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Jets were minutes away from airliners

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Fighter jets were only eight minutes away from one of the hijacked airliners when it crashed into the World Trade Center, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said in newly released data.

Two other military jets were 12 minutes away when an airliner hit the Pentagon, according to NORAD's official timeline, released Tuesday.

President Bush had not authorized military pilots to shoot down any civilian planes until after the crash at the Pentagon, and military officials have questioned what fighters would have been able to do even if they had been in time. Nonetheless, the NORAD timeline quantifies how close they were to the scene of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

According to the timeline:

The Federal Aviation Administration alerted NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y., at 8:40 a.m. EDT that American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked after taking off from Boston en route to Los Angeles. At 8:43 a.m., the FAA notified NORAD that United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles had also been hijacked.

NORAD ordered two F-15 jet fighters into the air from Otis Air National Guard Base in Falmouth, Mass., at 8:46 a.m. At about that time, American Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center.

The F-15s were airborne at 8:52 a.m. At 9:02, as United Flight 175 struck the World Trade Center, the F-15s were eight minutes away, or 71 miles.

The FAA notified NORAD at 9:24 a.m. that a third jet, American Flight 77 bound from Washington to Los Angeles, had been hijacked. NORAD ordered two F-16 fighters from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to intercept the airliner.

The fighters were airborne at 9:30 a.m., but were 12 minutes, or 105 miles, away when the airliner struck the Pentagon.

After the Pentagon strike, Bush authorized fighters to shoot down any other aircraft that threatened targets in Washington.

United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco was by then over Pennsylvania, headed back to the East Coast. F-16s from Langley flew protective patterns over Washington after the Pentagon strike, but as Flight 93 headed toward them, it crashed outside Shanksville, Pa., at approximately 10:03 a.m., NORAD said.

Last week, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned Air Force Gen. Richard Myers about why the fighters hadn't been able to get airborne sooner. Myers, since confirmed as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that far fewer aircraft have been detailed to watch for attacking planes since the end of the Cold War.

NORAD monitors the skies over the United States and Canada for threats. Its operational center is inside Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and its headquarters are at Peterson Air Force Base, both near Colorado Springs, Colo.