'Air war over America': General Robinson recalls 'firsts' of 9/11

Retired Brig. Gen. Ben Robinson speaks to members of the Logistics Officer Association during a luncheon at the Tinker Club last Thursday.  He spoke about his experiences as the 552nd Air Control Wing commander and about the events at Tinker Air Force Base and with AWACS during 9/11 and the time thereafter.

Retired Brig. Gen. Ben Robinson speaks to members of the Logistics Officer Association during a luncheon at the Tinker Club last Thursday. He spoke about his experiences as the 552nd Air Control Wing commander and about the events at Tinker Air Force Base and with AWACS during 9/11 and the time thereafter.

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE - Okla. -- After a second airliner slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Brig. Gen. Ben T. Robinson heard a phrase at the 552nd Air Control Wing's headquarters that he never expected to hear.

"Air war over America."

"We'd never heard a term like that -- never used a term like that," said the retired general who was the commander of the 552nd ACW that day. "We were fighting an air war in America from a home station. That had never been done before."

General Robinson spoke last week at the Tinker Club on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, an attack that plunged Tinker AFB into a series of firsts for the base and the nation, he said.

The 552nd Senior Battle Staff was activated almost immediately after the second collision, he said. The first task was to assess unit readiness, availability, planes' locations -- all the information needed to know "where to start from."

The 552nd ACW had 33 planes spread across the globe. Their readiness ranged from a single AWACS in Seattle that the Boeing Co. used for testing to five Sentrys deployed with Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq, General Robinson said.

As the 552nd ACW readied for war, another first for the nation unfolded with the FAA's declaration of SCATANA -- "Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids." The order grounded all aircraft flying in the United States, he said. The FAA even tried to persuade a 552nd AWACS plane flying near Goldsboro, N.C., to stand down.

After some radio debates between the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command about whether the AWACS was allowed to refuse the order, General Robinson said the aircraft commander eventually declared "due regard," meaning the aircraft was flying on its own. It was soon ordered to fly to the New York City/Washington, D.C., area to guard the East Coast, he said.

It also led to another, lesser-known first.

"This was the aircraft commander's first ride as an aircraft commander," he said.

"Imagine giving the kids the keys: 'Go out and have a good time, don't get engaged in any wars, call me if you have any problems.'"

Back at Tinker, the 552nd launched an aircraft to guard Air Force One and President George W. Bush.

An AWACS plane that had been scheduled for training near what was then McChord Air Force Base, Wash., received authorization to issue a "shoot to kill order."

It was "the first time in the history of the United States of America we have an AWACS airplane with an order that says we can tell a fighter to shoot to kill an airliner," he said. "That's historic."

At about the same time, 1st Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold told General Robinson that at least 16 cities could be targets in more possible attacks.
More AWACS were needed, he said. The time at Tinker between the New York attacks and noon were a "pure chaos" of getting as many planes as possible in the air, he said.

"We didn't really know where the targets were," he said. "Chicago, Los Angeles -- anything that had big buildings and a lot of people seemed to be a target."
The mission transformed in a few days into Operation Noble Eagle, a military-wide order to guard and secure the homeland.

"We were just launching airplanes as fast as we could get them," General Robinson said. "Our maintainers, God bless 'em, were working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Aircrews ... were flying some incredible hours: 16-, 17-, 18-hour flights."

General Robinson said 552nd maintainers scrambled to return AWACS planes to the air in no more than four hours after they landed. He then showed the audience a photograph of a sign placed in front of the forward landing gear of a serviced Tinker plane: "Cocked and ready."

General Robinson noted another historic event in October 2001: the first activation of NATO's Article 5, which calls on all defense treaty members to defend another under attack. Eight hundred and thirty North Atlantic Treaty Organization crew members from 13 nations answered the call, he said.

"We're talking about the first deployment of foreign forces on American soil during a time of war since the Revolutionary War," he said.

He also recalled the pride he felt in a small moment when he delivered cookies baked by his wife to civilian maintainers with the Reserve's 513th Air Control Group. He told one man to share them with the "active duty guys."

He said the man replied, "Today, we are all active duty."