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Aviation Blog

On 9/11, fighter pilots raced over Syracuse to take down the only private plane in the air in the US – syracuse.com

Challenger 604

Ted Limpert was a F-16 pilot during the attacks on the US. He was in the National Guard and in the air watching the skies. Aug.18, 2021. Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com
Syracuse, N.Y. — Ted Limpert and Dan Tester prepared themselves and their F-16s for battle.
They put on their flight suits. They primed the jet engines so they could take off with 90-seconds’ notice.
As the planes waited on the Syracuse tarmac, they held something that’s never there during flights on U.S. soil: live ammunition.
Earlier in the day, other pilots had flown the two planes to Fort Drum to arm them with short-range missiles. Then they’d be ready. For what? No one was sure.
It was 6 p.m. Sept. 11, 2001. The Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing was prepared for anything.
Limpert and Tester, part-time fighter pilots, took the evening shift.
Earlier that day, other fighter pilots with the unit were getting into their planes for a training run when they heard about the plane heading to Shanksville, Pa. They flew to head it off, armed only with training rounds in the planes’ gatling guns.
They never had to use them; passengers overtook the terrorists and the plane crashed when the fighter jets were still 20 minutes away.
Tester was a co-pilot with United then. He had flown those same routes. But not that week. The day before 9/11, Tester had returned from a tour in Saudi Arabia with the 174th.
On Sept. 11, it was his 3-year-old’s first day of preschool. He and his wife dropped the little boy off and then headed to breakfast at the Eggplant in DeWitt with their two-month-old baby.
It wasn’t until they stopped at Toys R Us on the way home that they found out what happened. Tester’s wife stopped in to get a new baby monitor. He stayed in the car with the baby. She came running out of the store to tell him planes had crashed into the World Trade Center – United planes.
He went home and immediately called the guard base in Syracuse. His flight gear was still in the car from his arrival home the night before. Rest up, they told him. You come in tonight to sit alert.
Limpert got the same call. The day, a Tuesday, was supposed to have been Primary Day in Syracuse. Limpert started his day at breakfast with Mayor Matt Driscoll, who was in a four-way Democratic primary for mayor. Limpert, a lawyer and common councilor then, heard about the first tower on his way back to his office on South Salina Street.
When they got to the base at 6 p.m., Tester and Limpert got a security briefing with details about the terrorists that hadn’t been in the news yet.
The entire airspace over the United States was shut down. They’d set up a darkened room with cots so the pilots could get some sleep. Tester was tired from his journey home the night before.
He lay on the cot with his eyes open.
Then a screeching alarm went off that neither man had ever heard. It was a Klaxon, a siren used only in wartime.
You’ve got to scramble, the commanding officer yelled to Limpert and Tester.
“We sprinted to our airplanes. We threw on the G-suit, helmet, parachute harness. I never put it on quicker in my life,” Tester said.
Then they screamed out, over Syracuse, at 600 mph, racing toward Rochester.
Tester thought of his own wife, who would have been putting the babies to bed. And then the other children below, whose homes he knew would vibrate from the force of the fighter jets above them.
What’s going on? “Maybe it was a terrorist who got an airplane and put bombs in it and was flying toward New York City, to bomb New York City,” Tester thought as he sped after Limpert.
Both men wore night-vision goggles. Tester remembers the absence of planes was eerily stunning.
Usually, with the goggles on, you could see the lights of planes lined up from Cleveland to Boston and then hundreds making their way to New York City. This night, it was just stars and moon and Limpert’s plane in front.
In his cockpit, the radio was mostly dead air. They were searching for an unidentified plane south of Rochester. It was the only plane flying in the U.S. except some fighter jets around the White House and the two F-16s from Syracuse.
They were flying at 13,000 feet. It took a little more than 10 minutes to catch up to the threat.
Both men were ready to shoot it down.
Then Limpert saw it.
It was a small, low-flying plane going only 100 mph.
“I was just thinking to myself this guy, if he’s a bad guy, he’s got his lights on so he’s not really hiding himself. So I’m thinking this is probably not anything that’s hostile,” Limpert said. “I get closer.”
Then, Tester sees, too. He feels relief. This is not a commercial airliner that somehow has a pilot or passengers on it. “I was so thankful it was not an airliner. I was like, ‘Oh, dear God. I don’t want to have to shoot down an airliner,” Tester said.
But he would have. Either man would have done what they had to do.
They didn’t need the missiles or the guns. But they needed to somehow get the attention of this plane that was flying so low and so slow. That’s a trick for an F-16: they are designed to hide, to fly fast and dive and spin at high speeds.
“It’s a little dangerous – coming that close to the ground at night and coming downhill,” Limpert said.
He didn’t want to crash his plane and he didn’t want to scare the other pilot and cause a crash. He didn’t know what frequency that pilot was, so he couldn’t radio him. The fighter pilots had to find a way to get the other pilot’s attention in the pitch-black sky.
The flares wouldn’t be enough. But the afterburner would work, Limpert thought.
“I’ll hot-nose him,” Limpert thought.
He told Tester to keep watch. Then he dove down toward the rogue plane, dipped underneath it, pulled up in front and kicked on the after burner. A streak of blue, yellow and white fire shot out 25 feet behind Limpert, into the little plane’s face.
Did you get his attention? Tester radioed to Limpert.
Oh, I think so, Limpert replied.
The little plane turned, immediately, to land on the nearest airstrip.
The fighter pilots’ radios crackled with the news: the local sheriff would meet the pilot.
They watched him land. The only other plane in the air for thousands of miles skidded onto a runway in Penn Yann, near the inky blue of Keuka Lake in the night.
The F-16s were too full of gas to land yet. They circled over Rochester for a while before heading back to Syracuse.
It turned out the pilot was a flight instructor. He had scheduled a night flight with a student and neither one had seen the news all day. They failed to check a log that would have told them the air space was closed over the entire U.S., Limpert said.
“I was mad. I was scared I was going to have to use some deadly force. We’re scaring the people of Syracuse,” Tester said.
The pilot was later brought up on charges by the Federal Aviation Administration, Limpert said. He had to testify. He felt bad for the pilot, especially when the FAA decided to charge him.
“It could have been anybody. It could have been me. Just not paying attention,” Limpert said. The flight instructor is still alive, but lives in a nursing home suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
A few weeks after 9/11, Tester and Limpert were back in their F-16s. For months, the pilots of the 174th flew circles over New York City for four hours at a time. They were keeping an eye on commercial air traffic coming in from overseas.
Sometimes, they’d have to escort airliners into JFK or Newark.
The piles of rubble where the towers once stood smoked for months.
It looked up at them, a reminder of why they were there.
They both stayed with the 174th for the decades that followed. They flew combat missions in the Middle East, including several in Iraq.
Before 9/11, it felt like the fighting in the Middle East was part of public policy. When the Twin Towers were smashed, that changed. Now, they were protecting their country from terrorism, Limpert said.
So much has changed since then. Both men have since retired from the guard, but they still fly. Limpert went on to be a judge. Tester kept flying commercially.
They still remember the moment they sped into the sky, ready for war on their own soil.
As he pictures the black night spread before him, the stunning absence of any other light, Tester still feels what he felt that night 20 years ago: “I get the chills.”
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