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'We Have Some Planes,' Hijacker Told Controller
October 16, 2001
By MATTHEW L. WALD with KEVIN SACK
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15 - American Airlines Flight 11 had
fallen mysteriously silent. The air traffic controller
called over and over for a response. None came. Then he
heard an unidentified voice from the cockpit: "We have some
planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be O.K. We are
returning to the airport."
The controller, confused, asked, "Who's trying to call me?"
No response. Then he heard the voice again: "Nobody move
please; we are going back to the airport. Don't try to make
any stupid moves."
The man was transmitting on the frequency monitored by
pilots and air traffic controllers, either because he
thought he was talking to the passengers or because one of
the crew had activated the radio microphone, and his voice
was the first hint of the horror of Sept. 11.
Transcripts of the communications between pilots and
controllers, obtained by The New York Times, reveal the
dawning awareness of the terror in cockpits and control
centers. Together with interviews and other documents, they
offer a previously unseen view of how, moment by moment, a
bell-clear and routine morning turned to confusion and then
In the cool, clipped jargon of aviation, signals of
unprecedented disaster bounced between the ground and air
as airline and military personnel struggled to understand
and then control the chaos.
The first sure sign of a hijacking was picked up by United
Airlines Flight 175, which left Boston for Los Angeles at
8:14 a.m. Just after it took off, the air traffic
controller had asked for help from other pilots in finding
Flight 11, which was already missing.
"We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure from
BOS," the pilot reported at 8:41 a.m., just after takeoff.
"Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said everyone stay
in your seats."
Within 90 seconds, his plane became the next piece of the
unspooling disaster. Flight 175 took an errant turn off its
scheduled course to Los Angeles and ceased communication
with the ground. "There's no transponder, no nothing, and
no one's talking to him," the controller said.
And at 8:50 a.m., an unidentified pilot said over the
common frequency: "Anybody know what that smoke is in Lower
Flight 11 had struck the north tower of the World Trade
Center just minutes before, and the air traffic
controller's repeated calls for Flight 175 were met with
another awful silence.
At 8:53, after Flight 175 had screamed south over the
Hudson Valley at about 500 miles per hour - more than
double the legal speed - the reality was becoming clear to
the controller on the ground on Long Island. "We may have a
hijack," he said. "We have some problems over here right
He knew just half of it.
Moments after the first jet hit the World Trade Center, a
controller in Indianapolis was trying to make contact with
American Flight 77, which was flying from Dulles
International Airport outside Washington to Los Angeles.
The pilot had confirmed receiving directions to fly towards
a navigation beacon at Falmouth, Ky., but then failed to
respond to calls from the ground.
"American 77, Indy," the controller said, over and over.
"American 77, Indy, radio check. How do you read?"
By 8:56 a.m., it was evident that Flight 77 was lost. The
Federal Aviation Administration, already in contact with
the Pentagon about the hijackings out of Boston, notified
the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, of
American 77 at 9:24, 28 minutes later. Fighters scrambled
The F.A.A. controller called American's dispatch office in
Dallas, and the dispatcher there to try to raise Flight 77
on another radio, but failed.
At 9:09 a.m., the American dispatcher said he could not
reach Flight 77, but said the company had "an unconfirmed
report the second airplane hit the World Trade Center and
exploded." He seemed to suggest that American 77 might be
that plane, but in fact American 77 was racing back over
Pittsburgh, toward Washington.
At 9:33 a.m., the same air traffic controller at Dulles who
had handled the perfectly normal departure of American 77
about 70 minutes earlier, spotted an unidentified blip on
the radar screen. The Dulles controllers called their
counterparts at Reagan National Airport to report that a
"fast moving primary target," meaning an airplane with no
transponder, was moving east, headed toward the forbidden
airspace over the White House, the Capitol and the
A Dulles supervisor picked up a hot line to tell the Secret
Service at the White House. The president was in Florida,
but Vice President Dick Cheney was in the White House;
Secret Service agents hustled him into an underground
At 9:36 a.m., National Airport, which was on American 77's
flight path, asked a military C-130 cargo plane, taking off
on a scheduled flight from Andrews Air Force Base - in
Maryland, on the other side of the District of Columbia -
to intercept and identify the fast-moving target. The crew
of the C-130 said it was a Boeing 757, moving low and fast.
The airplane was headed for the heart of Washington. But as
it crossed the Pentagon at perhaps 7,000 feet - the exact
altitude is uncertain because its transponder had been
turned off - it began a 360- degree turn to the right that
brought nearly to ground level. It crashed into the west
side of the Pentagon at 9:38 a.m.
At impact, it was moving at well over 500 m.p.h., which
both maximized the destruction and made the plane easier to
handle. Investigators later determined that it had been
flying on autopilot on its path over the Pentagon. Pilots
use autopilot to minimize their workload on long days and
to assure a precise course and smooth ride.
Just minutes before the crash at the Pentagon, United
Airlines Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco,
went off course near Cleveland. It now appears that Flight
93 received a warning of the hijackings.
Cutting through the background noise in the cockpit of
Flight 93, the crew would have heard the sound of an
electronic "ping" like one that might announce the arrival
of e-mail message on a home computer. It was a text message
coming by radio, from a flight dispatcher near Chicago. In
green letters on a black background, it said, "Beware,
The message was sent by a dispatcher, sitting at the
"transcontinental" desk at United's operations center near
O'Hare International Airport, who had been assigned to
follow both 175 and 93, as well as 14 other airplanes that
morning. After United 175 was confirmed to have been
hijacked, he sent the message to all the planes he was
In the cockpit of Flight 93, Capt. Jason Dahl and his first
officer, Leroy Homer, continued westbound. In the last few
moments of the pre- attack world, there was no particular
reason for them to react radically.
"Getting a message like that on any day in the U.S.A.,
well, I'd think, `Those poor bastards,' " one aviation
official said. "Then I'd think, `It's already happened;
it's probably not going to happen again.' "
Since Sept. 11, details have emerged of a struggle between
hijackers and passengers on Flight 93. People involved in
air traffic control said the F.B.I. seized the air traffic
tapes of the conversations with that airplane, and no
transcript was made available of air-to-ground
communications for the flight. But according to a person
who heard the tape, "a very noisy sound of a confrontation
was heard on the frequency, very garbled, but with some
discernible phrase like, `Hey, get out of here!' "
There was the sound of a foreign language on the frequency;
controllers thought it was Arabic.
Flight 93 crashed in a field western Pennsylvania at 10:10
a.m. But before the final cockpit intrusion of the morning,
one of the pilots apparently turned to the e-mail unit that
carried the warning from Chicago, touched a button that
made the screen display a keyboard and typed a one-word
By the time the F-16's from Langley Air Force Base in
Hampton, Va., arrived, the damage was done.
At both Langley and at Otis Air National Guard Base at
Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, two sets of fighter pilots
were spending the morning as usual: sitting, waiting, and
wondering whether they would escape the day without hearing
the shrill klaxon blast that occasionally sent them racing
to the cockpits of their supersonic jets.
For years, the threat of an incoming aerial attack on the
American homeland had been considered so minor that on the
morning of Sept. 11, the entire country was being defended
by 14 Air National Guard planes dispersed among seven
The first call came to Otis about the hijacking of Flight
11 came at 8:46 a.m., six minutes after the F.A.A. had
first notified the North East Air Defense Sector in Rome,
N.Y., a division of Norad. Six minutes later two vintage
F-15's, built in 1977 and equipped with heat-seeking and
radar-guided missiles, had been scrambled, according to a
One pilot was a part-time Guardsman who flew a commercial
plane as his day job; the other jet was flown by a
full-time member of the Air National Guard.
But the orders came too late. The first plane was plunging
into the World Trade Center when the Otis pilots were
racing to their jets. United Flight 175 hit the second
tower at 9:02 a.m., 10 minutes after the fighters were
airborne, when the F-15's were about 71 miles and eight
minutes away. When they arrived, the helpless pilots got
the first aerial views of the devastation.
The three F16's at Langley, all of them assigned to the
North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Fighter Wing,
nicknamed the Happy Hooligans, were also scrambled too late
to intercept American Flight 77 before it crashed into the
But if United Airlines Flight 93 had not crashed in
Pennsylvania, the three pilots from Langley - two of them
commercial airline pilots themselves - may have faced the
nightmarish decision of whether to shoot down the
commercial airliner, along with its 38 passengers and crew
"It kept us from having to do the unthinkable," said Maj.
Gen. Mike J. Haugen, adjutant general of the North Dakota
National Guard, "and that is to use your own weapons and
own training against your own citizens."
The military has not allowed the pilots to be interviewed,
and The Times has agreed not to print their names because
of security concerns. But details of their activities on
Sept. 11 have emerged through interviews with other Guard
At Langley, the pilot designated as the flight lead, a
33-year-old pilot for Northwest Airlines, was getting a cup
of coffee when someone yelled from the television room:
"Hey, an airplane just hit the World Trade Center!"
"All of a sudden," said Col. Lyle Andvik, a member and
former commander of the unit, "something happens that none
of us can believe. They get an order from Northeast Air
Defense Sector, the pilots get a scramble horn, and they're
down the stairs, out the door, in the jets and off they go.
At the time, they didn't realize why they were being
scrambled. They didn't realize that other planes had been
At 9:30 a.m., six minutes after receiving their orders from
the defense sector, code-named Huntress, three F-16's were
airborne, according to the Norad timeline. At first, the
planes were directed toward New York at top speed, and
probably reached 600 m.p.h. within two minutes, General
Haugen said. Then, flying in formation, they were vectored
toward the west and given a new flight target: Reagan
The planes, each loaded with six missiles, had slowed
slightly to just under supersonic speed, flying at about
25,000 feet, when they heard over their radio headsets that
the F.A.A. had ordered all civilian aircraft to land. The
next sign of how serious the situation had become arrived
in the form of a squawk over the plane's transponder, a
code that suggests almost an emergency wartime situation.
"They get the squawk and they've heard that planes are
supposed to land and then Huntress says, `Hooligan flight,
can you confirm that the Pentagon is on fire?' " General
Haugen said, adding that the lead flier looked down and
confirmed that the Pentagon was on fire.
Then the pilots received the most surreal order of the
awful morning. "A person came on the radio," General Haugen
said, "and identified themselves as being with the Secret
Service, and he said, `I want you to protect the White
House at all costs.' "
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