“There’s something going on in New York,” the controller said. “I think you guys need to get back to your base.”
Richard confirmed what the controller told him on his squadron operations frequency, and soon his radio was buzzing with communications.
“It sounds like we are at war,” Richard said to his wingman as he turned his formation of F-15s from the Whiskey 105 training area over the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Long Island, N.Y., and headed back to Otis Air National Guard Base, Mass.
As a 102nd Fighter Wing pilot, Richard was no stranger to working alerts. The wing at Otis ANGB under Air Combat Command had been on alert for more than 35 years and worked closely with the Northeast Aerospace Defense Command and the Northeast Air Defense Sector, now the Eastern Air Defense Sector. During the Cold War, F-15s from Otis were regularly sent to intercept and escort Soviet bombers that drifted up and down the East Coast. Since the Cold War, they were used mainly for drug interdiction missions. The last three scrambles Richard responded to were for a U.S. Coast Guard jet, Navy destroyer and a fish-spotting airplane.
On Sept. 11, Richard was on his way to a routine Defensive Counter Air Mission in the Whiskey 105 area. Instead, his new orders were to intercept and identify aircraft above New York, and if they didn’t respond, be prepared to shoot down.
“I flew for seven hours, but it seemed like I flew for 45 minutes,” Richard said. “What I remember most is the picture of arriving over New York and having the whole lower Manhattan covered in smoke and haze, and thinking that we thought the towers had fallen over on their side, and there had been massive casualties. For the next six or seven hours, we were just running intercepts on planes and helicopters they needed to identify.”
Richard, now a lieutenant colonel and chief of combat operations for the 102nd Air Operations Group at Otis, included many of his observations of Sept. 11 in his business leadership book, “Scrambled – The Secrets of High Pressure Leadership I Used on Sept. 11, 2001. The recently released 10-year edition of Richard’s book includes a forward by 9/11 witness Gil Sanborn, who was nearby in World Financial Center 3 during the World Trade Center attacks and is now an investment banker in New York.
He also shares how the three axioms of the fighter pilot were put into action above the nation’s skies that day. Those axioms are: Speed is Life, Lose Sight, Lose Fight, and Check Six.
“With the first one, our mission was to get airborne as quickly as possible,” Richard said. “I remember thinking at the time I didn’t know what I was going to be able to do, but I really just wanted to get up in the air because that’s where I needed to be.
“With Lose Sight, Lose Fight, there was just so much going on that morning, and we had so many bogus intelligence reports that it really made us focus on our objective at hand, which was regaining air superiority over the country. Check Six was just that mutual support thing. We really worked together well, even though we were in different aircraft, to sort of get the big picture, which was what NORAD needed from us.”
For the first five years after 9/11, Richard wouldn’t look at anything related to the terror attacks. He didn’t even learn until after the fifth anniversary that he lost a colleague at United Airlines that day. Now that 10 years have passed, he is mostly concerned that Americans don’t forget what happened a decade ago, and for the troops still in harm’s way. He also thinks back to his thoughts when the fighter pilots were told they needed to be ready to “take further action” if the pilot didn’t respond after they were intercepted.
“We all knew what that meant,” Richard said. “I can remember vividly thinking I’d been in combat before, but I didn’t want to do what they were asking me to do. But when I got to Manhattan and saw the destruction, a switch flipped inside me, and I told myself, ‘You have to now. You don’t have a choice. This has to stop. Period.”