Miami, Florida, Friday, September 14, 2001
Tracking of jet
Who watched as
flight plan was aborted?
BY JOSEPH TANFANI AND ALFONSO CHARDY
FORTY-five minutes. That's how
long American Airlines Flight 77 meandered through
the air headed for the White House, its flight plan
abandoned, its radar beacon silent.
Originally bound for Los Angeles from
Washington, it got as far as the Ohio border before
terrorists disabled the aircraft's transponder, a
piece of equipment that sends a signal back to
It was about 9 a.m.
At that moment, the north tower of the World
Trade Center was already in flames.
Minutes later, a second airliner would crash
into the south tower, providing unmistakable
evidence that the United States was under terrorist
Meanwhile Flight 77 was turning around,
streaking back east over Virginia toward the White
House and finally slamming into the Pentagon at
Who was watching in those 45 minutes?
"That's a question that more and more people are
going to ask,'' said one controller in Miami. "What
the hell went on here? Was anyone doing anything
about it? Just as a national defense thing, how are
they able to fly around and no one go after them?''
Even with the transponder silent, the plane
should have been visible on radar, both to
controllers who handle cross-continent air traffic
and to a Federal Aviation Administration command
center outside of Washington, according to airtraffic controllers.
The FAA, which handles air traffic control,
would not discuss the track of Flight 77 or what
happened in air-control centers while it was in
flight. Neither would American Airlines.
On Thursday, FBI agents were trying to answer
those questions, interviewing controllers at the
regional Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va.
Flight 77 took off at 8:10 a.m. from Dulles
International Airport, and proceeded normally until
it got to about the Ohio border, according to
Flight Explorer, a company that tracks air traffic for
private clients. The transponder went off about 9
a.m., the company said.
At that moment, the flight would have been under
the control of the Indianapolis Air Route Traffic
Control Center, one of 20 regional centers that
track flights between airports.
The trouble should have been instantly
noticeable, traffic controllers say.
Flight 77, like other planes, at first showed up
on radar screens as a short solid line, with a
readout that identifies the plane and gives its
altitude and speed. When the transponder shuts
down, the short line vanishes. The speed number
goes away, too.
"It's just something that catches your eye,''
one controller says.
And it's not that unusual. Transponders fail
from time to time; commercial aircraft are required
to carry a spare. Although it isn't clear what
happened in the case of Flight 77, a controller's
first move typically would be to contact the pilot,
and tell them the transponder wasn't working.
SWITCHING TO RADAR
But even if the plane remained silent,
controllers could still find it -- by switching
their screen display to the old-fashioned radar
that bounces a signal off the plane's metal skin.
Many controllers who track high-flying planes
have little experience using that harder-to-read
system, one former controller said.
"You'll have controllers with 10 years
experience who never track an airplane without a
transponder. It just doesn't happen,'' said Ed
Freeman, a Maryland consultant who spent 24
years as an air traffic controller.
At about 9:25 a.m., television commentator
Barbara Olson called her husband --
Solicitor General Theodore Olson -- and
reported that the plane had been hijacked.
Five minutes later, she called back to say the
pilot was with the passengers in the back of the
About that time, controllers across the country
were frantically trying to get all planes out of
the air, ordering all pilots to land at the nearest
Flight 77 was heading directly toward the
restricted airspace over the White House when it
banked sharply to the right and approached the
Military jets are
routinely scrambled in the case of
hijackings and "runners,'' planes that do not
answer or do not heed air traffic controllers. But
FAA officials would not say when controllers
detected the errant Flight 77 or whether any
fighter jets were able to get into the air to
Fighter jets are based nearby, in Virginia, and
could have reached the White House within minutes,
aviation sources say.
In at least one other case, American Flight 11,
controllers knew it was a hijacking while it was in
The pilot, who apparently flew the plane much of
the way from Boston to New York, pushed a button on
the aircraft yoke that allowed controllers to hear
what was going on: the hijacker giving orders in a
threatening voice, and the pilot trying to be calm,
according to an account in the Christian Science
Two F-15 jets were scrambled from Otis Air Force
Base in New York, the newspaper reported, but the
controllers report the plane vanished from the radar
just before or after they got in the air. It
was the first plane that hit the World Trade Center
Pilots and controllers have instructions on how
to handle a typical hijacking.
If the transponder is still working, pilots
punch in a four-digit code that tells controllers
the plane is being hijacked. Once that signal is
received, a controller is supposed to call the
aircraft and ask, subtly, if the pilot meant to
send the transmission.
The FAA has a detailed hijacking manual:
Supervisors are notified. The FAA command center
near Washington and the FBI are put on alert.
Military jets are scrambled to follow the plane.
Air-traffic controllers try to figure out where the
hijacker wants to go and, if necessary, clear an
air space of other traffic.
The FBI has well-rehearsed plans to send
negotiators and hostage rescue teams to airport.
But there's nothing in the security plan that
talks about terrorist-flown planes turned into
missiles, say experts and former FAA and FBI
officials. The plan assumes hijackers want to use
the plane to extort something -- not to use it as a
"I know we thought and talked about it,'' said
Robert M. Blitzer, a consultant and former
counterterrorism chief at the FBI.
"I just don't know that anyone imagined in
reality that something like this would ever