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Event: Lt Colonel Steven O'Brien, USAF 133
Air Lift Wing.
Type: Interview.
Special Access Issues:
Prepared by: Lisa Sullivan
Date: May 6, 2004
Team: 8
Participants (non-Commission): J ohn Inazu, USAF legal; Lt Col Paul Mahaney, 133
Air Lift Wing .
Participants (Commission): Miles Kara andLisa Sullivan
Locati~n: USAF Legal Department at Pentagon
SinceDecember 1976, O'Brien has been amember of theMinnesota Air National Guard.
On 9-11, hewas aircraft commander of Gofer 06, aC-130H3 aircraft.
Hewas contacted by theUSAF department of public affairs about his activities on9-11.
They authorized himto do aninterview with thecablechannel, theLearning Channel.
Hewas interviewed by theMinneapolis Tribune. Most recently, hewas requested to do
aninterview with Minnesota Public Radio. .
On 9-11, heand his crew wereinDC to ferry cargo back to Minnesota. Hewas returning
fromaguard lift mission intheVirgin Islands. They spent thenight ofSeptember io" at
Andrews Air Force Base andwereplanning onreturning to Minneapolis thenext day.
They were originally scheduled for a 10AM departure (did I hear 10AM correctly")
onthe 11th. This was inhis flight plan. When his mission was aborted, hewas cleared by
Command and Control to return "whenever they wereready." The eventually got off at
TheH3 carries no armament. They have some defensive systems, chaff andflares (?).
None were loaded that day. There areno armed C 130-H models that heis awareof.
There was no way hecould have doneanything to stopthose aircrafts that day.
Situational Awareness
As he and his crew were preparing to depart Andrews AFB, they had no knowledge of
the attacks on the World Trade Center in NY. As he departed the Washington DC area, it
was afrustrating feeling because they could have orbited over the Pentagon area.
The crew tuned the VHF radio to an AM station to learn more details about the events in
NYC once they were aboard the plane. The first thing he remembers hearing as they got
reception was areport that a second plane had hit the WTC. They were airborne at this
Delayed Take-Off
Flight strips from Andrews Tower for the C-l30: "1333 - wheels up." O'Brien
confirmed that time of take-off
O'Brien believes his take-off was delayed for three minutes at Andrews because a747
took off right before him. Controller held O'Brien because of weight turbulence issues.
There is aseparation criteria between aircrafts at take off. O'Brien remembers watching
the 747 "cranking up" at the same time as him. It got going and departed in an unusual
short amount oftime. He doesn't recall controllers showing the 747 any priority over the
Miles told O'Brien: "If you had not been delayed three minutes, you would have been in
the flight path of AAL 77, the plane that hit the Pentagon. .
Eye-Witness account of the plane hitting the Pentagon
Miles played the recording of O'Brien telling Washington (Approach or Center?) ATC
that the plane was "down." O'Brien confirmed that he meant the plane had crashed. He
acknowledged the choice of words made his meaning unclear.
(He added that once before he had witnessed aclassmate of his crash his plane on final
approach, so he'd seen the sight of ajet fuel explosion once before.)
On the recording, O'Brien identified the plane before it impacted the Pentagon as a757.
He did not know what airline company it was (he was not asked this by air traffic control
at the time). He commented that the aircraft is it approached was "unusuallybanked for a
very steep for aturn-It was between a 30-45 degree bank." He was looking at it from
higher up. There appeared to be ared stripe on the silver plane. He also told the
intelligence folks at Youngstown, Ohio this information,
His initial guess that the plane was a757 turned out to be correct. The red stripe was
probably the signature "American Airlines" designation on the body of the plane,
reflecting on the wing.
O'Brien was not inany communication with other dispatchers or controllers at thetime;
just Washington ATC. Hewas not onCommand Post frequency at Andrews. Things
werehappening fairly quickly andhedidnot have time, nor didhethink to initiate an
"off-call" (departure call) with Andrews Command Post. He saidthat inabusy airspace
such as over Washington, DC, apilot "really has to listen up ontheradios to ATC
because of thefairly precise vectors given by thecontrollers;"
His navigator on theteamthat day was Lt Col J oeDebito. TheUHF radio was used to
talk to military command. He doesn't recall military aircraft ontheradio.
TCAS: equipment that allows youto identify other transponder codes inthearea. That is
how heidentified other traffic. Henoticed the757 before theATC pointed out thefast
mover over theradio. Fromhis vantage point, it was fairly obvious who thecontroller
was talking about. The surprise camewhen thecontroller askedhimto identify the
aircraft for him. The controller is supposed to know more than apilot about theplanes in
his air space.
Was the757the only other aircraft hewas awareof onthe scenethat day?
Yes. O'Brien can't recall other aircrafts inthevicinity, such as ahelicopter that took off
thePentagon or two Bob Cats that wereat 17and21,000 feet. Because hedoes not
recall themdoes not mean they weren't there. Hehadno reason to take note of them.
The wAshingotn controller asked O'Brien to follow the 757in. O'Brien did so; there
was asignificant distance between them. Hewas trying to keep the aircraft insight. The
sun was low- pollutants - many factors contributed to thedifficulty inkeeping theplane
in sight.
Miles was ableto determine that theC-130was about two minutes behind theaircraft
(AAL 77).
O'Brien asked ATC for permission to orbitthe Pentagon after impact. ATC gavehima
heading of 2-7-0. 0'Brien did not want to fly through theplume of smoke;
ATC wereemphatic that heleavetheareaof thePentagon. Hewasn't going to arguewith
Hewas specifically asked if hewas armed, hewas not, didhe seeor was heaware of any
fighter aircraft inthearea, hedidnot. Hedidnot fireany kind of armament at either the
plane hewas following or thePentagon.
He first sighted AAL 77at 4,000feet. AAL 77 was alittlehigher up atthat point. AAL
77was descending rapidly. By thetime ATC asked O'Brien to ID him, hewas below
Hedoesn't remember hearing about thenational ground stopover theradio frequency.
When they left thePentagon site, heasked his crewmembers if they were ok to press on.
Wedecided to coritinueback to Minneapolis, MN. Thefirst controller at Cleveland
Center asked himifhe saw any traffic.. O'Brien didn't seeanother plane at that time.
The controller ordered O'Brien to make a90degree turn. Heexecuted it at 10:04AM
(Miles obtained time off of theradar). At that time, acrewmember inthetail of the
plane saw some smokeoff theright hand sideof theaircraft. O'Brien reported the
sighted to Cleveland Center and gavehimalocation. Thecontroller said hehad lost the
plane onradar inthe approximate location. It was confirmed rather quickly the smoke
was thecrash site ofUAL 93. The sight was about 20miles off the left wing of theC-
What was your awareness of other aircraft inthesky at that time?
Hevaguely remembers asmaller white aircraft at alower altitude (below 10,000feet). It
looked likeawhite business jet. Miles saidthebusiness jet was aFalcon J et itwas at
8,000feet. It did a360degree loop over thecrash site. \
Do you recall seeing any other military aircraft inyour flight path that day?
No, hedoes not. Nor did hefireany weapons at UAL 93 (as stated before, hedidnot
have themeans to do so).
He was handed-off to another Cleveland Center controller. Miles asked it theCleveland
Controller challenged him. O'Brien saidthecontroller wanted to know what hewas
doing intheair, but there was hesitancy inhis voice.
O'Brien had to divert his plane, so helanded inYoungstown, Ohio.
Shoot Down Order
O'Brien didnot know that at 10:05 AM, Dulles Tower/ inthe Washington areamade an
announcement over theradio frequency that all airplanes entering class B airspace will be
shot down.
When hewas told to turn to adifferent heading while over thePentagon, hevaguely
remembers thinking that if it was aterrorist incident they didn't want to haveto sort out
thegood guys fromthebad guys if they hadto take action.
Hewas interviewed bytheFBI, andhehad abasic debrief with theintelligence folks at
Radar Capabilities
"Skip paint" fromthetranscript of his interview - that was atranscription error - it was
meant to say skin paint inreference to theprimary radar.
There is afairly sophisticated radar intheH3model. Skinpaint mediummode is a
function ontheradar system. It will go out 20miles.
VAL 93was at 8,000feet infinal moments. VAL 93didnot comeup onhis radar.