As attacks unfolded, FAA was left guessing
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran Sept. 12, 2001.
The two hijacked jets that sliced into the World Trade Center nearly crashed into each other before reaching New York City, according to a Federal Aviation Administration employee who works in the Nashua control facility.
FAA air traffic controllers in Nashua have learned through discussions with other controllers that an F-16 fighter stayed in hot pursuit of another hijacked commercial airliner until it crashed in Pennsylvania, said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
By 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the military had taken control of U.S. airspace, the employee said. The jet crashed into a field at 10:37 a.m.
The incidents fell in line with a handful of incredible and unprecedented events that unfolded in America on Tuesday, said the employee, who worked in the control center that fateful morning. The center is one of 20 FAA facilities that monitor long-distance flights once they leave airports.
FAA officials have refused to comment since the crashes Tuesday morning.
The morning’s surreal moments included a co-worker, who had just arrived for work, discovering that his wife’s American Airlines flight was involved in the day of terror, the employee said.
Controllers never expected that the terrorists who hijacked the plane had their sights set on the north tower of the World Trade Center, the employee said.
Even as the tower burned, controllers still hadn’t concluded that another hijacked plane – United Airlines Flight 175 – would slam into the other New York skyscraper, the employee said.
The terrorists, however, nearly had their plans dashed when the two planes almost collided outside the city, the employee said. “The two aircraft got too close to each other down by Stewart” International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y., the employee said.
Controllers have also learned that an F-16 fighter closely pursued hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 until it crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania, the employee said.
Although controllers don’t have complete details of the Air Force’s chase of the Boeing 757, they have learned the F-16 made 360-degree turns to remain close to the commercial jet, the employee said.
“He must’ve seen the whole thing,” the employee said of the F-16 pilot’s view of Flight 93’s crash.
One air traffic controller – with the help of an assistant – monitored the flight patterns of the two jets that toppled the World Trade Center, the employee said. He directed American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 – both Boeing 767 jets that had Boston-to-Los Angeles routes, the employee said.
The same controller handled Egypt Air Flight 990 when it crashed off the coast of Massachusetts in 1999, the employee said.
Hijackers gained control of American Airlines Flight 11 around Gardner, Mass., the employee said. “American was just flying around, doing what it wanted,” the employee said of the jet’s approach to New York.
United Airlines Flight 175 remained in the hands of its pilots until Albany, N.Y., the employee said. Terrorists apparently seized United Airlines Flight 93 late in its interrupted route, the employee said.
The controller in charge of flights 11 and 175 noticed the American Airlines plane had encountered difficulties when its transponder – the device that sends an electrical radar pulse to air traffic control centers -- shut off, the employee said. At that point, the plane veered from its course west, the employee said.
Soon after, the controller realized a hijacker stood in the cockpit when the plane’s captain – John Ogonowski of Dracut, Mass. – turned on his microphone, the employee said. Ogonowski activated the microphone so the FAA could hear the terrorists’ threats, the employee said.
The controller heard someone instruct, “ ‘Nobody do anything stupid’ ” and no one would get hurt, the employee said. After that, the controller heard no more conversations, the employee said.
“That’s all that was heard,” the employee said.
When it became apparent the plane had fallen into the hands of hijackers, a third controller began helping the controller and his assistant, a procedure followed during all hijackings, the employee said. FAA controllers also notified concerned government organizations such as the military, the employee said.
Then, controllers shut down all other air traffic quickly, the employee said. But many of the aircraft didn’t immediately answer FAA calls, the employee said.
Planes flying through the Nashua center’s airspace on their way to Georgia or Florida were told to land at other airports and avoid the airspace of the hijacked flights, the employee said.
The controller spoke with United Airlines Flight 175 for quite some time after terrorists took command of American Airlines Flight 11, the employee said. FAA controllers never expected Flight 175 to hit the second World Trade Center tower because of that sustained contact with the crew, the employee said.
“It’s not in anyone’s mind they’re hitting a target,” the employee said. “When somebody takes a plane over, they try to negotiate a release with money,” the employee said.
Many controllers also watched events unfold on the control center’s television, the employee said.
“After the first plane hit, nobody imagined it would happen again,” the employee said. “We all thought that was it. It totally caught everybody off guard.”
The controller is “pretty disturbed” that he lost both planes, the employee said. He handled both flights because they shared similar routes on their intended journey to Los Angeles, the employee said.
Other controllers will handle the disasters in other ways, the employee said. But controllers can feel rather helpless after such a tragedy because they “are just a voice in the air,” the employee said. “You can’t do anything.”
Controllers will rally around each other, the employee said. Controllers are very supportive of one another, the employee said.
They are “like family -- sitting shoulder to shoulder 40 hours a week,” the employee said.
The employee wouldn’t identify the controller who lost his wife, or her name. She was a businesswoman who had just missed her flight the night before, the employee said.
“We’re waiting to see what happens next,” the employee said of the country’s concern about the potential of more terrorist air attacks. “It pretty much opens the door to a bunch of stuff going on,” the employee said of the terrorists’ use of planes as weapons.