Point MC-7: The Time of General Shelton’s Return to his Command
General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11, was scheduled to fly to Europe on September 11, 2001, to attend a NATO meeting in Hungary. He was to be accompanied by several people, including Lieutenant Commander Suzanne Giesemann, who served as an aide and would later write about this day in a book.1 In Shelton’s absence, General Richard Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was to be the acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.2
At “around 7:30” AM,3 General Shelton left Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) aboard a modified C-135 (the military version of a Boeing 707) nicknamed “Speckled Trout,” which was usually reserved for the Air Force chief of staff.4
About 100 minutes later (hence at about 9:10 AM) Shelton was informed of the second WTC attack,5 after which he gave the order to have his plane turned around. Flights from overseas, however, were not being allowed to enter US airspace,6 and Speckled Trout was initially denied re-entry.7
- Shelton next learned that the Pentagon had been hit and, being confident that his plane would not be stopped, ordered the pilot to return to Andrews AFB.8 Shortly thereafter Shelton’s plane received clearance.9
- On the way back to the Pentagon, Shelton’s plane flew over Manhattan.10 He wrote: “We flew directly over what had been the Twin Towers, just a few minutes after they collapsed.”11 Then the plane “vectored directly back to Andrews”12 and – Shelton’s aide Giesemann stated – arrived there within an hour.13
- At Andrews, Shelton was met by an entourage of patrol cars and motorcycle cops “who escorted us, lights flashing and sirens blaring, through the eerily deserted streets of the city all the way to the Pentagon,” where he went to his office and was updated by General Myers and others.14
- He then examined the damage to the outside of the Pentagon, after which he went to the National Military Command Center (NMCC) inside the Pentagon,15 where he arrived – as General Myers reported – at 5:40 PM.16
There are four serious problems with Shelton’s account of his movements that day.
First, the timeline implied by Shelton’s account is implausible.
- The second WTC tower came down at 10:28 AM, so if Shelton’s plane flew over the Twin Towers “just a few minutes after they collapsed,” then it must have flown over New York City before 11:00.
- And if, as Giesemann stated, Shelton’s plane landed at Andrews “within an hour of passing New York City,”17 it should have arrived there by roughly 12:00 noon, and the escorted drive should have brought them to the Pentagon by approximately 12:30.
- Upon arriving back in the USA, Shelton was again the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.18 At 12:30 there would have been many decisions still to be made. Indeed, following the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, he should have, fearing further attacks, gone immediately to the NMCC. Yet, he wrote, he went first to his office and then to the crash site.19
- He certainly should not have waited until 5:40 PM, which, according to General Myers, is when Shelton arrived at the NMCC.20
- The idea that Shelton spent five hours at the Pentagon before going to the NMCC is implausible. Indeed, it is contradicted by Myers’ statement that at 5:40 Shelton had “just returned” from the aborted European flight.21
Second, Shelton’s account of his return trip is contradicted by the Andrews AFB flight tracking strips for his flight (which were obtained through a FOIA request22).
- The flight tracking strip indicates that Speckled Trout – code named “Trout 99”23 – landed at Andrews at 4:40 PM.24
- Why would Shelton and Giesemann indicate that they arrived at Andrews at roughly noon – almost five hours earlier than Speckled Trout’s actual arrival time?
Third, the accounts by Shelton and Giesemann, which indicate that they arrived at the Pentagon by roughly 12:30, are contradicted by one of Giesemann’s statements:
- Although her description of the drive from Andrews to the Pentagon parallels Shelton’s, even saying that the streets were “eerily” empty,25 Giesemann also wrote: “No one spoke as we sped across the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, usually jammed with cars at this late afternoon hour.”26
- This “late afternoon” statement is, of course, supported by the flight tracking strip.
A fourth problem is that Shelton’s account is contradicted even more severely in a September 2011 article describing the account of the Speckled Trout flight navigator, Col. Rob Pedersen.27 According to this article:
- “The first three hours of Shelton’s flight went smoothly” until the BBC reported on the WTC strikes.
- After Shelton gave his order to turn around: “The airplane did turn, but it didn’t head directly back to the United States. For the first couple of hours, the crew didn’t have clearance to return – or a destination – ‘so we went into a holding pattern near Greenland,’ Pedersen said. . . . Speckled Trout made it back to Canada, but it was initially denied entry to US airspace. The crew started holding once again.”28
- “It wasn’t easy getting a security clearance, even for such a high-profile passenger. . . . ‘[We couldn’t] say over the radio who [we were] carrying because they don’t have secure communications at the FAA. . . . It took a little bit of time . . . before they let us back in,’ he [Pedersen] said.”29
- “[The] flight back to Andrews took [the crew] directly over New York City. . . . The fly-by was quick. . . . By early afternoon, they had made their way to Andrews.”30
- Although Pedersen’s account contains some obviously false elements – including his statement that the flight returned “by early afternoon”31 – his story, according to which Shelton’s plane was forced into a holding pattern near Greenland and again over Canada, would explain why it did not return to Andrews until 4:40.
The account provided by both Shelton and Giesemann, according to which they were able to return to the Pentagon without delay – evidently reaching it by roughly 12:30 PM – is contradicted by their plane’s flight navigator, by the flight tracking strip, by General Richard Myers, and by one of Giesemann’s own statements. If, as it appears, Shelton and Giesemann falsely claimed that they returned almost five hours earlier than they actually did, it must be asked: Why?
And if, as appears to be the case, Shelton returned to Andrews at 4:40 PM, why was the aircraft of the top US military commander delayed for almost five hours on this critical day?
Any new investigation should ask these two questions.
1. Suzanne Giesemann, Living a Dream: A Journey from Aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11 to Full-Time Cruiser (Paradise Cay Publications, 2008).
2. General Hugh Shelton, with Ronald Levinson and Malcolm McConnell, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 432. General Richard B. Myers, Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security (New York: Threshold Editions, 2009), 10.
3. “At around 7:30 we were wheels up” (Shelton, Without Hesitation, 431). The flight tracking strip (see note 22 below) indicated that the plane took off at 7:09 AM. (The difference between the two times might simply reflect two different ways of reporting the departure time: 7:09 may have been when the plane was given the signal to begin moving, whereas 7:30 might have been when the plane was “wheels up.”)
4. Shelton usually flew in a VIP Boeing 757 often used by the vice president, but it was unavailable (Shelton, Without Hesitation, 431; Giesemann, Living a Dream, 21).
5. Shelton, Without Hesitation, 431; Giesemann, Living a Dream, 22-23. (Shelton said he was told of the first WTC attack “about an hour and a half into the flight” and then learned of the second strike “ten minutes later” Without Hesitation, 431.)
6. Myers, Eyes on the Horizon, 10.
7. Shelton’s executive director, Col. Doug Lute, told him: “We’ve been denied permission to return. All US airspace has been shut down.”
8. Shelton said: “Doug, tell the pilot we’ll ask for forgiveness instead of permission, so have him turn us around. We’re going home.” Shelton added: “I knew there was no way they were going to shoot down a 707 with UNITED STATES AIR FORCE emblazoned along the side” (Shelton, Without Hesitation, 432). Giesemann wrote: “Every other passenger plane across the nation now sat on the ground, but with the uniformed leader of the United States military aboard, our aircraft flew on unimpeded” (Living a Dream, 24).
9. “Ten minutes later they called back with confirmation that we had been officially cleared to fly through the shutdown airspace” (Shelton, Without Hesitation, 433). A draft FAA document said: “Gen. Shelton, upon hearing of the events ordered his plane to return to Washington, but was initially denied this request by air traffic controllers who had already begun diverting inbound oceanic traffic for non-U.S. destinations. Minutes later, however, clearance was granted and Gen. Shelton’s plane reversed course and headed for Washington” (“The Air Traffic Organization’s Response to the September 11th Terrorist Attack: ATC System Assessment, Shutdown, and Restoration,” 21 March 2002, Appendix G, “Key Personnel Movement,” G-1).
10. Immediately after the previous quotation, Shelton wrote: “One of our pilots stuck his head out of the cockpit and announced, ‘Sir, our flight path will take us right over Manhattan, if you’d like to come up here about ten minutes from now’” (Shelton, Without Hesitation, 433).
11. Ibid.; Giesemann wrote: “I stared at the place where the twin towers should have been” (Living a Dream, 26).
12. Shelton Without Hesitation, 432.
13. Within an hour of passing New York City, we landed at Andrews Air Force Base” (Giesemann, Living a Dream, 27).
14. Shelton, Without Hesitation, 434. See also Giesemann, Living a Dream, 27-28.
15. Shelton, Without Hesitation, 434.
16. Myers, Eyes on the Horizon, 159.
17. Giesemann, Living a Dream, 27.
18. Shelton wrote: “Until I crossed back into the United States airspace, all the decisions would be Myers’ to make in conjunction with Secretary Rumsfeld and the president” (Shelton, Without Hesitation,, 432).
19. Ibid., 434.
20. “At 5:40 PM, the Chairman, Gen. Hugh Shelton, having just returned from an aborted flight to Europe, arrived in the NMCC” (Myers, Eyes on the Horizon, 159).
21. See previous note.
22. The AndrewsAFB flight tracking strips for September 11, 2001, were obtained by the 911 Working Group of Bloomington, Indiana (data.911workinggroup.org), by means of a FOIA request made by Kevin Ryan and two other members. A tool for reading flight tracking strips is available online.
24. Flight tracking strips are in Zulu time, which is four hours ahead of US Eastern time. The flight track strip for Andrews AFB on September 11, 2001, shows that Trout 99 landed at 2040, i.e., 4:40 PM Eastern time (just as it shows that this flight took off at 1109, i.e., 7:09 AM Eastern time). We are grateful to Kevin Ryan and Matthew Everett for providing this information.
25. Shelton, Without Hesitation, 434; Giesemann, Living a Dream, 27.
26. Giesemann, Living a Dream, 27.
27. An interview-based section on Lt. Col. Rob Pedersen constitutes one of 10 sections of “Airmen on 9/11,” Air Force Magazine, September 2011. Pedersen is now executive officer for the Air Force Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Division at the Pentagon (61).
31. Although Pedersen states that this flight made it to Andrews “by early afternoon,” the flight tracking strip says that it landed at 4:40 PM (which cannot be considered “early afternoon”). Also, Pedersen states that the Speckled Trout crew “was wheels up around 5 AM,” whereas the flight tracking strip shows that this did not occur until after 7:00 (see note 22 above). These errors do not, however, ruin the credibility of Pedersen’s account: Ten years later, he might have forgotten the exact departure and return times, about which he would have had no decisions to make. But as the navigator, he would have had the task of planning the return route, so his memories about this feature of the trip would have been firmly fixed in his memory.
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