EL PASO COUNTY — It’s a day filled with painful memories.
As thousands lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on American soil 20 years ago.
Miles away, as the tragedy was unfolding on the east coast, another scene was unfolding for military leaders in El Paso County.
For Gen. Ralph E. “Ed” Eberhart (Ret), then commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the beginning of his day started off business as usual.
“I had just returned from my morning run when I got a call on the hotline from Cheyenne Mountain,” Eberhart said.
When he learned there had been a hijacking on a commercial flight. He remembers a few thoughts running through his head.
“One it probably wasn’t a hijacking, two if it was, it was I hate to say a typical hijacking but hijackings like we’ve seen in the past,” Eberhart said.
He arrived at his office on then-Peterson Air Force Base when he turned on the news and saw the image of the first tower at the World Trade Center.
“Two things confused me, one it was day so visual flight rules,” Eberhart said, “I mean there's no way somebody could accidentally fly into the World Trade Center, secondly based on the debris, it wasn't a light airplane.”
“It didn’t take too long for us to realize this was not a random act, this was an attack,”
He picked up the phone and called the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, where commander Gen. Mike Gould (Ret.) was working with his team to respond.
“It didn’t take too long for us to realize this was not a random act, this was an attack,” Gould said.
The blast doors were closed at the operations center, Gould says this is the first time they were closed over the fear of a threat. Something that had been practiced over the years.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal for those in the mountain because our training kicked in, but it did heighten our awareness that this wasn’t an exercise, this was for real,” Gould said. “For the first time since Pearl Harbor, we were actually being attacked in our own country, and I think that realization is what really hit everybody, that this is changing the world.”
Communication during crisis
With NORAD’s creation after the Cold War, many practices were put in place in defense of those scenarios.
At the time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) primarily had control of airspace across the continental United States.
“We had phone numbers for the FAA, but we didn’t have a hotline,” Gould said. He added throughout the response they kept the phone line open to the FAA, they never hung up the phone.
Over the years, radars for the U.S. were retired at NORAD, “we assumed anything originating in the United States was a law enforcement issue, which is a reasonable assumption,” Eberhart said.
Then came the decision to ground all aircraft, many flights coming from overseas were redirected to Canada. Some were redirected to Alaska.
“I'll go to my grave believing that as a result of that we might have saved another hijacked airplane or two, I'm not sure,” Eberhart said.
Response in the years following
As commander of NORAD, Eberhart spent the following days and years developing the nation’s response.
Some of the discussions included whether or not to reopen Reagan National Airport.
“My argument was, then you let the terrorists decide what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do, don’t let ‘em decide that- we decide what we’re going to do,” Eberhart said.
One of the big concerns also included securing cockpits, and adding all of the security precautions now commonplace at airports across the country.
The general found himself in congressional hearings, many times with questions over what training exercises did or did not occur before September 11th.
“I also think it would’ve been somewhat ironic, I can’t imagine myself going to the President, or the Secretary of Defense and saying 'we want to practice shooting down airliners' in case they might be hijacked. I think they would’ve gotten a new commander right away,” Eberhart said.
For Eberhart, the changes made in the years to come, including the creation of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOMM) , which coordinates the defense of threats made to the United States, are important to the country’s security.
“The things that I asked myself that day and I asked myself the next three years, the year we were standing up NORTHCOMM and the two years commander is first of all why haven’t we been attacked again- it tells me we were doing something right,” Eberhart said.
A commitment to serve
Lt. Gen Mike Gould was a relatively new Brigadier General on Sept.11th.
“Changes that happened on that day served as sort of a reinvigorating of my commitment to serve,” Gould said.
He later went on to serve as Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. The lessons from that day are things he worked to instill in the next generation of military leaders.
“One of the key lessons that kept coming back to me was the importance of training and readiness,” Gould said.
One thing that stands out - the teamwork amongst the military during the response.
“I remember General Eberhart's leadership very clearly when he finally did come to the mountain,” Gould said, “One of the things he emphasized was for everyone to take copious notes, knowing we would be questioned for years.”
As the war continued on for decades overseas, Eberhart looks back at the events of that day and recalls saying the war would make other wars looked short.
For him, it’s important not to declare victory.
“It’s because we’ve taken the fight to the enemy, it’s been an away game, we don’t want it to be a home game,” Eberhart said, “we need to stay the course, we can’t just continue to do what we’ve done in the past because we’ve become too predictable.”