“Planes. As in plural.”

Note: This is a re-post from 2004 of a summary of the first chapter of the 9/11 Commission report.

Chapter 1. “We Have Some Planes”

I’m reading the report. I’m not making very good time. As I mentioned earlier, everyone who’s truly interested in the events of that day should read the first chapter.

Here are some of my thoughts on the first chapter. This isn’t meant to be a summary of any kind. This isn’t a real analysis. This is what struck me as I read it, and a few of the random things that occurred to me as I muddled my way through. The quotes are from the report. All emphasis throughout is mine.

Before the first chapter even begins, I notice this in the Preface:

We learned about an enemy who is sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal. The enemy rallies broad support in the Arab and Muslim world by demanding redress of political grievances, but its hostility toward us and our values is limitless. Its purpose is to rid the world of religious and political pluralism, the plebiscite, and equal rights for women. It makes no distinction between military and civilian targets. Collateral damage is not in its lexicon.

I’d suggest that this isn’t news. I’d suggest that we’ve known this for quite some time, and even if we haven’t wanted to connect the dots or draw any conclusions we have been told this flat out by Osama bin Laden and others numerous times. Since there ARE many who don’t seem to get this, though, I’m glad they spelled it out so clearly.

The first chapter summarizes activity, flight by flight, in the air and on the ground during the time of the hijackings. One story I wasn’t familiar with took place on American 11, the first plane hijacked and the first to be flown into its target, the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

As this was happening, passenger Daniel Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari,was stabbed by one of the hijackers—probably Satam al Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin. Lewin had served four years as an officer in the Israeli military. He may have made an attempt to stop the hijackers in front of him, not realizing that another was sitting behind him.

What a difference one man might have made.

On United 175, passenger Peter Hanson called his father Lee. This is part of the call:

I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building—Don’t worry, Dad—If it happens, it’ll be very fast—My God,my God.

Then

The call ended abruptly. Lee Hanson had heard a woman scream just before it cut off. He turned on a television, and in her home so did Louise Sweeney [the mother of a different passenger on United 175 who had been contacted by her son earlier that morning]. Both then saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center.

The accounts of that morning are filled with similar tragic stories. There’s no mention of how Peter Hanson got the idea that the hijackers were going to fly into a building. Wild speculation? That doesn’t seem likely. I wonder how they knew.

A major theme of the first chapter is to recount how and why our reaction to the events were left wanting.

As United 93 left Newark, the flight’s crew members were unaware of the hijacking of American 11. Around 9:00, the FAA, American, and United were facing the staggering realization of apparent multiple hijackings. At 9:03, they would see another aircraft strike the World Trade Center. Crisis managers at the FAA and the airlines did not yet act to warn other aircraft. At the same time, Boston Center realized that a message transmitted just before 8:25 by the hijacker pilot of American 11 included the phrase,“We have some planes.” No one at the FAA or the airlines that day had ever dealt with multiple hijackings. Such a plot had not been carried out anywhere in the world in more than 30 years, and never in the United States. As news of the hijackings filtered through the FAA and the airlines, it does not seem to have occurred to their leadership that they needed to alert other aircraft in the air that they too might be at risk.

Though worded not to lay blame at the feet of the FAA leadership, the inference is that a warning, had it been issued quickly, may have blunted some of the later attacks.

Several FAA air traffic control officials told us it was the air carriers’ responsibility to notify their planes of security problems. One senior FAA air traffic control manager said that it was simply not the FAA’s place to order the airlines what to tell their pilots. We believe such statements do not reflect an adequate appreciation of the FAA’s responsibility for the safety and security of civil aviation.

While it seems painfully obvious today that the FAA had damn well better tell the airlines what to tell their pilots when circumstances warrant, the real question is ‘should they have felt that way when they came into work on the morning of 9/11/01?’. It’s hard to shake loose the so-called 20/20 vision of hindsight, but to answer these questions we need to do so. If this subject had been brought up on 9/10/01, the airlines would have rejected the idea that the FAA should order them what to tell their pilots, and they would have had reasonable ground for doing so.

Another hurdle in the way of building a national defense against hijacked airliners on the fly that morning was the decentralized organization of the FAA itself. Even if they HAD had the authority to order airlines what to tell their pilots, would the FAA even have known what to order?

FAA Control Centers often receive information and make operational decisions independently of one another. On 9/11, the four hijacked aircraft were monitored mainly by the centers in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. Each center thus had part of the knowledge of what was going on across the system. What Boston knew was not necessarily known by centers in New York, Cleveland, or Indianapolis, or for that matter by the Command Center in Herndon or by FAA headquarters in Washington.

A theme we heard repeated over and over, whether about the FAA, the military, intelligence agencies, or virtually any other government operation involved in 9/11, is the lack of reliable inter-agency, and even (as in this case) intra-agency, communication and cooperation. Of course, laws have been passed to keep things split up for the sake of individual privacy and anti-monopolistic reasons, and every move to aggregate information or combine operations brings cries of “Big Brother” from the opposition. And they’re right. There’s a middle ground somewhere. But where?

NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was the military body that was responsible for responding to hijacked airliners.

On 9/11, all the hijacked aircraft were in NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (also known as NEADS), which is based in Rome, New York. That morning NEADS could call on two alert sites, each with one pair of ready fighters: Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton,Virginia. Other facilities, not on “alert,”would need time to arm the fighters and organize crews.

A lot of the conspiracy theorists point out that if this wasn’t a planned operation, fighters should have been able to intercept at least some of the airliners before they hit. I’ve argued that it’s a lot easier said than done, and I had no idea how difficult a proposition it was that morning. There were only two two-ship flights on call. If there were normally more than two available, I’ll entertain whispers of conspiracy. The report (at least what I’ve read so far) doesn’t indicate that this was out of the ordinary, so I’m giving the military the benefit of the doubt on this one.

I’m also curious to see how this has changed since 9/11.

Prior to 9/11, the primary threats envisioned by NORAD were cruise missiles and hijacked airliners used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, they presumed that the attack would originate outside of US airspace and that there would be time to scramble and coordinate a military response. In any event, the procedure to deal with a hijacked airliner was for the interceptors to take up station about five miles behind the airliner and observe only. Orders to shoot it down would have to come from the top.

In sum, the protocols in place on 9/11 for the FAA and NORAD to respond to a hijacking presumed that
  • the hijacked aircraft would be readily identifiable and would not attempt to disappear;
  • there would be time to address the problem through the appropriate FAA and NORAD chains of command; and
  • the hijacking would take the traditional form: that is, it would not be a suicide hijacking designed to convert the aircraft into a guided missile.

On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen.

When American Airlines realized that their flight 11 had been hijacked, FAA Headquarters began to follow the hijack protocol

but did not contact the NMCC [National Military Command Center] to request a fighter escort.

The FAA’s Boston Center took it upon itself to contact the military, but not through proper channels. At 8:37, nine minutes before American 11 crashed into the WTC’s North Tower, the Traffic Management Unit reached NEADS and requested “some F-16s or something” be scrambled to “help us out.”

General Arnold later recalled instructing [Battle Commander Colonel] Marr to “go ahead and scramble them, and we’ll get authorities later.” General Arnold then called NORAD headquarters to report.

The two F-15s on alert were scrambled at 8:46. Radar shows them airborne at 8:50, 153 miles from New York City. American 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46, just as the ‘scramble’ order was given.

In summary, NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before it struck the North Tower. That nine minutes’ notice before impact was the most the military would receive of any of the four hijackings.

While trying to deal with American 11, the pilot of United 175 reported overhearing the radio transmission including “We have some planes” to the FAA’s New York Center. Within the next four minutes, United 175 abruptly changed course, and its transponder codes were altered a couple of times.

These changes were not noticed for several minutes, however, because the same New York Center controller was assigned to both American 11 and United 175.

Can you believe it? Words fail me.

An 8:48 conference call worked to get more information out on American 11.

The New York Center controller and manager were unaware that American 11 had already crashed.

and

At about 8:55, the controller in charge notified a New York Center manager that she believed United 175 had also been hijacked.The manager tried to notify the regional managers and was told that they were discussing a hijacked aircraft (presumably American 11) and refused to be disturbed.

I often tell others that I’m too busy at the moment to deal with a new issue right then and there. Sometimes I’m wrong. This just helps illustrate the fact that no one was even remotely prepared for the events of that morning.

At 9:01

Terminal: I got somebody who keeps coasting but it looks like he’s going into one of the small airports down there.

Center: Hold on a second. I’m trying to bring him up here and get you—There he is right there. Hold on.

Terminal: Got him just out of 9,500—9,000 now.

Center: Do you know who he is?

Terminal:We’re just, we just we don’t know who he is. We’re just picking
him up now.

Center (at 9:02): Alright. Heads up man, it looks like another one coming in.

It was United 175. About this time Peter Hanson was talking to his dad, telling him that if they crashed it would be quick. One minute later they slammed into the South Tower.

While this was happening, FAA Boston Center was going over the last cockpit transmissions from American 11. One of the officials thought he made out the “we have some planes” line through the speaker’s thick accent.

Unidentified Female Voice: They have what?

Boston Center: Planes, as in plural.

In movies, that would be the moment to fade the music and background sound for a moment and focus on the face of a character or two to show the dawn of realization. It’s chilling when done well in the movies. It’s chilling just to think about it now, almost three years later, knowing that it was real and that no one could look at a script to learn what to do or say next. Boston Center issued instructions for all planes in its airspace to “heighten cockpit security”

Boston Center asked the Herndon Command Center to issue a similar cockpit security alert nationwide.We have found no evidence to suggest that the Command Center acted on this request or issued any type of cockpit security alert.

Of all the things that went wrong that morning, this seems to me to be one of the few cases of downright negligence. Why wasn’t this passed on? If it was reviewed and rejected, what were the reasons? This happened within minutes of United 175 hitting the South Tower at 9:03. American 77 had already been hijacked, but United 93 wouldn’t be until about 9:28. Simple awareness of the situation and posting a couple of male flight attendants outside the cockpit door may have been enough to thwart the takeover by the four hijackers. The other three flights all had five terrorists aboard. If any of the four missions were going to be disrupted, this was the one. It didn’t happen beforehand, so it had to happen later. (UPDATE: It doesn’t appear that any of the flight attendants on Flight 93 were male. This doesn’t mean that something couldn’t have been done to try and prevent the hijackers from taking over the plane.)

American 77 disappeared from the scopes of air traffic controllers shortly after it was hijacked. Planes are normally tracked using their transponders, but the terrorists disabled this. Controllers can also switch to radar, but it wasn’t showing up there either. Some, unaware of the other hijackings, thought the plane had crashed.

The failure to find a primary radar return for American 77 led us to investigate this issue further. Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked the flight from the moment its transponder was turned off at 8:56. But for 8 minutes and 13 seconds, between 8:56 and 9:05, this primary radar information on American 77 was not displayed to controllers at Indianapolis Center. The reasons are technical, arising from the way the software processed radar information, as well as from poor primary radar coverage where American 77 was flying.

Don’t think the conspiracy theorists won’t make hay with this. I’d like to know more about this, I guess.

American 77 had been heading southwest at the time it was hijacked. Almost immediately it was turned on a dime and began heading back the way it had come.

Managers did not instruct other controllers at Indianapolis Center to turn on their primary radar coverage to join in the search for American 77. In sum, Indianapolis Center never saw Flight 77 turn around. By the time it reappeared in primary radar coverage, controllers had either stopped looking for the aircraft because they thought it had crashed or were looking toward the west.

and

American 77 traveled undetected for 36 minutes on a course heading due east for Washington,D.C.

At 9:32

Reagan National controllers then vectored an unarmed National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft, which had just taken off en route to Minnesota, to identify and follow the suspicious aircraft.The C-130H pilot spotted it, identified it as a Boeing 757, attempted to follow its path, and at 9:38, seconds after impact, reported to the control tower:“looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon sir.”

Don’t forget this C-130H.

At 9:21, 35 minutes after American 11 crashed into the North Tower, the FAA told NEADS that it was in the air and headed for Washington. There was some confusion (to say the least) and the military ended up with the impression that an airliner was headed down toward Washington from New York.

Mission Crew Commander, NEADS: Okay, uh, American Airlines is still airborne. Eleven, the first guy, he’s heading towards Washington. Okay? I think we need to scramble Langley right now. And I’m gonna take the fighters from Otis, try to chase this guy down if I can find him.

and

NEADS decided to keep the Otis fighters over New York.The heading of the Langley fighters was adjusted to send them to the Baltimore area. The mission crew commander explained to us that the purpose was to position the Langley fighters between the reported southbound American 11 and the nation’s capital.

Again, this will be latched onto by the conspiracy theorists as how the interceptors from Langley that might have stopped American 77 west of DC were sent north. Maybe they’re right. In any case this doesn’t seem on the surface to be dereliction of duty given the confusion of the morning, though I’d sure like to know exactly why the FAA, who had more information than anyone else, screwed up the identities and locations so badly.

NEADS contacted the FAA’s Washington Center and got this:

“We’re looking—we also lost American 77. ”The time was 9:34. This was the first notice to the military that American 77 was missing, and it had come by chance. If NEADS had not placed that call, the NEADS air defenders would have received no information whatsoever that the flight was even missing, although the FAA had been searching for it. No one at FAA headquarters ever asked for military assistance with American 77.

When Boston Center notified NEADS of an unidentified aircraft closing in on Washington, the response from the NEADS Mission Crew Commander was

“Okay,we’re going to turn it . . . crank it up. . . . Run them to the White House.” He then discovered, to his surprise, that the Langley fighters were not headed north toward the Baltimore area as instructed,but east over the ocean. “I don’t care how many windows you break,” he said. “Damn it. . . . Okay. Push them back.”

(The comment about breaking windows means don’t worry about sonic booms–In other words, “Pedal to the metal”.) Lack of specific orders or target locations had ended up sending the interceptors to the side of Washington opposite the incoming American 77. It hit the Pentagon at 9:37.

One thing to remember when discussing the interception of hijacked airliners is that shooting one down over populated areas, especially at the altitude these planes were flying, would result in horrific death and destruction on the ground from the falling plane and its load of jet fuel. Much would burn and disperse, to be sure, but the damage may have been even greater, in terms of lives lost, if the Langley planes had been able to shoot American 77 down at the last minute. That doesn’t preclude the action, of course. Loss of the Pentagon or the Capitol building would impact this nation’s ability to defend itself and carry on much more than the loss of thousands of homes in a residential neighborhood. These decisions would need to be made. But shooting down the airliners wasn’t without its own risk.

At about 9:28, some unintelligible sounds were picked up from United Flight 93.

This was followed by a second radio transmission, with sounds of screaming.

The hijackers apparently didn’t know how to operate the radio, because they twice transmitted over the radio statements meant for the passengers. About twenty minutes later the FAA Command Center suggested to FAA Headquarters that they call for military assistance.

FAA Headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.

At 10:01, another aircraft reported seeing United 93 “waving his wings”. At this time, some passengers on Flight 93 had moved against the terrorists and the hijackers were shaking the aircraft in an attempt to keep the passengers from entering the cockpit.

The aircraft had witnessed the hijackers’ efforts to defeat the passengers’ counterattack.

Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania at 10:03. Five minutes later an aircraft reported seeing smoke in the area.

The aircraft that spotted the “black smoke” was the same unarmed Air National Guard cargo plane that had seen American 77 crash into the Pentagon 27 minutes earlier.

Wow.

NEADS lost the radar image of Flight 93 while trying to move interceptors into position.

NEADS: United nine three, have you got information on that yet?

FAA:Yeah, he’s down.

NEADS: He’s down?

FAA:Yes.

NEADS: When did he land? ’Cause we have got confirmation—

FAA: He did not land.

NEADS: Oh, he’s down? Down?

Down.

NEADS air defenders had nine minutes’ notice on the first hijacked plane, no advance notice on the second, no advance notice on the third, and no advance notice on the fourth.

For the conspiracy theorists:

More than the actual events, inaccurate government accounts of those events made it appear that the military was notified in time to respond to two of the hijackings, raising questions about the adequacy of the response.Those accounts had the effect of deflecting questions about the military’s capacity to obtain timely and accurate information from its own sources. In addition, they overstated the FAA’s ability to provide the military with timely and useful information that morning.

These “inaccurate government accounts” and the attempt to clear up the inaccuracies are going to haunt us for decades. We will be subjected to countless references to them in novels, movies, documentaries, and histories. The TWA 800 theories didn’t hold up like the JFK theories. These will.

The National Military Command Center suffered from the same duplication of effort and different perceptions of events and priorities that everyday businesses suffer from:

As one witness recalled,“[It] was almost like there were parallel decision making processes going on; one was a voice conference orchestrated by the NMCC . . . and then there was the [White House video teleconference]. . . . [I]n my mind they were competing venues for command and control and decision making.”

This isn’t unusual, but the compressed time (only 98 minutes passed from the time American Airlines realized Flight 11 had been hijacked until United 93 crashed in Pennsylvania) made every second’s delay, every piece of bad information sent out, every moment waiting for a response from someone absolutely crucial.

At some time between 10:10 and 10:15, a military aide told the Vice President and others that the aircraft was 80 miles out. Vice President Cheney was asked for authority to engage the aircraft. His reaction was described by Scooter Libby as quick and decisive, “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing.” The Vice President authorized fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane. He told us he based this authorization on his earlier conversation with the President.The military aide returned a few minutes later, probably between 10:12 and 10:18, and said the aircraft was 60 miles out. He again asked for authorization to engage. The Vice President again said yes.

Unfortunately, United 93 had been down since 10:03. As hard as it was for me to believe at the time, there were no more hijacked airliners that day.

Minutes went by and word arrived of an aircraft down in Pennsylvania. Those in the shelter wondered if the aircraft had been shot down pursuant to this authorization.

As I’ve written before, I hoped that it had. But this account leaves me with the impression that there was never a prayer of intercepting domestic flights under the conditions existing at that time.

Regarding the instructions to shoot down any hijacked airliners,

The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

If fighters had been in position to do something about the hijacked airliners and failed to do so because the orders from the White House had not been passed on, there would be whole ‘nother can of worms to dig into. Since the fighters never really had a chance, we aren’t forced to deal with this issue in the investigation. I hope we’ve done so by now.

At 10:39 Cheney talked to Donald Rumsfeld:

SecDef: So we’ve got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?

Vice President: That is correct. And it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.

SecDef:We can’t confirm that.We’re told that one aircraft is down but we do not have a pilot report that did it.

Rummy had it right and stated it clearly. That didn’t happen very often that morning.

NEADS wasn’t the only organization working to scramble fighters that morning, though.

A Secret Service agent had a phone in each ear, one connected to [113th Air Wing General] Wherley and the other to a fellow agent at the White House, relaying instructions that the White House agent said he was getting from the Vice President. The guidance for Wherley was to send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”—that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward.

The Secret Service had scrambled planes and given them free license. And the White House, NORAD, and the NMCC didn’t know a thing about it.

As for the idea that Flight 93 might have been intercepted and shot down,

NORAD officials have maintained consistently that had the passengers not caused United 93 to crash, the military would have prevented it from reaching Washington,D.C. That conclusion is based on a version of events that we now know is incorrect.

Pretty straightforward.

First, the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled. As the lead pilot explained, “I reverted to the Russian threat. . . . I’m thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. . . . [Y]ou couldn’t see any airplanes, and no one told us anything.” The pilots knew their mission was to divert aircraft, but did not know that the threat came from hijacked airliners.

Even if they had known the threat, they didn’t have good location information on Flight 93 and hadn’t received orders to shoot it down. The decision to do so wasn’t arrived at until 10:31, and NEADS didn’t pass it on to the air crews.

From the information in Chapter 1, it doesn’t appear that anyone really panicked while reacting to the threat of the hijackings. At least not in a way that negatively affected our ability to react. But the system itself showed all the signs of panic. It seems to me that our national defense capability, like an individual suddenly confronted with a unfamiliar life-threatening situation, locked up in some places while racing on adrenaline in others. Indecision and conflicting signals were sent and received, and the end result was an effective near paralysis that eliminated any chance that there might have been to react in a meaningful manner.

I wish there was an individual or lone organization that we could blame this all on. It would be so much easier to deal with it. We would all feel better, and we could easily see if our modifications were good enough.

But that’s not the case. It was an across-the-board failure, and we won’t know if our corrections work unless they’re tested again by a similar attack. Although I don’t doubt we’ll be attacked again, I doubt it will resemble 9/11. And if we survive the assault, we will probably eventually have another report very similar to this one outlining the hows and the whys of our failures to prevent it.

Comments

  1. Ahh the wheels of government move so slowly…

    Good to see:

    ‘General Arnold later recalled instructing [Battle Commander Colonel] Marr to “go ahead and scramble them, and we’ll get authorities later.”’

    Of course if Osama + co attack again it will be something different.

  2. I handled Emergency Managment for a large MI Civil Service Agency from 1987 to early ’03 when I retired. Evreything from power outages to rull on riots, serious haz mat incidents, IED response, armed assault on our facilities etc. Nothing like having several airliners flown into us though! I’m afraid we wouldn’t have fared any differently than all the locations and victims of 9/11.

    Good article Murdoc……….I can tell you right known why the emergency response was inconsistent though. There had been NO integrated routine practice by the many agencies involved. Obviously they couldn’t have practiced for manned cruise missle attack, but practice for anticipated threats or disaster sceenarios would have identified interagency problems of all tpes. No inter agnecy practices + none of the kinks were worked out, nor improvements made.

    This is what really pisses me off about the billions wasted on much of our emergency preparedness since 9/11. The various national, state, and local agnecies still haven’t put meaningful attack/disaster exercises into place. There have been a lot of paper and electronic exercises, but no real multi state multi agency mobilizations. It’s too much troulble, too disruptive to normal operations and services, and too expensive (that’s the usual litany of excuses). I heard them over and over again at the local level……it was like pulling teeth to get exercises authorised and organised. I also heard many deep sighs of relief after real emergencies/incidents when the foot draggers realised how much better off we’d been during the incident/s; for the lessons we’d learned during the practices we had engaged in.

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