Command Cells Speed Airspace Reactivation

by William B. Scott
Aviation Week and Space Technology
June 10, 2002


Once all civil aircraft had been cleared from U.S. skies following the Sept. 11 attacks, a small group of Air Force reservists and FAA air traffic experts started working on the inevitable next phase--how to restore the National Airspace System.

Without question, many aircraft and people--starting with President Bush--had valid needs to fly, but all the rules had changed. Getting a civilian airliner or an emergency-services helicopter to its intended destination was no longer a matter of simply filing a flight plan and requesting FAA clearance. First, hundreds of military fighters, tankers, cargo transports and radar warning and control aircraft had to be given whatever airspace and priority they needed to protect the nation. Next, dozens of other aircraft--government and civilian--also had critical missions to perform and needed to get airborne.

Sorting out who absolutely needed to fly from those who were simply inconvenienced ultimately fell to the national Defense Dept./FAA Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC), a small office manned by military reservists and FAA specialists. Colocated with the FAA's national nerve center--the Air Traffic Control System Command Center here--the cell was established after the 1990-91 Persian Gulf war to facilitate movements of military aircraft in U.S., Pacific and European airspace. Reservists assigned to ATSC have strong backgrounds in fighter, tanker, AWACS and strategic airlift operations. Many are also airline pilots.

That experienced cadre, backed by the right equipment, paid dividends on Sept. 11, when the cell quickly became a key communications node during the military's response to terrorist attacks (AW&ST June 3, p. 48). A secure Internet (Siprnet) terminal and other hardware had been installed only six weeks earlier, greatly enhancing the movement of vital information.

"Because we had that [Siprnet] terminal in this building, we could immediately look at Norad and [Defense Dept.] plans as they evolved; filter, package and format them, then walk out to the [FAA] National Operations Manager--who had control of the entire National Airspace System--and give him current visibility into . . . fighter, tanker and support aircraft activities. It cut down our response time tremendously," said USAF Col. Brian P. Meenan, who was ATSC director at the time. Meenan has since turned command of the cell over to Col. Dale G. Goodrich.

Three officers were in the ATSC when terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Col. John Czabaranek, Meenan's deputy, was directing the cell that morning, backed by Lt. Col. Michael-Anne Cherry--the only full-time reservist assigned to ATSC--and Maj. Kevin Bridges. They quickly established several communications "bridges," essentially open teleconference calls that linked key players, such as Norad's command center, area defense sectors, key FAA personnel, airline operations and the NMCC.

After all aircraft were ordered to land, clearing U.S. skies, "we started asking questions about how to bring it all back up again," said Bridges. "We knew we had to get military, law enforcement and fire fighters back in the air soon, to defend and protect [the nation]."

A decision by Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander-in-chief of Norad--in concert with the NMCC, FAA command center and other military commanders--greatly eased that transition. Rather than implement a full Scatana (Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids) plan, which dictates airspace rules during an air defense emergency, a limited version was activated. A directive from Norad's Cheyenne Mountain command center stated, "Scatana is not implemented--but we're using prioritization codes within Scatana for flight approval."

"That one sentence cleared up what could have been a lot of confusion over managing the nation's airspace. Our cell was able to then get the word out, saving a lot of time and effort," Czabaranek said.

Found in Appendix 17 of Federal Air Regulation Order 7610.4, the 1970s-vintage Scatana plan is now considered an outdated document governing control of North American airspace during an attack. Its original purpose was to allow navigation aids to be shut down quickly, ensuring attacking aircraft or missiles could not use them to hit North American targets. However, with today's ubiquitous use of GPS-based navigation systems, that part of the plan is largely irrelevant. An updated version more appropriate to post-Sept. 11 operations is in work. Still, elements of the Scatana plan were helpful in establishing priorities for flight operations.

"The NMCC, in conjunction with Norad, determined they would allow military flights that met Scatana prioritization codes one and two," Czabaranek said. "For about three days, every flight--other than military, law enforcement, medevac and fire fighters--had to come through this office for flight approval. [Later,] flight approval authority was expanded to other entities."

For the next three months, the ATSC operated round-the-clock, seven days a week. An Emergency Operations Room was set up on the cell's conference table, staffed by 15-20 people. The FAA donated telephones, assorted equipment and about 10 people to help, then the phones started ringing--and didn't stop for weeks. The cell screened requests for flights, confirmed identities of solicitors, then sought approvals from the NMCC and Norad.

On Sept. 11, military flights approved under Scatana's Wartime Air Traffic Priority List covered flights by U.S. and Canadian top government officials; "aircraft engaged in active continental defense missions"; airborne command and control aircraft; forces supporting and being deployed for combat operations, and search-and-rescue missions. Other issues demanding immediate ATSC attention included:

Four airline and National Transportation Safety Board "go teams" responsible for securing crash sites in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Aircraft fighting several major fires in California.

Treasury Dept. movement of funds. Because nobody knew whether more large-scale attacks were imminent and where they might occur, Treasury officials requested approval for 200 flights to distribute about $25 billion in cash among major financial institutions.

Movement of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Secret Service and Nuclear Regulatory Commission teams.

Helicopters to evacuate workers from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico as hurricanes approached.
In the midst of this flurry of requests, ATSC leaders had to start preparing for possible mass military movements to parts unknown. "Our internal focus was: What is the military posture? Will there be forces deployed overseas? Will we need to build 'air bridges' to move 200,000 troops to [wherever] our leadership might want to project force? We were looking across a spectrum we'd never seen before," Meenan said.

These questions prompted a division of cell resources--one group handling near-term airspace issues, and a second "looking ahead seven days."

Over the next few weeks, less-pressing flight requests were handled as lower priority movements became feasible, and approval authority was dispersed when it made sense. For example, the Defense Contract Management Agency was allowed to approve F-16 test flights from the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth. Military functional check flights were permitted to get aircraft under maintenance back into service.

The cell was involved in helping the FAA define Temporary Flight Restriction procedures, wrote Notices to Airmen and tried to foresee problems. Before commercial flights resumed, for instance, the cell helped formulate protocols for fighter/ air transport intercepts. "We knew TCAS would have an impact on intercept procedures. Fortunately, we had the knowledge to anticipate problems and try to address them internally," Meenan said.

In short, the cell did whatever was necessary to help the FAA and Pentagon merge military and civil flight operations under trying circumstances. "It was a very intense few days, with everybody working 12-14-hr. shifts," a cell officer said. "People responded operationally to a situation that had never been anticipated."


Copyright 2002

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