September 11, 2001
Norad springs into action
RCAF Lieutenant-General Rick Findley just happened to be director of Norad operations at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Centre skyscrapers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It was the day North Americans learned they could be attacked from domestic airspace, too.
Within an hour of the attacks, U.S. air traffic was shut down and international flights directed to Canada. By the end of the day, Norad had nearly 200 armed U.S. and Canadian aircraft in the air.
The next day, the U.S. and Canada added monitoring and responding to threats originating within North American airspace to the Norad mission. In the following five years, it responded to 2,100 potential threats.
It was not the first tweaking of the agreement to co-ordinate air defence of the continent, which began in earnest Sept. 12, 1957, with establishment of North American Air Defence Command headquarters in Colorado.
Norad’s initial mission was to detect and react to airborne threats, then primarily Soviet long-range bombers, armed with nuclear weapons. Over the years, Soviet flights regularly have skirted North American airspace, notably recently in May, when Norad was marking the 60th anniversary of the official signing of the joint agreement in 1958.
In 1981, a new name—North American Aerospace Defence Command—reflected the addition of monitoring for missiles and space vehicles to the mission. In 2006, maritime threat was added.
By custom, both countries staff Norad operations—about 150 Canadians were working at Cheyenne Mountain on Sept. 11, 2001. Findley was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for his actions that day and Norad’s headquarters building at the Peterson Air Force Base was renamed the Eberhart-Finley Building.
Canada operates and maintains the radar stations of the North Warning System. Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg serves as the Canadian Norad headquarters, with CF-18 Hornet fighters provided by the RCAF from tactical fighter squadrons in Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que.
Combat-ready interception awaits any aircraft that does not radio its course and destination upon entering air defence identification zones, which extend 320 kilometres offshore.
Chief miscreants are Russian long-range bombers, sometimes with fighter escorts, on “training” missions. But civilian aircraft also come under Norad’s watchful eye. In 2017, U.S. fighters escorted back to Montreal a Cuba-bound charter flight with a passenger threatening crew and passengers.