and Flight 93.
It was said that the C-130H pilot, Lt. Col Steve O’Brien, was returning from delivering supplies to the Carribean, which more specifically meant the U.S. Virgin Islands. Air Force Magazine recently reported that seven other crew members were on board, including copilot Maj. Robert Schumacher and flight engineer MSgt Jeff Rosenthal.[i]
The official timeline of this improbable flight begins as follows: Just after 09:30, Gofer 06 took off from Andrews AFB and Flight 77 flew “right in front of [it], a mile and a half, two miles away.”[ii] Air traffic controllers (ATCs) from Reagan National Airport (in Arlington, VA) asked the C-130H pilot to identify and follow the “suspicious aircraft.”[iii] According to the Commission report, Gofer 06 identified the aircraft as a Boeing 757 and, seconds after impact, Lt. Col. O’Brien said — “it looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir.” In the recent Air Force Magazine article, Rosenthal claims that – “We saw it crash into the Pentagon.”
Therefore, thirty minutes after millions of Americans had witnessed a second aircraft crash in the World Trade Center (WTC), routine flights were taking off from Andrews AFB, the military base with several interceptor jets at the ready only 10 miles from the Pentagon. The interceptor jets would not take off from Andrews until approximately 90 minutes later. This was all happening just minutes after a series of exchanges between Vice President Cheney and a “young man,” which Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta witnessed and testified were focused on “the plane that came into the Pentagon.”[iv]
Numerous questions come to mind when reading just this small part of the official narrative.
- Why would Andrews AFB launch a cargo plane instead of interceptor jets at a time when three airliners had been hijacked and two of them had crashed into the WTC 30 minutes earlier?
- How could civilian ATCs expect an unwieldy cargo plane, which had a cruise speed of 336 mph (and a maximum speed of 366 mph), to keep up with a Boeing airliner which the official report says was traveling at 530 mph?
- Even if Gofer 06 had time to reach its maximum speed immediately, the difference in speeds would have put the two aircraft 3 miles apart for every minute that passed.
- Some reports state that copilot Schumaker looked down on Flight 77.[v] How could he look down on something that was at first right in front of him, at a distance of two miles, and five minutes later was up to 15 miles (more than was possible) further ahead of him?
- And if military cargo planes could take orders from civilian ATCs, why didn’t the ATCs ask Andrews AFB to launch its at-the-ready interceptors, which could travel several times faster than the errant airliner?
It was reported that Lt. Col. O’Brien turned on the news after he witnessed Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, and that’s when he and his crew finally learned what most of us already knew — that the nation was under attack. It was claimed by MSgt Rosenthal that, at this time, “We circled. We loitered briefly.”[vi]
One of the documents released by the 9/11 Commission in response to FOIA requests is the flight tracking strip from Andrews AFB for September 11, 2001. This tracking strip indicates that Gofer 06 took off from Andrews at 9:33 am.[vii] Given that the flight engineer for the cargo plane stated that they circled after witnessing the crash, and a large aircraft takes a few minutes to circle, we must assume that Gofer 06 could not have left the vicinity of the Pentagon any earlier than 9:41 am.
Originally the crew had planned to return to their home station in Minnesota. But then they decided “the prudent thing to do was to get to a safe haven and take a time out.”[viii] They did not go to the nearest safe haven, however, but instead continued on in an improbable path that ended in landing at Cleveland airport, approximately one hour later.
One problem with this new self-determined route taken by the Gofer 06 crew was that Benedict Sliney, the FAA’s national operations manager, had issued a ground stop at 9:42 am, just as Gofer 06 was leaving the Washington area. Per the 9/11 Commission Report, this meant that all aircraft were ordered to land at the nearest airport. Gofer 06 did not land as required by the FAA. Instead, it flew for another hour and passed over numerous airports in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Of course the truly amazing thing is that Gofer 06 is credited for witnessing not only the crash of Flight 77, but the smoke from the crash of Flight 93. At 10:05, just 27 minutes after seeing the Pentagon crash, the crew of Gofer 06 witnessed black smoke from United 93 at a distance of only 17 miles.
The Andrews AFB flight tracking strip does indicate that Gofer 06’s approved flight plan was from Andrews to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. A direct route between these two points would take the cargo plane right by Meyersdale, PA, which is in a direct line to Minneapolis/St. Paul and about 17 miles away from Shanksville.
The direct distance, as the crow flies, between the Pentagon and Shanksville is 127 miles. If we accept that Gofer 06 “circled and loitered” for only 3 minutes starting at 9:38, then it would have had just 24 minutes to reach Meyersdale, PA at 10:05, which is the time that its crew is said to have seen the black smoke from United 93 at a distance of approximately 17 miles. At its rated cruise speed of 336 mph, Gofer 06 would have needed 23 minutes to make this trip. So it is just barely possible.
One might ask a few more questions about this though.
- For example, of all the flight paths that an aircraft taking off from Andrews AFB might have taken, what are the odds that the one plane that was asked to tail Flight 77 just happened to be vectored directly toward the crash site of Flight 93? Just taking the radial probability of all possible flight paths away from the Andrews/Pentagon area would seem to put the odds at 1 in 360, or about 1 in 180 for only land-based paths.
- What are the odds that this one plane that happened to be vectored directly between the crash of Flight 77 and the crash of Flight 93 would have just exactly the time needed to fly between these two historic events? Most military aircraft and any commercial airliner would have been traveling much faster and would have missed seeing the smoke from Flight 93. Therefore, since a C-130H is an unusual type of plane and is relatively slow, the probability would seem to drop considerably lower.
- Why did the crew of Gofer 06 immediately respond to a civilian request to follow Flight 77 but then, for nearly one hour, ignore the FAA’s national operations manager’s order to land at the closest airport? It ultimately landed at Cleveland, another 181 miles (32 minutes at cruising speed) away, after passing by several cities including Pittsburgh.
It could be that these questions amount to nothing more than coincidence and that Gofer 06 really was just a spectacularly improbable flight on the most spectacular day in U.S. aviation history. But another flight that took off from Andrews that morning is the center of yet another paradox. And with regard to that flight, someone seems to either be lying or spectacularly mistaken.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11, Hugh Shelton, was reported to have been one of the many national leaders who were absent or indisposed on that fateful morning. The official line is that he had taken off from Andrews AFB to fly to a NATO meeting in Hungary and was 1.5 hours out when he was told about the first WTC event. After being told about the second plane going into WTC 2, he told his crew to turn around and go back. Apparently he had to tell them again after they heard about the Pentagon crash, possibly because they had not yet gotten clearance to fly back.[ix]
In any case, Shelton’s plane, a modified C-135 called the Speckled Trout, was about two hours away from Andrews AFB when it turned around. Yet Shelton did not return to the National Military Command Center (NMCC), where his leadership was desperately needed, until 5:40 pm. The exact time that the Speckled Trout landed has not been officially reported although it was listed in the FOIA-released document noted above.
Upon return, Shelton’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base, and from there, three patrol cars and about a dozen motorcycle cops escorted him and his staff to the Pentagon. It was said that when Shelton got back to the Pentagon, he initially went to his office and then visited the site of the attack to see the wreckage. After re-entering the building, he finally headed to the NMCC.
Therefore, Shelton’s account appears to say that it took him about six hours to return to the NMCC, after taking only about two hours to return to Andrews on the Speckled Trout. It seems odd that he would spend six hours (8 minus the 2 needed to fly back) in his office and examining wreckage before reporting to the command center when he was in charge.
Shelton’s 2010 autobiography, coincidentally named “Without Hesitation,” confirms this timeline and adds a few more details. On page 433, Shelton describes what happened after his initial order to return to the U.S., when he learned of the second WTC crash. He wrote — “Ten minutes later they called back with confirmation that we had been officially cleared to fly through the shutdown airspace. One of our pilots stuck his head out of the cockpit and announced, ‘Sir, our flight path will take us right over Manhattan, if you’d like to come up here about ten minutes from now.’”
Furthermore, Shelton elaborated on the return journey in that he claims to have flown right over the WTC site just minutes after the buildings were destroyed. “We flew directly over what had been the Twin Towers, just a few minutes after they collapsed,” he wrote. And then — “We vectored directly back to Andrews.”
Shelton furthered described what happened when he arrived at Andrews. He claims that an entourage of DC patrol cars met him there and he was escorted immediately to the Pentagon, “which was still ablaze and spewing plumes of thick gray smoke.” And (interestingly) “...the smell of cordite was overwhelming.“
Suzanne Giesemann, an aide to Shelton who was on the Speckled Trout that morning, has confirmed Shelton’s account in her own book. In this account, she reiterates that the plane was routed over the WTC site seemingly just minutes after the towers fell. There is even a photograph of smoke rising from Ground Zero that is attributed to Shelton’s personal photographer, named Jones.[x]
Unfortunately, the September 2011 edition of Air Force Magazine, mentioned earlier, contradicts both of these accounts.[xi] Another article in this issue includes comments from Captain Rob Pedersen, who was the flight navigator for Shelton’s plane on 9/11. This article states that after Shelton instructed his pilot to return to the U.S., the crew didn’t get clearance to return for several hours. This article also claims that the plane did not have any destination and “so we went into a holding pattern near Greenland,” Pedersen said. The new report says that it was Pederson’s job, as the navigator, to come up with a list of alternative landing sites, the possibilities for which included Thule AB, Greenland and NAS Keflavik, Iceland.
The new article suggests that Speckled Trout finally came back through Canada hours later, but was still being denied entry to US airspace, and therefore it was placed in another holding pattern. Pederson states that – “It took a little bit of time, and I’m sure there were a lot of phone calls made, before they let us back in.” The article does mention that the return flight from Canada took the plane over the WTC site and that Pederson took his own photograph out one of the small windows. It is interesting that the route through Canada and the route back over the Atlantic would both go over the WTC site, but the new story concludes that — “By early afternoon, they had made their way to Andrews.”
The flight tracking strip from Andrews AFB indicates that the Speckled Trout, call name “Trout 99,” took off at 7:09 am ET (11:09 Zulu time). The official time that Trout 99 landed back at Andrews is recorded as 4:40 pm.
Many obvious questions arise when considering these contradictory reports.
- Why does Pederson now claim that it took hours to get clearance to return when Shelton said in his book that it took only ten minutes?
- If the Speckled Trout had flown over the WTC just minutes after the buildings were destroyed, meaning before 11 am, how could it have taken nearly six hours to land at Andrews AFB?
- If Shelton’s account was true and the plane landed much earlier, what was he doing for the next six hours, before arriving at the NMCC at 5:40 pm?
- If he did not fly back until hours later after having been in a long holding pattern over Greenland and then another in Canada, why did he not mention any of this in his autobiography? Did he not know what the plane was doing?
- How could Shelton not know the difference between “just minutes” and a period of five or six hours?
- If Shelton’s 2010 account was correct, why would Air Force Magazine make up a story in September 2011 about his plane having been delayed in Greenland for hours and not landing at Andrews until the afternoon?
These may or may not be the most critical questions to answer regarding the events of 9/11. But the story of Gofer 06 has been used to provide evidence for the official accounts, and the question of why so many of the nation’s leaders were absent on that morning should be of great concern to anyone who is interested in the truth. Getting to the truth will require that all such improbable scenarios and contradictions be investigated.
[i] Air Force Magazine, Airmen on 9/11, September 2011 edition, www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/…/0911airmen.pdf
[ii] Andrew Wackerfuss, The Air National Guard Responds on 9/11, New Patriot, July/August 2011. In this article, Lt. Col O’Brien gave details of this encounter — “By then, he [AA 77] had pretty much filled our windscreen. Then he made a pretty aggressive turn so he was moving right in front of us, a mile and a half, two miles away.”
[iii] The 9/11 Commission Report
[v] Bill Catlin, Museum features Air Guard’s history and role in the war on terror, Minnesota Public Radio, May 31, 2004, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/05/31_catlinb_airguardmuseum/
[vi] Air Force Magazine
[viii] Air Force Magazine
[ix] History Commons 9/11 Timeline page for Hugh Shelton, http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=henry_h._shelton
[x] Suzanne Giesemann, Living a Dream: A Journey from Aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Sull-Time Cruiser, Paradise Cay Publications, 2008, pp 26-27
[xi] Air Force Magazine