Rare Silent Skies Before 9/11

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While many recall the eerie feeling of a quiet sky above the U.S. in the hours after 9/11, that wasn't the first time that all civil aircraft were grounded. Roger A. Mola, a researcher at Air & Space Smithsonian magazine, writes in this month's issue that three times in the early 1960s, all civil air traffic in the U.S. (except Hawaii) was grounded so NORAD could test defenses against Soviet attack. Called Operation Skyshield, the drills included air forces from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. They flew 6,000 sorties to simulate air attacks by Soviet fighters against civilian targets in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The longest drill kept civil aircraft on the ground for 12 hours. The tests aimed to ensure that bombers crossing the border from Canada or over the coastlines would be detected by radar, and to check for any weaknesses in the response. Mola is working on a documentary film, Skyshield: This is Only a Test, based on his research for the story in Air & Space, which first ran in 2002.