What Was Needed to Halt the Attacks?

Cockpit security, quick response not in evidence Tuesday

by Dr. Bob Arnot
September 12, 2001

The use of a hijacked commercial airliner has long been considered the most obvious way of carrying out a major terrorist attack against the United States. Tom Clancy even detailed such an attack in one of his novels, and several moviemakers have put similar scenarios on the big screen. So on Tuesday, what warning did the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force have once the four planes were hijacked? What could have been done to stop the tragedy?

Before American Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles, the pilot was issued what’s called a standard instrument departure, or SID. A SID requires the airplane to fly to specific “fixes,” what you might call road signs in the sky. As pilots move from fix to fix, they are required to stay within 300 feet of their assigned altitude and within roughly a mile of course.

Pilots are supposed to hit each fix with pinpoint accuracy. If a plane deviates by 15 degrees, or two miles from that course, the flight controllers will hit the panic button. They’ll call the plane, saying “American 11, you’re deviating from course.” It’s considered a real emergency, like a police car screeching down a highway at 100 miles an hour. When golfer Payne Stewart’s incapacitated Learjet missed a turn at a fix, heading north instead of west to Texas, F-16 interceptors were quickly dispatched.


F-16 interceptors can fly alongside a plane to see who’s flying it. They can also try to force it off course. Once it is apparent that it is not following directions, it might be forced over the ocean or to a remote airport — or even shot down. The intent with Stewart’s plane was to shoot it down if it was going to crash into a major populated area.

Clearly, the Air Force had the capability and the training to intercept the American and United flights that hit the World Trade Center.
So how much time did the Air Force have to respond? The New York Times reported Saturday that military officials, indeed, were tracking the plane that struck the Pentagon and had scrambled fighters into protective orbits around Washington within 15 minutes after the crash.
On departure from Boston, American Airlines Flight 11 was passed from the Logan tower to TRACON, which handles departures, then to Boston Center for transition to high-altitude jet airways.

These airways lead over northern Massachusetts toward Albany, N.Y. At a point near Albany, the plane deviated from that course. The FAA’s Boston Center knew within less than a minute that Flight 11 had made a dramatic, roughly 100-degree left-hand turn to the south.
Controllers also overheard a conversation on a cockpit microphone saying, “Don’t do anything foolish, you’re not going to get hurt,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.


Flying time to the World Trade Center is 24 minutes at high speed from Albany. Flight time from Atlantic City, the nearest F-16 fighter base, to the World Trade Center is just 18 minutes. That leaves just six minutes to launch fighter jets to intercept the hijacked plane.
United Airlines Flight 175, headed from Boston to Los Angeles, flew within four air minutes of Atlantic City before turning north to the World Trade Center. It struck nearly 21 minutes after the first plane.

Why didn’t Atlantic City fighter planes respond? One answer is that Atlantic City is a National Guard base, not an Air Force intercept base, and it may not have had planes on alert. The nearest air intercept base, Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., was reported to have launched two F-15s, but they could not get to the World Trade Center in time.

Air Force and FAA investigators will focus on what procedures were in place to thwart this terrorism. Why were none of the hijacked planes intercepted? Perhaps the aircraft’s transponder was turned off so that controllers could no longer see information about the planes on their screens. But an Air Force facility in Rome, N.Y., tracks planes based solely on the radar reflection off the skin of the aircraft. That alone would allow the Air Force to track the flight.

Also, why did the plane turn at Albany? One answer is that the Hudson River is a natural geographical landmark that leads directly to the World Trade Center and is easy to navigate for a hijacker who’s likely inexperienced as a pilot.


The key question is, when did the terrorists take control of the aircraft, and what kind of expertise did they need to fly the 767? I’ve spent 10 hours in a 767 simulator. It’s a docile, easy-to-fly plane. But it has a sophisticated flight-management system used for navigation. If you’re not trained on the 767’s system, you’d need the plane’s pilots to navigate for you. Once a hijacker had the twin towers in sight, only modest flight training would be necessary to maneuver the plane toward them.

Our nation has a long history of reacting to “credible threats” and body counts rather than planning for unrealized but highly probable threats. The thought of shooting down a commercial airliner may have been too horrifying to contemplate, but it is something for which aviation authorities must now plan.

More immediately, pilots need to be protected from potential attackers by more than a flimsy cockpit door. The Israeli airline El Al has two doors separating its pilots from the passenger section of the aircraft, as well as armed guards. Those measures would have made Tuesday’s attack far more difficult.


2001 MSNBC

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