Chilling radio transmissions by the Sept. 11 hijackers from the planes they commandeered were played publicly for the first time Thursday, providing a vivid and horrifying portrait as they unfolded on that fateful day before confused air traffic officials and military personnel.
"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport," a hijacker, believed to be Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers, told the passengers of American Airlines Flight 11. The tape was played for the audience at the commission's hearing.
That transmission was the first inkling federal air traffic controllers had of the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 shortly after takeoff from Boston's Logan Airport at 8 a.m. EDT. Atta had been speaking to the plane's passengers, but the radio transmission was received at the FAA's Boston Center.All right, let's assume they intercepted this transmission around app. 8:05 a.m....
As FAA controllers tried desperately to contact the plane, which had changed its transponder code, they picked up another transmission, also apparently from Atta.
"Nobody move. Everything will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."Understandable, that this would probably continue till about 8:15
Controllers tried to contact the military, even trying to raise a military alert center in Atlantic City, N.J., unaware that facility had been phased out. The FAA finally reached the appropriate military office at 8:37 a.m.First Unforgivable Mistake, that they wouldn't have an updated list of military alert centers. This should have been both the responsibility of the FAA and the military to keep the lists up to date, in case of such an emergency. As both are government agencies, they should easily be able to talk to each other and have kept this information current and accessible.
This allowed Flight 11 about twenty more free minutes to fly toward NYC. By now, over thirty minutes of flight time have passed since they first received the first inkling of a problem.
"We have a problem here," the FAA's Boston Center told NEADS, the North East Air Defense Sector. "We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out."
"Is this real-world or exercise?" asked the incredulous NEADS officer.
"No, this is not an exercise, not a test," the FAA responded.
F-15 fighter jets were ordered scrambled from Otis Air Force Base at 8:46 a.m. Forty seconds later, Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.It took the Air Force about 9 minutes to scramble the jets, just before Flight 11 hit. I have no quibble with the time it took to get the jets in the air, but if communication had been better they might have been in the air as much as 20 minutes sooner. We'll never know if they could've made it to NYC on time to save Flight 11 or Tower #2, but they would have certainly been there in time for.....
For United Flight 175, the second plane hijacked from Logan, the situation was similarly disjointed. That plane took off at 8:14 a.m. from Boston's Logan Airport. At 8:47 a.m., almost the same time as Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center, Flight 175 changed its transponder code.If communications had been where they should be, the few minutes it takes to react to a possible hijacking of Flight 175 should've been shortened with news of Flight 11's fate...
At 8:58 a.m., a controller at the FAA's New York Center told another New York controller, "We might have a hijack over here, two of them." At 9 a.m., a New York Center manager tells the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Va., "We have several situations going on here. It's escalating big, big time. We need to get the military involved with us."Instead, it took eleven minutes for the speculation to begin.
So, ten minutes after Flight 11 crashed into tower #2, the FAA at New York says they might have a couple of hijacks? Might?? Understandably it might have taken several minutes for the news that the plane had hit the tower to filter through, but not the hijackings themselves.
The F-15's have been in the air for about ten minutes, assuming it only takes a couple minutes from orders to takeoff.
The first Unforgivable Mistake ripples down the line.
Flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m.Had the order to scramble come sooner the F-15's might've been there, seen what Flight 11 had done, received the news of the second hijacking and been prepared to deal with Flight 175.
The third hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had left Dulles International Airport near Washington at 8:20 a.m. At 8:54 a.m., the plane deviated from its flight plan. It was tracked by an Indianapolis-based controller, then unaware of the other hijackings. When the controller couldn't raise the aircraft, it notified other agencies that it was missing and may have crashed.Here's the second Unforgivable Mistake. At 8:54, fifty minutes had passed since Atta's intercepted comments, seventeen minutes since FAA Boston had notifed NEADS, and eight minutes since the F-15's were scrambled and Flight 11 hit Tower #2, and seven minutes since FAA New York had lost Flight 175's transponder code.
Indianapolis had no idea anything was going on. They thought Flight 77 out of Dulles had possibly crashed, even though the World Trade Center had been burning for eight minutes.
Normally a flight path deviation is not a huge cause for alarm, but after what had happened already a third airliner anomaly should've raised all kinds of red flags had the correct communication been in place.
The military did not know about the search for Flight 77. Instead, it was mistakenly told by the FAA's Boston Center that American's Flight 11 was still in the air and headed toward Washington. Fighter jets were ordered scrambled from Langley Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m.The third Unforgivable Mistake. Now about ten minutes after the first crash, the military thinks Flight 11 is alive and headed for DC??? This mistake in communication causes more untold confusion and delays.
The second crash occurs a minute or two later, and the military is still unaware the WTC is under attack at all...*sigh*
The fourth Unforgivable Mistake. Flight 77 has been off its flight plan and incommunicado for thirty minutes....Savor that - Thirty Minutes....until jets are scrambled from Langley at 9:24.
Had the Langley jets been scrambled earlier, and received accurate orders....
Instead of heading north to Washington, the fighter jets headed east over the ocean because the initial scramble order didn't include the target's location or distance. A "generic" flight plan incorrectly led the fighter jet pilots to believe they were to fly east for 60 miles, the report said....things might have been different.
FAA radar, meanwhile, had apparently been able to track Flight 77, but for what the commission said were technical reasons, the information was not immediately displayed to controllers at the Indianapolis center. It eventually re-emerged on radar, and by 9:32 a.m. controllers at Dulles observed that it was headed to Washington.Technical glitches happen. Tragic, but not quite unforgivable under normal circumstances. But these being far from normal circumstances, this is the fifth Unforgivable Mistake. For thirty minutes, the FAA had Flight 77 on radar but Indianapolis couldn't see it until 9:32. Were there no other radar installations between Indianapolis and Washington?
The FAA asked an unarmed military cargo plane to identify and follow the airliner. At 9:38 a.m., the pilot of that plane reported to the Washington control tower that it "looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir."Meanwhile, the Langley jets have been cruising over the ocean for fourteen minutes. Accurate orders might not have put them in DC in time to intercept Flight 77, but earlier scramble orders would have.
Each successive hijacking and loss of communication with the planes should have decreased reaction time and increased suspicion and alert. It did not, and each one was treated with more or less the same amount of reaction.
Lack of communication was critical and disastrous.
United Airlines Flight 93 had taken off from Newark at 8:42 a.m. Its last transmission was at 9:28 a.m. A minute later, the Cleveland-based FAA controller heard "a radio transmission of unintelligible sounds of possible screaming or a struggle from an unknown origin."
There was a second transmission, with sounds of screaming someone yelling, "Get out of here, get out of here." Then came another transmission. "Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board."
Between 9:34 a.m. and 9:38 a.m., the controller observed United 93 climbing and moved several aircraft out of its way. Then another transmission came from the plane.
"Uh, is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands (unintelligible). Please remain quiet."
United 93 was spotted by another aircraft and reported to be "waving its wings." It crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03:11 a.m. near Johnstown.Flight 93 was out of contact for thirty-five minutes until it crashed in Pennsylvania.
There was suspicion of hijacking at 9:28, forty-two minutes after Flight 11 crashed, thirty-four minutes after loss of communication with Flight 77, and twenty-five minutes after Flight 175 crashed.
At 9:38, hijacking was likely independantly confirmed with the last transmission from the hijackers, fifty-two minutes after Flight 11 crashed, thirty-five minutes after Flight 175 crashed, forty-four minutes after loss of communication with Flight 77 and right at the same minute it crashed into the Pentagon.
At 9:38, the Langley jets were still out in the ocean. It's unknown whether they could've made it back to DC by the time Flight 93 would've made it there.
It's unknown (to me) if any other jets were or could have been scrambled between Newark and Pennsylvania.
But for the grace of God, and courageous passengers, our Capitol Building or the White House remains intact.
But it's still the sixth Unforgivable Mistake that the hijacking of Flight 93 wasn't recognized and reacted to before it crashed.
Communication breakdowns, not security, lost that day and changed the world.
UPDATE: Panel Doubts Claim That F-16's Would've Stopped Flight 93 New York Times - registration required)
"The doomed passengers who fought with terrorist hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 probably saved "countless" other lives and might well have prevented an attack on the White House or the Capitol, the staff of the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said today.So even if the F-16's from Langley could've made it in time to intercept Flight 93 before it hit Washington, they may not've known what to do with it.
The heroism of the passengers was vital because — contrary to some earlier official statements and impressions — the pilots of F-16 fighters that had been scrambled to protect Washington did not have the authority to shoot down a hijacked aircraft, the report said.
Noting that officials of the North American Aerospace Defense Command have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down Flight 93, which crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania, had it reached Washington, the staff of the 9/11 commission differed.
"There was only one set of fighters orbiting Washington, D.C., during this time frame," the report said, referring to a pair of F-16's from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. "They were armed and under Norad's control."
But they had not been told that they were authorized to shoot down an aircraft, contrary to what Vice President Dick Cheney thought at that time. In fact, the report noted, "the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled" and did not know that the vice president had ordered that a Washington-bound hijacked jet be shot down."
Lack of proper order is a continuation of the fifth Unforgivable Mistake.
UPDATE 2: I forgot to make the point above, that while the US government's total communication breakdown with itself on 9/11, from the FAA to the military and back, was incomprehensible.... all it took were cell phone calls from the ground to the passengers of Flight 93 to alert them to the world situation.
Cell phones. They were enough to encourage the passengers to react - react swiftly, and resolutely - to take down Flight 93 themselves.
Not the combined communication power of the US Government. Cell phones.