Jonathan Blincoe was not at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on September 11. He did not help evacuate anyone from buildings under attack or work to repair the damage wrought that terrible day. His heroism occurred far from both places, but his work was no less important than that of the men and women at Ground Zero or the Pentagon.
In the chaotic hours that followed an unprecedented assault on America from the sky, he ensured that those skies were safe from any further threat.
The night of the September 11, Blincoe received a phone call from Maj. General Larry K. Arnold of the 1st Air Force, also known as the Continental US NORAD Region or CONR, the organization responsible for the air defense of the United States. General Arnold told him that, in light of the day’s events, the tracking of aircraft over US airspace needed immediate improvement. The General wanted to know how rapidly Blincoe could build a system to provide a clear, comprehensive and real-time picture of US airspace accessible to all military Air Defense Centers nationwide and General Arnold at CONR. Blincoe responded that he could do it within 24 hours. It promised to be a mammoth undertaking.
His task was to seamlessly blend together radar and communications systems from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps with NORAD so that NORAD would have a complete and clear picture of US airspace, something that had not been done before.
He acted immediately, within minutes calling numerous Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel who were professional and personal associates, each of whom had a key part to the solution. “These are the people I always call first,” Blincoe said later. One was Jim Allen, a Navy civil servant who had barely survived the attack on the Pentagon earlier that day. The plane’s tail had literally passed under the floor upon which he had been standing. “He was a real ally in all of this,” remembered Blincoe.
That night, personnel from multiple military bases across the country traveled to the only point in the US where the task could be accomplished, an operational area in Norfolk, Virginia. Since no planes could fly, all personnel had to load their own or borrowed vehicles and haul large pieces of equipment, sometimes hundreds of miles. Blincoe coordinated it all.
Within 24 hours, he had the necessary equipment operational in a field, integrating equipment for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps into a comprehensive network manned by civilian volunteers and active duty Army and Air Force personnel. All National Defense Radars had been combined into a single picture that was provided to National Centers and General Arnold for real time decision making, just as the General had ordered one day earlier.
His supervisor, Anna Rice, testified to his unique contribution: “[He] was the only individual who had the personal contacts to bring this entire unofficial team of civil servants rapidly together to assemble the needed equipment and get it up and operating to accomplish something which had never been done before.”
He remained on the job for the next three months until he was able to train enough personnel on how to operate the equipment, and to duplicate sets of equipment that could be set up at multiple sites to defend the country. He also initiated several innovations into air defense methodology, further strengthening the nation’s defenses.
“Because of the cooperation between military and civilian authorities, CONR was able to react quickly on Sept. 11,” said Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, who replaced General Arnold following Arnold’s August 2002 retirement. “We will continue that teamwork and train daily to meet our nation’s requirements for rapid response to any threat to our air sovereignty. So when we’re called upon, we’ll be ready to act – and act fast.
And Jonathan Blincoe will continue to be a vital part of that effort.