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 whats 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. Theyll call the plane, saying American 11, youre deviating from course. Its considered a real emergency, like a police car screeching down a highway at 100 miles an hour. When golfer Payne Stewarts incapacitated Learjet missed a turn at a fix, heading north instead of west to Texas, F-16 interceptors were quickly dispatched.
SHOOT DOWNS POSSIBLE
F-16 interceptors can fly alongside a plane to see whos 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 Stewarts 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 FAAs 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, Dont do anything foolish, youre not going to get hurt, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
MATTERS OF TIMING
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 didnt 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 aircrafts 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 whos likely inexperienced as a pilot.
WHEN DID PILOTS LOSE CONTROL?
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? Ive spent 10 hours in a 767 simulator. Its a docile, easy-to-fly plane. But it has a sophisticated flight-management system used for navigation. If youre not trained on the 767s system, youd need the planes 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 Tuesdays attack far more difficult.
© 2001 MSNBC
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