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Swiftly Generating Jets on 9/11

a KC-135 parked in an aircraft hangar

A KC-135 "Stratotanker" aircraft is parked in a Pennsylvania Air National Guard hangar during an isochronical inspection at the 171st Air Refueling Wing near Pittsburgh, Sept. 24th, 2021. Aircraft mechanics inspect every square inch of the aircraft for damage or needed repairs during an isochronical inspection. (U.S. Air National Guard illustration by Tech. Sgt. Bryan Hoover) (This image was created using high dynamic range techniques.)

Coraopolis, Pa. --

Twenty years ago, the world watched hundreds of fire fighters, medics and police officers rush into a war zone with one goal in mind, help as many people as possible reach safety. That day, nearly 500,000 tons of steel, glass and concrete crumbled into dust taking the lives of nearly 3,000 people. The world watched in horror at what was, at the time, presumably an accident, unfold into the deadliest terrorist attack in history on American soil. Since September 11th, American’s honor those emergency responders who risked it all. However, while the emergency responders were rushing to help those caught in the attacks, the Air National Guard jumped into action to aide in protecting America.

At the time, the 171st was undergoing an aircraft model change. The installation was home to 21 aircraft designed for aerial refueling. The aircraft model was a KC-135E, which had analog items within the cockpit requiring a human navigator using a compass to manually track the aircrafts position. This upgrade would eventually terminate the navigator career field. The upgrade, known as pacer crag, needed installed on the nearly 40-year-old jet. The upgrade introduced a digital navigation system capable of storing pre-planned flight coordinates and provided an auto pilot feature. Pilots no longer needed to rely on a human to navigate. In order to meet this model change, the 171st Maintenance Group had to remove the majority of the aircraft from service. At the time of 9/11, maintenance had nearly every cockpit pulled apart at various stages of the model change. Even with this major overhaul occurring, the installation was still capable of performing routine refueling missions; however, only two aircraft were serviceable for flying missions. Unfortunately, not all pilots and booms were certified on the new pacer crag system. So when disaster struck on 9/11, the 171st only had two serviceable jets, each with very different navigation systems installed.

When the second plane struck New York City, the pro-superintendent of maintenance ordered the full-time staff to start putting the jets back together. He didn’t care how close they were to completing the model change. His order was to establish as many serviceable aircraft as possible. The normal maintenance staffing at the 171st was enough to facilitate the everyday mission, but it was not enough to meet the request of the pro-super. Fortunately, the guard stood ready. “Just like the fire fighters and police response in New York City, I think every national Guardsmen just went to the base,” said retired Lt. Col. Charles Tubbs, a pilot assigned to the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania Air National Guard (PAANG) during 9/11. “They didn’t know what else to do maybe, but if they could get there, they went to the base ready to do something.” Some left their families, others left school or even work. They knew that in America’s time of need, there was only one place they should be.

The 171st would go on to support a plan called Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids (SCATANA). The plan was never officially launched by name and had not been tested since 1962, but it was designed to ground every commercial aircraft in U.S. airspace. Air National Guard units all over the United States were launched by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to take control over the country’s airspace. U.S. Air Force F-16’s, F-15’s, KC-135’s, and KC-10’s are just some of the aircraft from various components of the Department of Defense that spent the next 12 hours chasing down every single commercial aircraft that could be seen on radar.

Maintenance at the 171st did not know about SCATANA. They did not know there were fighter jets all over the country that needed fuel. Maintenance only knew they had six aircraft off the installation, 13 more unserviceable aircraft parked on the ramp, and America was in need.

“I just got to school at Penn State (New Kensington campus) and walked into the courtyard when I heard what happened,” said Lt. Col. Brian Brock, current pilot and former Electrical Environmentalist at the 171st Air Refueling Wing. “I hurried over to a TV just in time to see the second plane hit the tower. I called the base and asked if I could come in.”

By the end of the day, the maintenance team had generated eight, serviceable, flying jets. The 171st would go on to participate in combat air patrols over New York City every single day for almost an entire year during the cleanup process.

As important as the flying missions were, it never would have been possible without the selfless, hard work of the men and women of the 171st Maintenance Group.