The Bush administration said shortly after Sept. 11 that the president had approved orders to shoot down United Airlines Flight 93, but ABCNEWS has learned that even more drastic measures would had to have been taken to intercept the flight, possibly including a suicide mission.
ABCNEWS obtained the information for its special report, "9/11: Moments of Crisis."
With the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon ablaze, the military zeroed in on Flight 93 — realizing the plane was still in the air and heading straight for Washington DC.
The closest fighter jets were two F-16's that happened to be on a training mission near Detroit. They were sent to intercept the United flight.
"We started receiving reports from the fighters that were heading to intercept," said U.S Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, deputy directory of operations at the National Military Command Center. "The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] kept us informed with their time estimates as the aircraft got closer and closer."
But there was a major problem according to U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Marr, commander of the Northeast Air Defense Sector, in Rome, N.Y.:
"The real scary part is that those guys are up there on a training mission; they don't have any weapons on board they can use," he said. "The first question that came from my mission crew commander, the individual that is in charge of the operations force: 'Well, sir, what are they going to do?' I said we're going to put them as close to that airplane as we could, in view of the cockpit and convince that guy in that airplane that he needs to land."
And if the plane wouldn't land, commanders were well aware that without weapons on board, the fighter pilots might have no choice but to slam their own jets into the hijacked plane.
"As a military man, there are times that you have to make sacrifices that you have to make," said Marr.
The F-16 pilots never had to make that suicidal decision, since Flight 93 crashed before the fighter jets were able to close in on it. However, Marr said he expected the military pilots to bring down Flight 93 by whatever means necessary.
Officials believe passengers made the ultimate sacrifice, uniting to storm the hijackers and forcing the aircraft to crash into a field in western Pennsylvania, instead of Washington. All 44 passengers and crew died.