Associating this catastrophe with the word “miracle” seems like an oxymoron, but as we travel back to that Tuesday morning in September 2001 and review some of the events, I think it will be clear that it could have been much worse – I mean extremely horrific.
19 years ago, on February 11, 1993, a Lufthansa A-310-300 Airbus bound from Frankfort to Addis Ababa via Cairo, was hijacked by a 20-year old Ethiopian man carrying a pistol. With it, he forced the pilots to divert to New York. The flight number was 592, and the passenger count was 94 with 10 crewmembers. This hijacking ended at JFK airport after an 11-hour ordeal. The result was that the hijacker surrendered to the FBI once on the ground in New York. (Note 18)
While this Airbus was approaching the coast of Eastern Canada, four U.S. fighter jets were scrambled (taken off) from two Air National Guard bases. Two were F-15s from Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, MA. The other two were F-16s from the 177th Fighter Wing located in Atlantic City, NJ. This latter unit was part of the New Jersey National Guard. These four jets initially trailed 10 miles behind the Lufthansa aircraft, but as they approached Kennedy International, they cut their distance in half. When the plane finally landed at JFK, they did a low fly by, and when the hijacking situation was resolved, they returned to their bases. This hijacking was the last time U.S. air traffic controllers, FAA management, and the military would work together under real life circumstances until the morning of September 11, 2001. (Note 17)
It all began on a beautiful September morning -- a morning airline pilots would describe as “severe clear.” The skies were blue and the visibility incredible. This beautiful morning will be one of the many factors which helped our nation’s air traffic controllers along with our pilots to safely land thousands of airplanes in a minimal time without a major accident. (Note 12:1)
Before the hijackings became apparent to United and American, both of these airlines already had over 100 flights each in the air. Another 1,900 departures were planned for both of these carriers before the end of the day. Yes, United and American’s schedules were immense – each with over 2,000 flights a day. Because of their heavy East Coast flying operation, most of the airlines’ top executives were already in meetings or otherwise engaged in company activities. Both of these airlines were located in the Central time zone, American in Ft Worth, TX and United in Elk Grove Village, IL outside of Chicago. These airlines were about to experience the unthinkable – multiple hijackings – a scenario for which there were no procedures -- no guidelines on what to do. But even with communications breakdowns and no airline policies to follow, it only took 4 hours from the time of the first hijacking to bring close to 4,500 aircraft down safely. (Note 2)
That morning at 8:15 a.m., one minute after AA Flight 11 was hijacked; there were 3,624 planes in the sky over the middle and eastern portions of the country. At that time, no one was aware that two American flight attendants, Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong, were busy dialing up American Airlines to inform their company of the hijacking that had just occurred. Their fast response is one of the many actions that were part of the miracle that kept thousands of others from devastation. (Notes 1, 2 & 6)
As these ladies are talking on the phone, their captain, John Ogonowski, was still flying the plane -- at least until they approached the New York airspace. While flying, he held down the communication button on the plane’s yoke. This allowed Ben Sliney, the new FAA National Operation Manager on his first day on the job, to hear what hijacker Atta says in Flight 11’s cockpit, “WE HAVE SOME PLANES.” As Sliney is digesting these words, I am sure his stomach and nervous system started working overtime. (Note 2)
As American Flight 11 is getting closer to its fateful destination, flight attendant Amy Sweeney’s phone dialogue to the Boston inflight office has been forwarded to American’s headquarters in Ft Worth, Texas. Because of her call and the flight information she gave to American supervisor, Michael Woodward (See “Heroes 33”), American’s top officials are learning the names of the hijackers and other details of events on board their plane.
As Flight 11 enters the airspace of downtown Manhattan, not many people see it approach the North Tower, except for a few people on the street looking up, some with their cell phones handy, and a person looking out his office window on the 61st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). He watched in shock as he saw an American Airlines commercial jet streaking directly towards and above him. After the impact, he immediately got on the phone and called five different agencies. The NYPD was one of them. Ezra Aviles worked for the Port Authority, and I am sure his quick thinking was critical in showing the severity of this attack. When the smoke started reaching his floor, he was able to get out of the building before it collapsed. In the confusion of the plane hitting the Tower, the majority of the people nearby thought it was a small aircraft. However, by this time American Airlines knows different or should have known different. (Note 2)
As chaos is just beginning on the ground, the situation in the airways is not far behind. To get a better idea of what is to come, it is important to understand the different roles the various U.S. agencies have in protecting our commercial and general aviation worlds. Across our nation are 22 air traffic control (ATC) centers, which guide our airplanes across the country. These centers have no windows, just large screens which are used to track airplanes from one location to another. These different centers have specific airspace they are responsible for. When an aircraft departs one sector for another, there is a formal hand-off between the centers. For example, Boston Center was responsible for American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 after they took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport. They planned to track them until they entered the airspace of Cleveland Center and the New York Center respectively. When Flight 11 was hijacked, it was still under the supervision of Boston Center, but when United Flight 175 was hijacked, it had already entered the airspace of New York Center.
Working along with the air traffic control centers are the ATC towers at the airports. The people working in these towers are responsible for bringing the planes safely down on the correct runways and from the runways to the taxiways, which are the “roads” used by the aircraft. The main function of the controllers in the tower is to separate aircraft, to prevent collisions, direct aircraft, expedite the flow of air traffic, and provide information and support to the pilots. The key mission in all of this is SEPARATION.
Both the ATC Centers and the ATC towers work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is the national aviation authority for the United States. This organization works directly for the Department of Transportation, located in Washington D.C. In September, 2001, the Director of the FAA was Jane Garvey, who worked for the Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta.
One last element in the control of commercial aircraft are the dispatchers. The dispatchers work for the individual airlines, not the FAA. For example, United and American both have their own dispatchers. The dispatcher’s role is to oversee a flight from beginning to end. Their normal load is about 15 flights per shift. He or she works up the flight plan taking into consideration the route, the weather, the flight time and all things pertinent to conducting a safe flight. All of this is presented to the captain before the flight. The captain discusses the information with the dispatcher and has an input into the final flight plan. The dispatchers then monitor the aircraft while it is en route. They keep in contact with the crews as necessary during the flights. They can also get information on the flights from the FAA system. If needed, they can set up conference calls with their aircraft and send out messages, as they did on the morning of 9-11 (See “Clearing the Airways”). On that morning in 2001, dispatchers were key players in working with elements of the FAA. (Note 3)
As the events of the morning start to unfold from the Tower crashes, to the Pentagon, to the field in Shanksville, PA, the strength of our citizens will be challenged over and over again. During this horror, the people caught in the midst of these attacks will make decisions not by following the established procedures, but by following their instincts. That higher self within each of us – that intuition that tells us what to do – took over in many cases that morning and allowed key personnel to make quick decisions in the face of uncertainty and miscommunication brought on by the chaos.
After Flight 11 is hijacked, Craig Marquis, an American Airlines operations manager, is getting reports of Betty Ong's call. Doubting her words -- as did the male reservationist in Raleigh, NC (See “Heroes 33”) that initially took Betty’s call -- Marquis puts her name into the computer and finds her on the flight manifest as F/A Betty Ong. As he is retrieving this information, his operating center gets a call from Boston Center, informing American that they have lost communications with Flight 11, a non-stop Boston – Los Angeles flight. Marquis continues to listen to the relayed words from the female reservationist in Raleigh named Nydia who was now handling the Betty Ong call. (Inexplicably, despite having heard Betty Ong describe that two flight attendants had been stabbed and a Business Class passenger killed, and that the crew could not get into Business Class due to mace gas, Marquis tells the 9 – 11 Commission that up to just several minutes before the crash, he thought the aircraft was experiencing a mechanical problem, and the crew was so busy handling the situation that they couldn’t answer the phone or the door.) (Note 1)
When United 93 takes off from Newark International Airport at 8:42 a.m., American Flight 11 is just minutes away from crashing, and United 175 has just been hijacked. Across the Hudson River in Long Island, is a warehouse looking building filled with air traffic controllers watching several large radar screen trying to track American Flight 11. This is the air traffic control center for New York. The man in charge is Mike McCormick. When AA Flt 11 disappears from their screen, a call goes out to the Newark air traffic control tower asking if they can see a plane. Rick Tepper, a Newark controller, responds, “No, but smoke is spewing out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” (Note 2) Simultaneously, American headquarters, United headquarters and the air traffic control Command Center in Herndon VA, realize that AA Flight 11 had just hit the World Trade Center. (Interestingly, in the 9-11 hearings there is some confusion about when they all acknowledged that it was indeed AA Flight 11.)
As this information was being mentally digested, Boston Center does not yet realize that UA Flt 175, also out of Boston, is being hijacked. Its cockpit was breached just minutes after leaving Boston Center’s airspace. When UA Flt 175 was handed off to New York Center, Captain Victor Saracini delayed putting in the new frequency for New York Center because earlier he had heard some suspicious dialogue over the airwaves, and he was curious to see if he could hear more. When he finally changes to the New York Center frequency, he is talking to Dave Bottigia, the controller in charge of his flight. Capt. Saracini asks Dave to let United know that he heard, “JUST STAY QUIET AND YOU WILL BE OK – WE ARE RETURNING TO THE AIRPORT -- DON’T TRY TO MAKE ANY STUPID MOVES” coming from another airplane. Dave agrees, but then almost immediately gets a call about a hijacking. Within seconds, American Flt 11 appears on his screen as a blip. This blip becomes the target to watch. As he tries to track Flt 11 on his screen, he fails to notice that the transponder code on UA Flt 175 changes twice. He also fails to inform United of the radio transmissions as requested by Capt. Saracini. As he is tracking Flt 11, the target disappears from his radar screen. ATC radars cannot track a plane below 1500 feet, so he thinks it must have landed. He then renews his effort to track UA 175. However, because the transponder code has changed, he cannot find the airplane. While doing all this, Dave Bottigia has no idea that AA Flt 11 has just hit the World Trade Center. (Note 5)
By now, the CNN television cameras are set up and focused on the burning North Tower. As the news commentators are speculating about what might have just happened, air traffic controller Tepper, standing in the Newark airport tower, is watching an airplane streaking and rocking like a runaway missile out of control. In its path in the dense New York airspace were three planes: a Delta, a US Airways, and a Midwest Express. United 175 came close to all three and barely missed the Delta flight. (Note 8) Inside the New York Center, manager, Mike McCormick, has been tracking UA Flt 175 for the last 11 minutes and knows deep inside that the plane is headed for the other Twin Tower. He feel helpless, things are WAY OUT OF CONTROL! (Note 5)
As United 175 entered the downtown Manhattan area, the television cameras start focusing on the approaching plane and capture this tragedy for millions of people to see throughout our nation and the world. As it hits the South Tower, Boston Center, the Herndon Command Center, and New York Center watched in disbelief of what had just occurred on the television screens in their buildings. However, Indianapolis Center was unaware of the WTC tower crashes because they had not been told about the hijackings and were working a lost plane situation themselves (American Flt 77).
American Flight 77 had just turned off its transponder (the aircraft tracking device) and turned south then east toward Washington D.C. Because Indianapolis Center was not “in the loop” on the early morning events, they think Flight 77 has had a mechanical. When they lose track of the flight, they think it has crashed, and they start calling for ground authorities to search for the aircraft, but Flight 77 now flies undetected for over 8 minutes. It appears again as a quick blip on the radar screen as it is leaving Indianapolis airspace, but the blip is soon lost again due to radar system shortcomings. While controllers are searching for AA Flt 77, a lot is happening in New York City. (Note 19)
As soon as United 175 crashes, Bruce Barrett, the second in command at the New York Center, puts out an “ATC Zero.” His boss, Mike McCormick, then approves it. This means that no aircraft under the jurisdiction of New York Center may take off or land within the Center’s airspace. This would include southern New England, Maryland, Long Island, and Central Pennsylvania as well as the three New York Airports – Newark, JFK, and La Guardia. This will result in a huge burden being placed on other ATC centers, especially neighboring Cleveland Center which is now responsible for rerouting most of the New York Center traffic. But this early order was so vital because it will save, in my opinion, United’s Flight 23, an 8:30 departure out of JFK to Los Angeles, a 767 with four young Arabs sitting in First Class. (See “Were There More”) (Note 5)
To this point, the military -- which is responsible for protecting America from aerial attack -- has been kept out of the loop, as was Indianapolis Center. As a result, while Boston controllers were frantically working keeping Flt 11 away from other airplanes, they got no assistance from the U.S. military.
As the air traffic controllers are frantically working, the military is several days into an annual war game. An air defense exercise called Vigilant Guardian is underway at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) located in Rome, NY, just 230 northeast of Boston. Even though this command center was geographically close to the hijackings, they were not focused on domestic air traffic. Their exercise was dealing with threats originating outside of the Continental United States. For example, an exercise was planned for later in the day which would simulate a Russian bomber attacking the U.S.
When word finally makes it to NEADS (from Colin Scoggins, the military liaison to Boston Center) that AA Flight 11 had been hijacked (at about 8:40 a.m.) the man in charge, Colonel Robert Marr, had to ask if the hijack input was “real world” or “exercise world”. In addition to the NEADS exercise, training exercises are underway in two other military commands -- CONAR (Continental United States Air Defense Region) located in Panama City, FL at Tyndall AFB and NORAD located in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, CO. Although the military is not directly involved in any specific hijacking response, they will later launch fighters for protective purposes and will eventually take over control of the airspace after the order to land all aircraft is given.
After hearing about American Flt 11, NEADS scrambles two F-15s loaded with missiles from Otis AFB in Cape Cod, MA, but the pilots of the aircraft have not been briefed on any targets. When they finally get airborne, AA Flight 11 has just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The military (all three commands) have no idea that another plane (UA Flt 175) has just been hijacked. The Otis F-15s are directed to a military training space known as W-105 located over the Atlantic Ocean south of Long island. Because U.S. airspace is so busy, the military has its own designated flight training areas. When United Flt 175 hits the South Tower, Air Force pilots Duffy and Nash say they are only 60-70 miles away and can see the second plume of smoke rising over the New York City skyline. At this time, they engaged their afterburners and streaked toward the City. Newark tower controller, Bob Varcadipane, sees UA 175 hit the South Tower and says that minutes later two F-15 jets appeared (the 9-11 hearings came up with a different time line).
Prior to NEADS finally being told of the first hijacking, the Herndon FAA Command Center had set up a teleconference between three ATC centers – Boston, New York and Cleveland. This communication was put in place just after Boston Center realized that AA Flight 11 had been hijacked. While these three centers are connected, the Command Center calls FAA headquarters in Washington D.C. to let them know about Flight 11. (Note 6)
As the shock of two planes hitting the World Trade Center sets in among the controllers, it finally becomes apparent to some, but not to others, that the two flights involved were AA Flt 11 and UA Flt 175. Until that point, there had been considerable confusion among the various parties as to which aircraft were doing what. This confusion predominated even though there had been valiant flight attendant phone calls to American and heroic action on the part of Capt. Ogonowski on Flt 11 to hold down his microphone button to broadcast the words of the hijackers. Additionally, Flight Attendant Robert Fangman (on UA Flt 175) gave a brief, but brutal, description of the hijacking experience on his flight to Mark Policastro at the San Francisco maintenance base. (See “Heroes 33”) Unfortunately, an overload of phone circuits at the United headquarters complex results in Robert’s information taking a long time to reach the ears of United CEO Goodwin and COO Studdert.
The TV cameras are now televising the aftermath of the two Tower crashes. Our nation’s people are shocked, but not as shocked as those people trying to escape the ash and debris in New York City. As people run to find safety; the bridges, the rail lines, and tunnels are being shut down. With turmoil and chaos abounding on the ground, it is about to accelerate in the air.
Back at the FAA Command Center in Herndon, there is a chalk board with 11 possible hijackings listed. Delta Flight 1989, a 767 out of Boston heading for Los Angeles, is at the top of the list. The chaos is building. It is Boston Center that calls Herndon to have them let Cleveland know that they have lost contact with Delta 1989. During these events, the United States Air Force acting as a component of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) is notified of the hijackings.
By now, AA Flt 77 is speeding toward Washington DC, and United Flight 93 is reaching its cruise altitude. As it does, Capt. Dahl aboard Flt 93 receives an Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) message to “Beware of cockpit intrusion.” At this time, the flight is in the airspace controlled by Cleveland Center. Simultaneously, Cleveland gets a call from the Herndon Command Center about a possible hijacking on Delta Flt 1989.
Delta 1989 became suspicious to Boston controllers because this was the third 767 morning departure leaving Boston for Los Angeles. When Boston Center realizes the fate of AA Flt 11 and UA Flt 175, it seemed likely to them that this flight might be the next hijack target. Paranoia has begun to set in among the controllers as hijacker Atta’s words that “WE HAVE SOME PLANES” echo within the walls of the Center.
When Cleveland Center gets a proper response from Capt. Werner on Delta Flt 1989, emotions in their control center seem a little less tense. Regrettably, that won’t last for long as UA Flt 93 has just been hijacked. The Center now hears, “Mayday, Mayday.” Unfortunately, both planes are close enough that when the Center hears this, it was impossible to tell if the call had come from Delta 1989 or United 93. The confusion resulted from the fact that before UA 93 was hijacked, Delta 1989 was only 25 miles behind Flt 93 on the same flight path. And once UA 93 was hijacked and turned eastward, it came very close to the Delta 1989. (Note 16)
As United Capt. Dahl and First Officer Homer fight vigorously to prevent their cockpit from being overtaken, Cleveland Center can hear the skirmish on the radio. Suddenly, UA 93 climbs rapidly to 41,000 and begins turning around and heads eastbound. Once the transponder on Flt 93 is turned off, the blip is getting closer to Delta 1989. The Center tells Capt. Werner on Delta 1989 to change course, and he complies. It is now apparent that UA 93 has been the victim of a hijacking, but it is again difficult to distinguish which plane is involved when the phrase “WE HAVE A BOMB” is heard over the airwaves. After this transmission is heard, Delta asks for permission to land in Cleveland. (Note: this is happening before the FAA order to clear the airways.) Cleveland Center does not know that the order to land in Cleveland has come from Delta headquarters, and this unexpected request generates additional concerns for safety. Because of the uncertainty about which flight might have the reported bomb on board, officials in Cleveland decide to be safe and evacuate the terminal, the airport (including the neighboring NASA facility), the FAA building, and even downtown Cleveland. The growing chaos is accentuated by a news report that Flt 93 has already landed in Cleveland. (Note 10) As the Cleveland area is evacuating, the South Tower is just minutes away from crumbling down.
Adding to the national confusion, NEADS has been told that AA Flight 11 has not crashed and is instead heading directly toward Washington D.C. However, in actuality, this “Phantom Flt 11” is hijacked American Flt 77 on its way to the Pentagon. NEADS has also been told that Delta 1989 has been hijacked. It is clear that there is chaos in the air as well as on the ground. Now that the military has been given bits and pieces of information, their planned exercise becomes real life. They start tracking Delta Flt 1989 (a suspected hijacking) and United Flt 93 – the very real hijacking.
Outside United headquarters in a suburb of Chicago, an array of misinformation has come from American in Ft Worth via a direct hot line. When the second plane hits the South Tower, American tells United that both the planes are theirs (American 11 and American 77). Even though American Airlines knows United is missing a plane, they interpret the second hit as their missing Flight 77. Because of that, some United cockpits get word over their ACARS that two American Flights have crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. One of the flights to get this message is United 962 sitting at the gate in Los Angeles waiting to depart. (See “Were There More”) This flight is an Airbus 320 scheduled for Dulles International Airport in Washington DC with several Arab men seated in First Class.
The wrong ACARS information won’t last for long as Capt. Hank Krakowski, United’s Director of Flight Operations, sees the second plane as it is shown over and over again on TV with increasingly closer views, and he recognizes the United markings (as did many others). Capt. Krakowski is also privy to Robert Fangman’s call to San Francisco maintenance describing his brutal hijacking and concludes that the second aircraft is actually United 175. (Note 12:108)
Back in Herndon, VA at the FAA Command Center, Ben Sliney’s thoughts must have been spinning rapidly. Too much is happening in such a short time. When word comes in that American Flt 77 is missing and possibly hijacked, he cannot get the words of hijacker Atta out of his mind – “WE HAVE SOME PLANES.” He thought, “Are they everywhere? Are they waiting to depart on the West Coast bank of flights?” As Sliney works to get a grasp on the situation, Gerald Arpey, an American Executive Vice President, makes a courageous call. He orders all American airplanes on the ground cancelled. Minutes later, between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., he orders all airborne American flights to land as soon as feasible. As a result of this order, most American flights have landed by 11:50 a.m. (Note 20)
United dispatchers at the Operations Center outside of Chicago had been trying to get in contact with United Flt 175 after receiving Robert Fangman’s call at 8:50 a.m. When American Flt 11 crashes, it is United that calls the FAA Command Center in Herndon, VA and asks, “Was that our airplane?” They are told, “No that was an American 757.” That was half right, it was an American airplane, but it was actually a double-aisled Boeing 767 aircraft. When the second plane, crashes into the South Tower, it becomes all too clear, that the unthinkable is happening. Airplanes are being used as weapons to destroy much of lower Manhattan and many of its in habitants.
American Flt 77 is now speeding undetected toward Washington DC, and it suddenly becomes visible as a blip on Washington Center’s screen, located in Leesburg, VA. Because this Center has no confirmation about American Flt 11’s fate, the rumor begins that AA Flt 11 is still airborne and flying toward Washington DC. When Washington Center calls the FAA Command Center in Herndon, VA on an open conference line, the information is heard in Boston Center as well. Colin Scoggins, the military liaison in the Boston Center, is now privy to this open communication. Scoggins, after hearing this, calls NEADS, the Air Defense Center in Rome, NY and informs them that American Flt 11 is heading toward Washington DC. Within minutes, the military starts tracking this phantom plane, which is actually American Flt 77. It is ironic, that this phantom was a flight that took off from Dulles and was initially under the control of Washington Center before it was handed off to the Indianapolis Center.
At Andrews AFB, in Maryland, located east southeast of Reagan international Airport, a C-130 military transport has just taken off. This plane is from a National Guard unit in Minnesota. As they are climbing to altitude, a call comes in from a Reagan International Airport controller located just south and east of the Pentagon), who asks if they can see a speeding aircraft in the area. Immediately after the call, a silver jet passes them so close that its shiny aluminum side fills the C-130’s cockpit window. Suddenly, it turns left and starts heading toward the West side of the Pentagon. As the C-130 turns to follow Flt 77, it is impossible to make out the tail numbers or markings on the aircraft due to the haze in the area. Suddenly, the C-130 crew sees a ball of flame at the Pentagon. (Note 12:146-147)
Once American Flt 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., the decision was made by the FAA to ground all airplanes. A message appeared in all the commercial jets both within the United States and those international flights heading to the U.S. The message said simply, “EVERY AIRPLANE LISTENING TO THIS FREQUENCY NEEDS TO CONTACT YOUR COMPANY.”
Out in the Pacific, it is Capt. Gerald Baker’s last trip with United Airlines. He and his wife were able to share this last flight before retirement in beautiful Auckland, New Zealand. He is on his crew rest as the words from ACARS start coming into the cockpit. The co-pilots who are flying the plane start gathering one message after another. Initially much of the information is incorrect, but by the time American Flt 77 crashes, the co-pilots know it is time to wake up Capt. Baker. When he finally gets out of the bunk (which is in the cockpit area), he thinks the co-pilots are pulling a joke on him. As a result, it takes a few minutes for the reality to set in. When they are told the U.S. airways are closing down and they will not be able to land in Los Angeles, they get a sense of the tragedy but the magnitude is too unbelievable to comprehend. With communication exchanges now going on back and forth between United Flt 842 (Auckland to Los Angeles) and the company dispatchers, they finally get approval to land in Honolulu. So three hours after being awakened from his crew rest, Capt. Baker lands his aircraft safely in Honolulu. Considering the circumstances, his last trip did not turn out as badly as it could have. (Note 12: 208-210)
By now, the order has been given for all aircraft to land as quickly and as safely as possible. Unfortunately, United Flt 93 has just been hijacked and turned to the east. Cleveland Center is tracking it, but without the benefit of a transponder. They note that the blip is heading directly toward their facility, and this creates a strong sense of vulnerability among Center personnel. Thankfully, Flt 93 passes over them and continues eastbound. Because Capt. Dahl left his mike on (as Capt. Ogonowski did on AA Flt 11) several other flights in the area heard the cockpit takeover on UA Flt 93. (Note 17) The hijacked aircraft is now just 210 miles away from Shanksville, PA, and the passengers and crew are formulating their plan to storm the cockpit. As the airplane travels closer to Pittsburgh, evacuations are occurring at that airport as they are in Cleveland. Bomb threats are also coming into air traffic control centers and to United Airlines.
While all of this is happening, Delta Flt 1989’s Capt. Werner has no idea that both Cleveland Center and the FAA Command Center in Herndon, VA believe he has been hijacked. He is also not aware of all the evacuations going on in Cleveland. Capt. Werner is being given wide turns and a difficult approach to give the people on the ground more time to evacuate. Because of the difficulty of the approach, Capt. Werner fails to respond to one of the controller directions which further increases the controller’s belief that the plane has been hijacked.
Back at the Herndon Command Center, the list of possible hijackings is growing. This was due to several factors – nonresponsive communications, transponder problems, and some planes erroneously broadcasting signals indicating that they had been hijacked. Nerves, paranoia, disbelief, and uncertainty surround all of those in control of the skies that morning. This was a first; a disaster not experienced before in the history of our nation and the world.
Before AA Flt 11 crashed, United alone had 120 planes in the air along with 27 international flights. Flights ready for takeoff numbered another 40. Now, after three other crashes, United headquarters is frantically focusing on their missing Flt 93. Dispatcher Ed Ballinger is still trying to contact the flight; I am sure wishing and hoping for a miracle. It is during this tracking of UA Flt 93 at United Operations Center that the large monitors are displaying its movement on the ASD (Airspace Situational Display), which follows aircraft in near real time with the picture refreshing every 60 seconds. Even as the focus is on Flt 93, other United flights are becoming suspicious in their actions. (Note 13)
When the order to land all airborne flights is given at 9:45 a.m., just 59 minutes after the first crash, it is incredible to think how fast and how safely the thousands of pilots reacted to this never-before scenario. It is also quite incredible that the majority of these crews had no idea what horrific events were taking place thousands of feet below them. However, these crews were savvy enough to know that something horrible was happening somewhere in their nation.
As planes are getting rerouted -- one every second – and landings are occurring at an outrageous rate of 48 each minute around our nation, it is only logical to expect that communication problems would occur. Within the walls of the United crisis center, even though the focus is still on UA Flt 93, there are three other flights that United has lost track of: UA 641, UA 415, and UA 399. Fortunately, persistent calling and continual effort revealed that these flights were already safely on the ground. Additionally, between 10:55 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. United lost track of an additional nine flights, all of which were eventually located after safely landing. (Note 3)
As the planes are landing throughout the United States, many of the major airports, like Dallas-Ft Worth and Denver, are landing planes that had just taken off. While New York, Boston, Cleveland, and even Pittsburgh are evacuating or getting ready to evacuate, a lot has also happened at Chicago’s O’Hare.
As Flt. 11 crashes into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. (7:46 Chicago time) a bank of early morning flights were taking off or about to take off. Airport policy at the time was that if an airplane crashes, the TV monitors inside the terminal would be turned off in order to avoid scaring the flying public. As a result, many of the people at O’Hare had no idea what was really happening in New York. When the flights are grounded at 9:26 a.m. EDT, people are told the airport is being closed, and they need to leave. Just imagine the chaos inside and outside as people are pushing and shoving without really knowing what is happening or why. As many people are trying to get to the airport train area, the 187 snowplows that are used on Chicago’s winter days are now being utilized to surround the airport control tower and barricade it from ground attacks. (Note 10) The energy and adrenalin flowing from our citizens that morning is just incredible -- unimaginable – and the terror level was way off the charts. We were at war; we were under attack.
Because of the “ATC Zero” order, the biggest displacement of planes was on the East Coast. Many small airports were greeting large airplanes for the first time – airports not equipped to handle such arrivals. Challenges and obstacles were happening everywhere, and definitely man’s human nature was being tested that morning and tested over and over again.
Nerves are frayed everywhere, especially at the higher levels of command. That morning, Jane Garvey, the head of FAA, witnessed the most painful and tragic hours in aviation history. Her morning had been filled with one decision after another from agreeing to “ATC Zero”, to stopping takeoffs, and to closing all U.S. airways.
At the FAA Command Center, top managers fear the worst – that jets all over the country are being hijacked – even some which are coming in from over the Atlantic Ocean and Korean Air Flt 85 coming in from the Pacific. (See “Canada’s Incredible Response”) As if this were not enough, one TWA flight does not want to land in Pittsburgh as requested. Instead, the pilot wants to continue on to Washington DC. – a request that was suspicious and clearly not going to be approved. Adding to the turmoil, a Midwest Express flight disappeared from radar over West Virginia only to reappear in a few minutes, and three international flights were sending out distress signals which are being picked up by the Coast Guard. (Note 3)
Aboard hundreds of other flights after the order went out to “protect your cockpits,” flight attendants were gathering steak knives from the galleys as pilots were removing the crash axes from their brackets on the cockpit wall. Filled bottles of wine were also being readied as makeshift weapons, and airline employees were standing in front of cockpit doors protecting the pilots. No one knew if they were the next to be hijacked.
As the skies began to thin out, the Command Center in Herndon, VA was still actively concerned with several airborne flights, and Delta 1989 is one of them. I am sure great relief was felt by Ben Sliney, his managers, and controllers once it was known that Delta 1989 landed uneventfully at Cleveland’s Hopkins Airport at 10:10 a.m.
It is interesting that even though the Cleveland controllers gave Capt. Werner code words several time while airborne asking him if he had been hijacked, and even though he responded “No” each time, they still had him taxi to a remote area on the field. There the plane was surrounded by SWAT teams, police, FBI, and bomb dogs for over 2 hours. The plane was finally boarded and the passengers scrutinized until the authorities felt there was no danger. Passengers were then allowed to deplane, but were still interrogated at the FAA site located on the airport complex.
As this is happening, the Command Center in Virginia heard that a United plane that landed in Rockford, IL had a bomb on board. This proved untrue, but was just another example of the confusion and many uncertainties that ran wild that morning. (Note 14)
Confusion and doubts continue even after Delta 1989 is safely down. There is another flight which becomes the focus of attention. This flight, which was dubbed “Flight X,” landed 30 minutes after Delta 1989. After landing, the plane was positioned on the NASA side of the Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. In the chaos, various stories were reported in Cleveland, and then retracted. Who were the people on that flight; where did they go? What makes sense is that they were NASA scientists out flying minimal gravity flights over Lake Ontario. When Flight 93 got hijacked and turned around, it flew within 1000 feet of this NASA KC-135. These scientists were scheduled to go back home to Houston, but when all flights were told to land, they returned to Cleveland where they had left from that morning. After landing, NASA put them on a bus and arranged for accommodations. (Note 13)
Even the airlines were confused. For example, Delta CEO, Leo Mullin, had called Jane Garvey to report that there were four other Delta flights that had had their transponders turned off.
By now the military was actively involved. Major General Larry Arnold, Commander of the Continental U.S. Air Defense Region (CONAR) stated there were numerous false hijacking reports with a lot of accompanying confusion which continued well into the afternoon. All of these received real world attention from the military. The challenge was sorting through what might have been a legitimate situation and what was not. Fortunately, all of these later incidents proved to be false. Examples of the military challenge included:
1. UA Flt 177 was reported to be hijacked, but never actually left the gate in Boston that morning.
2. CO Flt 321 squawked that it had been hijacked, but when contacted, the pilot reported that all was OK.
3. AA Flt 189 lost radio contact for over 10 minutes, and only later was it determined to be a radio failure. It is interesting that Flt 189 also originated in Boston.
At the time UA Flt 93 crashes, there are just under 3000 planes still airborne, but in less than 30 minutes, the number is down to 1505. By 11:30 a.m. EDT, only 758 remained in the air, but all of these are within 40 miles of landing. At 12:16 p.m. EDT, the FAA screens in Herndon are finally clear of moving blips and flight numbers. It was an incredible feat – a miracle – bringing down that many airplanes, that quickly, without incident, in just four hours from the initial takeover of American Flt 11. (Note 14)
Once the FAA screens are quiet, the military is now alone in the skies protecting our nation -- a first in aviation history. General Ed Eberhart, the Commander in Chief of NORAD, had earlier given an order entitled ESCAT, which stands for Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic. This order means that the skies officially belong to the military and not the FAA. This order allows for the continued operation of navigational aids and selective approval of necessary flights. (Note 11:269)
One of the first nonmilitary aircraft allowed to take off after ESCAT is declared is a United 757 carrying 75 FBI agents and equipment. The flight number is 8811, originating in San Francisco with a destination of Washington DC. In command of this commercial flight is Capt. Barry Nance. He will say this flight was surreal. He was virtually alone in the skies, and he was immediately cleared to proceed directly to Washington DC. En route, he hears only three other aircraft, and all are military. (Note 11:279)
1. Scott McCartney and Susan Carey, “American, United Watched and Worked in Horror as Sept 11 Hijackings Unfolded. See http://s3.amazonaws.com/911timeline/2001/wallstreetjournal101501.html.
2. Alan Levin, Marilyn Adams and Blake Morrison, “Terror attacks brought drastic decision: Clear the skies” See http://911review.org/brad.com/archives/FAA_clear-skies.html
11. Spencer, Lynn. Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11. Free Press, New York, 2008.
19. Jonathon Mosely, “INCREDIBLY, Air Traffic Control Reported Flight 77 as Having CRASHED -- NOT as Hijacked”, www.911Reality.com, October 10, 2009.
GG Baba (author) from Southern California on September 10, 2015:
Two years later thank you for your kind words.
Maureen Amberg on September 04, 2013:
This is wonderfully written, Barbara, straight from your heart ~ I am awed!
GG Baba (author) from Southern California on May 03, 2012:
Thank you for your beautiful comments! This was a very hard subject to get my head around and then it was difficult to convey a very complex topic in an understandable way. Comments like yours make the effort I put into this worthwhile.
kay & Claude Earls on May 03, 2012:
This was a great account of what was happening on 9/11. Thanks so much for helping us understand what was happening. This made things much clearer. You write so well!