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ARLINGTON, Va. — Within 15 minutes of learning that an aircraft had crashed into a building in New York City, armed fighter aircraft were airborne over cities across America, with pilots prepared to shoot down any threat, said Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

In a meeting with reporters in Detroit on Thursday, Keating said the aircraft stayed airborne “for the better part of the afternoon, until we were completely satisfied that it wasn’t a terrorist incident.” He also leads the U.S. Northern Command, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to handle homeland defense.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, NORTHCOM and NORAD have set up an airborne defense system of fighters that are on “strip alert” at “more than six and less than 30 bases” across the U.S. and Canada, Keating told a Stripes reporter, patched into the meeting via telephone.

When NORTHCOM and NORAD commanders learned that a small plane had hit the tower in New York City, “our thoughts went back to 2001,” Keating said.

“I called our command center and said, ‘Launch the fighters.’”

Dozens did, although Keating could not give the precise number.

“They were airborne in about 15 minutes, plus or minus,” he said, flying in pairs and patrolling corridors such as the Detroit-Windsor metropolitan area.

Keating said he is one of “a very small number — the number is sensitive” of NORTHCOM officials who has been granted shoot-down authority by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.

Meanwhile, Keating said, he spoke to Rumsfeld “several times” during the course of Wednesday’s scramble to discuss its progress.

Keating said that NORTHCOM and NORAD officials are now doing a “hot wash,” or review, of the scramble to see what worked and might have been done better.

“At first blush … I think it went pretty well,” Keating said.

He did say that communication could have been improved, particularly with state and local officials.

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