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  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Colin Scoggins was working as the military liaison at the FAA Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Colin Scoggins talks about the way things happened at the FAA center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 where he was working as a military liaison.
Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nashua FAA controller played role in tracking Flight 11

Colin Scoggins can’t remember the exact sequence of certain actions, but he’ll never forget his and his colleagues’ efforts and the result.

Sept. 11, 2001, will go down as one of the most stressful and painful days for those working at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Nashua facility.

As widely reported over the past decade, air traffic controllers there initially guided the two commercial airliners before they were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.

Scoggins had a unique role at the facility that day. Since 1995, the Nashua resident has served, among other duties, as the center’s link between controllers and various military organizations.

On 9/11, Scoggins tried to help the military get a fix on American Airlines Flight 11, which proved nearly impossible because hijackers had turned off the plane’s transponder, making the jet tough to track.

To illustrate the difficulty that controllers and Scoggins had, at first they didn’t know it was Flight 11 that had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Scoggins recounted his efforts on the historic morning, a retelling of the typically undisclosed workings of FAA control centers. He started to discuss his and the Nashua facility’s role a few years ago, landing him in classrooms, on C-SPAN and on a movie set.

Scoggins arrived at work that September morning and was immediately told a plane had been hijacked. Instead of heading to the center’s operational floor, he went to the in-house credit union.

“My intent was to not get in the way,” Scoggins said. “It gets too crowded there.”

But Daniel Bueno, supervisor of the center’s air traffic management unit, summoned Scoggins. Bueno told him about the hijacking, and how controllers could only track Flight 11’s primary radar return, but not its altitude because of the disabled transponder.

Scoggins could help because he deals with military contacts almost daily, he said. He soon made the first of many calls to the Northeast Air Defense Sector of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The detailed back-and-forth of Scoggins’ communications with NEADS to help track Flight 11 and intercept the plane are well-documented in several publications, including federal reports and books.

Essentially, Scoggins hoped NEADS could give the FAA a better sense of Flight 11’s altitude. NEADS could relay altitude by thousands of feet, he said.

The Nashua FAA center could see Flight 11 had deviated from its flight pattern and had increased speed, but controllers – other than twice hearing lead hijacker Mohamed Atta talking to passengers – had no communication with the plane.

Scoggins asked NEADS to scramble fighter jets to intercept Flight 11, but the military didn’t want to launch its pilots until it could get a read on the plane, he said.

The terrorist attacks have changed many military and government protocols, including the one clarifying the takedown of a hijacked plane should it pose a threat. Prior to the attacks, military jets on an intercept would have tried to guide a hijacked plane rather than shoot it down, Scoggins said.

If fighter jets had been launched earlier, at best they would have reached Flight 11 just as it struck the World Trade Center, Scoggins said.

Also, “If someone told us about Flight 175, maybe …” he said of the hijacked United Airlines plane that took off from Logan Airport. It was hijacked after it had transferred from the Nashua center’s control to an FAA facility in New York.

Fighter jets from Otis Air Force Base eventually launched, but did so minutes after Flight 11 crashed, according to government reports. Because the FAA didn’t immediately know about the plane’s fate, the fighter jets were in pursuit of a ghost for some time.

For that matter, because of the confusion from the hijackings and because many other planes were still in the air, several other “ghost” flights had controllers on edge throughout the morning, Scoggins said.

One such flight was erroneously thought to be headed straight for the FAA center in Nashua, causing an evacuation of the building for nearly 30 minutes, Scoggins said. Controllers didn’t abandon their flights, following them through their routes before finally rushing out, and at least three employees stayed in their basement offices unaware of the perceived threat, he said.

As Scoggins wrote in an FAA report nine days after the attacks: “We re-entered the building some 30 minutes later, to a desolate Air Traffic Control Center. That’s when you realized that nothing would ever be the same.”

Ten years later, Scoggins continues his job as an FAA military liaison. He now speaks publicly about his role on 9/11, and served as a consultant to a film that was made about hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, he said.

Scoggins says a lot of things went wrong that day, but a lot of things went right. Everyone knows about the wrong, but the right includes getting every plane landed safely at airports around the country and in Canada when the FAA shut down American airspace in the wake of the attacks, he said.

Also, because of the attacks, the FAA now has a teleconference system, known as the Domestic Event Network, that allows for direct communication with the military and other government agencies, he said.

DEN is used not just for emergencies, but for the movement of the president and vice president and other government operations, according to the FAA.

“Could there be more improvement? Sure,” Scoggins said. But, thinking about how passengers overtook the hijackers on Flight 93, he added:

“I don’t think passengers will let a plane be hijacked and used as a weapon.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, check McKeon out on Twitter (@Telegraph_AMcK).