The radio in Maj. Billy Hutchison’s F-16 Fighting Falcon was almost as clear as the sky he was flying in that Sept. 11 morning. He was on the way back from an air-to-ground training mission in southeastern North Carolina, about 200 miles from Washington, D.C. All he knew was a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and he was to return to his squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., as quickly as possible.
“It was very, very quiet on the radio,” said Hutchison, a fighter pilot with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the District of Columbia Air National Guard on 9/11. “Normally, there is constant chatter. All the way I was coming back from down south, there was no radio chatter. No one was talking but the controller and me. I could hear no other aircraft.”
Once Hutchison was within radio range about halfway back to Andrews, he called the squadron’s supervisor of flying. The SOF, Maj. Dan Caine, had left to get in the air himself, so Lt. Col. Phil Thompson answered Hutchison’s call.
“You need to return to base, buster.” he said.
The rarely used code word meant to fly the plane as fast as it would go. Hutchison knew something serious had happened, although he didn’t learn about the terrorist attacks until after he landed and stepped inside his squadron headquarters.
Sept. 11, 2001 was expected to be a light flying day for the squadron. Many pilots had just returned from Red Flag, an advanced aerial combat training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., a few days earlier. At 8:36 a.m., just before American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, Hutchison led two other F-16s piloted by Captains Eric Haagenson and Lou Campbell for training at Air Force Dare Range, N. C. They weren’t scheduled to return until 10:45 a.m., more than an hour after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.
Hutchison sent Haagenson back early because he was so low on fuel and not able to continue with the remaining mission. He discovered the first plane had hit one of the twin towers when he and Campbell met an airborne tanker from Knoxville, Tenn., for refueling. While refueling, the tanker pilot told him of the crash and that air traffic control had ordered the tanker to land. Air traffic control then gave Hutchison a flight clearance to fly direct back to Andrews. Fifty miles south of his destination, Hutchison got his first view of what was happening.“In D.C., there’s nothing moving at all. So I begin climbing up as fast as I can at a high rate of speed. The controller has the target, then he loses the target. I pick up the target and I lose the target. This goes back and forth until finally, I no longer have the target at all. So I turn around and start coming back to D.C.” — Lt. Col. Billy Hutchison
“I could see a smoke plume that looked as though it was in the area of [Reagan National Airport],” said Hutchison, who is now a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard Bureau’s A-8 Program and Planning Directorate as an F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor and air sovereignty alert program manager at Joint Base Andrews.
“I asked the SOF what was going on, because I’m trying to find out where the smoke was coming from. He said, ‘Just keep coming.’”
As Hutchison landed, Thompson told him he needed him to get back in the air. Hutchison had already begun to brake, so he contacted the tower as he cleared the runway and taxied his jet quickly southbound on the Echo taxiway. Hutchison took off without his afterburner to conserve fuel and asked Washington Departure where they wanted him to go.
“The sky is yours,” they told him.
“I can’t remember his exact words of what he called what became my target,” Hutchison said. “We established the beginnings of him becoming my weapons director for me to run an intercept on a target.
“In D.C., there’s nothing moving at all. So I begin climbing up as fast as I can at a high rate of speed. The controller has the target, then he loses the target. I pick up the target and I lose the target. This goes back and forth until finally, I no longer have the target at all. So I turn around and start coming back to D.C.”
When he took off again, Hutchison was given a target of what was believed to be Flight 93, heading toward the Capitol. Hutchison flew north of the Potomac, but couldn’t find the target — by then it had already crashed near Shanksville, Pa. Because he was short on fuel, he headed back toward Andrews.
He then circled the Pentagon at a low altitude to get a better idea of the damage.
“As I come back, I’m basically in idle, descending toward the Pentagon, just sort of gliding,” Hutchison said. “I come all the way down to rooftop level and go around the Pentagon to take a look at what happened. No one had told me what had actually happened prior to this. After that, I’m basically out of gas, and I’m just waiting for the airplane to cough on its last drop of fuel.
“It really caught me off-guard to see what was going on, not knowing what damage had been done,” he said of what he saw on the ground at the Pentagon. “I knew there had to be many people killed because the place was full of people every day. I could see it was totally deadly because of the amount of smoke and flames that were coming up from the Pentagon. You couldn’t help but see how much destruction there was.”
As Hutchison landed, Cain and Capt. Brandon Rasmussen took off, along with Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville and his wingman, 1st Lt. Heather Penny, giving the squadron four F-16s over Washington.
The 121st FS wasn’t assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command air defense force at the time, so the “Capitol Guardians” weren’t on alert that morning. Hutchison’s F-16 had no active missiles on the three sorties he flew on 9/11, just a 20-mm Vulcan gun. A lot of questions were running through his mind as he received his instructions from the supervisor of flying. Once the 20-mm rounds were expended, the only tactic Hutchison, as well as the other ANG fighter pilots, would have had at his disposal to prevent a hijacked airliner from reaching the terrorists’ target was to ram it with his own F-16.
“I was wondering where the target was, but I also asked myself, ‘What am I going to do if I reach this target?’” he said. “‘How will I prevent this target from reaching D.C.?’ With only having bullets, the only thing I could do was attack the target in some way to disable it so it cannot fly.
“The entire time, it was kind of strange because we’d never practiced anything like this – how to attack a large target with only bullets, especially a civilian air carrier with women and children. You start focusing and compartmentalizing as a fighter pilot. You just have a mindset where you put everything else behind you, and you just start focusing on your mission. Once we’re engaged, you don’t have time to think about other things because it’s moving so quickly. You’re focusing on employing the aircraft.”
All the pieces finally came together when Hutchison went into his squadron after his first sortie, and he joined a group of people gathered around the TV. As he saw the replays of the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center and saw both towers collapse, he felt anger and a resolve as the realization of the attacks settled in.
“It just kind of pisses you off, once we heard what was going on and why,” he said. “From that point, the adrenaline rush continued to feed itself where I said to myself, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m going to do whatever’s necessary to prevent this from happening again.”
The sky was no longer clear, and the radios were alive with chatter, with F-16s in the skies above Washington from Andrews and Langley Air Force Base, Va., as well as from Richmond, Va., and Atlantic City, N.J. It was a stark contrast to the eerie quiet Hutchison noticed on his flight from North Carolina that morning.
“One thing I did reflect on was the great feeling I had with how everybody came together,” Hutchison said. “It didn’t matter what walk of life they were from, strangers were so nice to each other in the store, at the gas station, or in their neighborhoods. People just kind of joined together for a while, and I loved that feeling, for how short-lived it was.
“Prior to that day, being a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, I never thought that I would be defending my country in a combat air patrol over my own home.”