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Remembering 9-11 (Part 3 - The Flights)
An anonymous pilot in the 1960s once said, “Flying is the second greatest thing known to man.” So what is the first? The answer is – LANDING, OF COURSE.
As the 10th year of our horrific 9-11 catastrophe grows closer, we know that four flights -- two American and two United – did not accomplish the greatest thing known to man on September 11, 2001. Instead, the four captains of Flights 11, 175, 77 and 93 were killed before their planes could be safely landed. Their names (in the order of the flights above) are Captain John Ogonowski, Captain Victor Saracini, Captain Charles “Chick” Burlingame, and Captain Jason Dahl.
How did we ever let this happen? Probably because we are a society of extremes – either extremely lax or extremely rigid. In our society, there seems to be no in between. That morning we were extremely lax as 19 hijackers made it through security even though bells and whistles went off all over. There were red flags everywhere, from metal detectors going off, to identifications not matching on two of the hijackers, to all having either box cutters or folding knives, and all precisely fitting the profile of an Al-Qaeda supporter.
The two planes targeted out of Boston that September morning were Boeing 767s, a three-class airplane. They were American Flight 11 at gate B-32 with a 7:45 a.m. departure and United Flight 175 at gate C-19 with an 8:00 a.m. departure. Both of these flights were going to Los Angeles, and both flights had 5 hijackers make it on board! Both flights had the killers of the cockpit crew and the first class flight attendants sitting in First Class in seats 2A and 2B, and both had the two hijacking pilots seated in Business Class along with one extra, who was probably there to deal with the other passengers. Both flights probably had pepper spray (not mace as some thought) which was sprayed in Business Class. (And this made it through security too!)
As I researched these flights, I learned that Flight 11’s cockpit was entered just 15 minutes after takeoff, and they hit the north Tower at 8:46 a.m. at a speed of 466 mph.
Flight 175’s cockpit was entered 30 minutes after takeoff. Ironically, the crew had heard a transmission saying, “NO BODY MOVE, JUST STAY QUIET.” This was Atta, the hijacking pilot on Flight 11, who thought he was speaking to the passengers on his flight, but he was actually broadcasting over the Air Traffic Control airwaves allowing all the crews in the area to hear him. Unfortunately, Flight 175’s cockpit was entered and the pilots killed only minutes after hearing this transmission. Then, just 19 minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, United 175 hit the South Tower with an impact speed of 586 mph. Little did we know at the time that there was even more to come.
Just four minutes before Flight 11 hit the North Tower, United Flight 93, a 757 two-class airplane, was cleared for takeoff. There were only 4 hijackers on board, all sitting in First Class. The theory is that hijacker #5 never cleared U.S. Customs to enter the U.S. Flight 93 was scheduled to go from Newark to San Francisco. It is interesting to note that Newark airport is very close to downtown Manhattan -- just a river apart. If Flight 93 had been held for just a few more minutes, the crash of Flight 11 into the World Trade Center might well have kept Flight 93 from taking off.
As Flight 93 left Newark, American Flight 77 – a Boeing 757 – had already been in the air for 22 minutes. This flight had departed from Dulles airport (about an hour drive outside of Washington DC) headed for Los Angeles. This plane was also a two-class Boeing 757 and had three hijackers in First Class with two more seated in the forward portion of the Coach section. Less than 35 minutes after takeoff, Flight 77’s cockpit was taken over, and at 9:37 a.m. it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon taking out lamp posts before entering the building at an impact speed of 530 mph.
Returning to United Flight 93, it had reached its cruise altitude above 30,000 feet, and its cockpit still had not been breached. The flight crew along with all other flights was sent a message through ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System). The pilots on Flight 93, as well as all other flights, were warned to, “Beware of any cockpit intrusion – two aircraft hit the World Trade Center.” The wife of co-pilot Leroy Homer had sent a message to him two minutes earlier using ACARS asking if he was OK. So the time line is the wife’s message at 9:22 a.m. with the ACARS message at 9:24 a.m. At 9:26 a.m., the cockpit replied and at 9:27:25 a.m. the crew confirmed receipt of the warning. That was the last normal communication with Flight 93. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the air traffic controller heard “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” from the cockpit of Flight 93 along with the sounds of a struggle. On the voice recorder, a female voice – most likely the purser, Deborah Welch – said, “I don’t want to die!” At 10:03:11 a.m. on that horrific morning of September 11, 2001, Flight 93 crashed into a coal strip-mine in Stonycreek Township of Pennsylvania at an impact speed of 563 mph.
Four U.S. domestic flights had been seized and crashed. Two were American; two were United. It had taken only 77 minutes to send 2,996 people back into spirit. It was the worst commercial aviation-related disaster in history, and one that would affect the world in ways we may not yet fully understand.