For F-15 pilot, 9/11 a day of what-ifs

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Almost a decade after the nightmare of 9/11, former fighter pilot Tim Duffy still fields the questions:

What took you so long?

Why didn't you get to lower Manhattan from your base on Cape Cod in time to at least protect the gashed and ablaze World Trade Center from being struck by a second airliner?

"I get that all the time," Duffy said Friday during a visit to the Sonoma County aircraft museum that's become guardian to the retired supersonic F-15 he flew that September morning in 2001.

Trim and prematurely gray at 49, the combat veteran said he's concluded after 10 years of review and what-ifs that nothing could have been done to substantially change the timeline of one of the nation's most ghastly and heartbreaking days.

It was 8:19 a.m. when a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 furtively reported by cell phone that she believed the Boeing 767 out of Boston had been hijacked. Duffy was at Massachusetts' Otis Air National Guard base when he was alerted to the apparent hijacking just after 8:30. He and fellow pilot Daniel Nash became airborne in F-15s at 8:52, unaware that Flight 11 had slammed into the North Tower six minutes earlier. The pilots violated military regulations by exceeding Mach 1.4 — about 1,000 miles per hour — but even so arrived over New York City after the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower at 9:03.

"I wish things could have turned out differently," Duffy said at a Pacific Coast Air Museum picnic table a few hundred feet from his former fighter. "But I think we did right. I can't think of anything I would have done differently."

Another question he's often asked: Had he arrived over Manhattan in time to intercept the second airliner, would he have shot it down?

Duffy, a resident of greater Boston who's been married almost 25 years and has five children, said he certainly would have — had he received an order to do so.

But the fact is, he said, that amid all the chaos and uncertainty about what was happening that morning, he had been given no such order. So he could not have shot down Flight 175 even had the opportunity presented itself.

Though his F-15 was armed that morning with six missiles and 940 rounds of 20 millimeter ammunition capable of being cannon-fired at 100 shots per second, Duffy could not have fired without a direct order. He said he'd have tried to harass the hijackers at the controls but he knows they would have continued on to their target.

"You would have seen me right beside that plane as it went into the building, because I didn't have the authority to shoot," he said.

It seems to make Duffy's blood run cold to imagine having arrived over Manhattan in time to have intercepted Flight 175, which carried 51 passengers, nine crewmembers and five hijackers, and to have been given the order to destroy it.

"That would have ruined my life," Duffy said. "I would have had to do it. I shouldn't say it would have ruined my life; it would have been a very difficult thing to do, let's put it that way."

In 2001, Duffy was a full-time United Airlines pilot and part-time lieutenant colonel with the Air National Guard. Now retired from United, he's now a colonel with the Guard and senior director of global information-technology outsourcing for Siemens.

He suggested that people who've criticized the military since 9/11 for not having arrived on scene in time to destroy Flight 175 might consider the destruction and deaths that would have occurred when the wreckage fell to earth.

Duffy will be at the Pacific Coast Air Museum, off Becker Boulevard on the east side of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, from noon to 2 p.m. today.

Museum volunteers plan to create an exhibit and 9/11 memorial around his former F-15 and to have it ready for public viewing on Sept. 11.

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