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Aviation Blog

From the archives | 'Clear the skies': Behind the unprecedented call to stop air travel on 9/11 – USA TODAY


On the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, USA TODAY is republishing articles published in 2002 for the first anniversary.
In this two-part series, USA TODAY reconstructed how the unprecedented order to clear the skies on Sept. 11 played out.
Capt. Jim Hosking is stunned as he reads the message from the cockpit printer aboard United Flight 890. On most days, messages sent to the Boeing 747 are ordinary: maintenance items or reports of bad weather. On this day, Sept. 11, before sunrise over the Pacific Ocean, the warning is unlike any he has seen. Hijackings? Terrorist attack? 
Taking off from Narita, Japan, just hours before, Hosking, 56, looked forward to heading home to Los Angeles, where his wife would be waiting. But reading the message, sent at 9:37 a.m. Eastern Time, the pilot of 34 years wonders: What the hell happened down there? And then, even more chilling: What’s going to happen up here?
In the cabin behind him sit 243 passengers — all of them strangers to Hosking. He turns toward first officer Doug Price. “Get out the crash ax,” Hosking tells him.
At the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Herndon, Virginia, air traffic managers also struggle to make sense of what’s happening.
Already, terrorists have deliberately flown two jets into the World Trade Center. The hijackings are unlike anything anyone has seen. In the past, hijackers commandeered passenger jets for political reasons. Pilots were told to cooperate with them, to take the hijackers wherever they wanted to go.
Today, the hijackers don’t want to go anywhere. They just want the jets.
At the FAA’s command center, managers can think of only one way to stop them. Minutes after another jet smashes into the Pentagon at 9:38 a.m., the managers issue an unprecedented order to the nation’s air traffic controllers:
Empty the skies.
Land every flight.
No one can be certain how difficult this task will prove.
But for an air traffic control system sometimes paralyzed by a patch of bad weather, the order seems overwhelming. Almost 4,500 planes will have to land within hours, many at airports hundreds of miles from where they were headed.
The situation could be worse. On this day, the weather is pristine over most of the nation. And the early hour means most West Coast flights haven’t even taken off.
Still, the skies have never been emptied before, and controllers, pilots and aviation officials have never faced such pressure. Rerouting so many flights seems a logistical nightmare with no margin for error.
And no one knows how many terrorists might still be in the air. During these hours, those who run the nation’s aviation system will come to believe as many as 11 flights have been hijacked.
This is the story of the four most critical hours in aviation history — an ordeal that began at 8:15 a.m., when the first indication that something was wrong came during a telephone call to American Airlines.
8:15 a.m.: 3,624 planes in the sky
The call doesn’t make any sense. Not at first.
At American Airlines’ operations center in Fort Worth, manager Craig Marquis talks to a reservations agent in North Carolina. The agent isn’t sure what to do.
On another line, the agent is speaking with a flight attendant who’s in the air but can’t reach the pilots on her jet. The agent wants to transfer the call to Marquis but the phone system won’t let her. So she begins to relay messages coming from the back of American Flight 11, a Boeing 767 heading from Boston to Los Angeles.
Aboard, flight attendant Betty Ong tells what’s unfolding.
Marquis, a blunt-spoken veteran, isn’t sure what to make of the call. Is the woman even a flight attendant? he wonders. He checks his computer as he listens on the phone. There she is. Betty Ong. And she is on that flight.
Ong can’t contact the pilots, the agent says. That’s why she’s calling. Why doesn’t she just walk up to the cockpit and bang on the door? But as he listens — as Ong, in hushed tones, tells of a passenger dead and a crewmember dying, of the jet’s erratic path and intruders in the cockpit — Marquis realizes that Ong can do little.
The flight has been hijacked.
As Marquis, 45, considers what he can do, air traffic controllers at the FAA’s Boston Center reach the same conclusion. Flight 11 has stopped talking. Its pilots don’t respond to calls; its transponder signal has disappeared. Worse, controllers report hearing a man with a strange accent in the cockpit.
“We have some planes,” he says through an open mike. “Just stay quiet and you will be OK.”
Could more hijackers be out there?
In the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Ben Sliney learns of the radio transmission. The words will haunt him all morning. “We have some planes.”
Some? How many?
Sept. 11 is Sliney’s first day on the job as national operations manager, the chess master of the air traffic system. The New Yorker, a lawyer who once sued the FAA on behalf of air traffic controllers, now walks the floor of the center — a room that resembles NASA’s Mission Control.
Loud and forceful, Sliney fits the mold of others there. After managers at the center were criticized for not taking enough action to prevent record flight delays in 1999, the specialists were urged to speak freely during crises. That way, those in charge would have the information they needed to make sound decisions.
On this day, that policy will be put to the test, and the center is deafening, like the New York Stock Exchange when everyone’s trying to sell.
“We have some planes…”
Sliney can’t shake the words. Are there more hijackers out there?
8:30 a.m.: 3,786 planes
In the FAA’s largest air traffic facility in New York state — a warehouse-like structure on Long Island, an hour east of Manhattan — manager Mike McCormick rushes to the banks of radar screens where controllers are trying to track Flight 11.
The former Marine presses his cordless phone to one ear as he talks to officials at other facilities in the New York area. But the other ear is doing most of the listening — to the radio reports of pilots who are watching the jet’s progress.
Over New York, Flight 11 has begun to descend. Not into JFK or LaGuardia or Newark International Airport but into the city itself.
It must have electrical problems, he thinks. That’s probably why the transponder is off.
McCormick calls another air traffic center that hands off flights to New York’s three major airports. Flight 11, he warns, might try an emergency landing.
In Fort Worth, Gerard Arpey, American Airline’s executive vice president for operations, hears about the Ong call and the strange transmissions from Flight 11.
In his 20 years with American, Arpey, 43, has grown used to stories about misbehaving passengers — the drunks and disorderlies that airlines encounter. But this, he thinks, this seems more than that. This sounds real.
He tries to reach his boss, CEO Don Carty, but Carty isn’t in yet. Then he heads to the airline’s command center, where top operations officials gather only in the event of an emergency. They’re all here, Arpey thinks as he walks through the door.
All but Craig Marquis.
Just down the hall, in the airline’s operations center, Marquis hasn’t left the phone. Still listening to the relayed words of Ong, he works to calculate how much fuel the jet carries. That way, he may be able to predict where the hijackers will take the flight.
But at 8:46 a.m., the North Carolina agent abruptly loses Ong’s call. Marquis’ calculations no longer matter.
At Newark’s tower, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, controller Rick Tepper, 41, stands at a console behind a group of other controllers.
There, he answers phones and troubleshoots problems. He and the other controllers often wear jeans and polo shirts. The attire belies their intense work ethic.
When Tepper looks past the controllers, he sees it out the window: a mushroom cloud rising from the World Trade Center’s north tower.
“Wow! Look at that,” he says to no one in particular. Flames shoot from the building. “How are they going to put that out?”
He didn’t see what caused the explosion, but on the chance that it was a plane, he begins calling airports nearby.
“Did you lose anybody?” he asks over and over. No one has.
Then, a phone rings: the “shout line,” set up for speedy calls among controllers in the region. Tepper answers. “We’ve lost an aircraft over Manhattan,” someone at the New York center says. “Can you see anything out your window?”
“No, I don’t see anything… ” Tepper pauses. “But one of the towers, one of the trade towers, is on fire.
“I’ll call you back.”
9 a.m.: 4,205 planes
At the New York center, McCormick struggles to keep up with the barrage of information, most of it annoyingly vague.
That must have been American 11, McCormick thinks. Could it be terrorism?
Just three days before, celebrating his 45th birthday, he had taken his 8-year-old son Nicholas to the Trade Center. There they stood, toes touching one tower, peering toward the sky.
Now he tries to figure out why an airliner would’ve hit the building. Just before American disappeared, controllers heard an emergency beacon. From what? McCormick wonders. And controllers can’t find a helicopter that has disappeared from radar over the city. Did it hit the Trade Center, too?
In Herndon, national operations manager Sliney receives word from officials in New York: A small plane has crashed into the Trade Center. One of the room’s 10-by-14-foot TV monitors comes to life with CNN. Black smoke gushes from the north tower. The hole is huge. And the smoke!
That was no small plane, Sliney thinks.
At United Airlines headquarters outside Chicago, Andy Studdert rushes to the airline’s crisis center, a windowless room with a large screen on one wall. To those who work there, the room resembles the bridge on Star Trek‘s starship Enterprise.
“Confirm American into the Trade Center!”
Workers don’t need to look up to recognize the booming baritone of Studdert, 45, the airline’s chief operating officer.
Ten days earlier, he had popped a surprise drill on the staff. He told them a flight over the Pacific had suffered a potentially disastrous engine failure and radio contact had been lost. For 30 minutes, workers believed the story. Then Studdert told them the truth.
On this day, he makes certain everyone knows the stakes. “This is not a drill!” he shouts, but the staff already knows.
What they are about to tell Studdert is even worse than what brought their boss to the crisis center. Controllers have lost radio contact with a second flight — a United jet that, like American Flight 11, took off from Boston bound for Los Angeles.
On the giant screen at the front of the room, airline workers can only watch as United Flight 175, northwest of New York, heads toward Manhattan.
Then … it vanishes.
In the Newark tower, the shout line rings again.
Where’s United Flight 175? “Can you see him out the window?” the caller asks Tepper, the Newark controller.
Beyond the New Jersey shipyards, Tepper spots the jet flying north, up the Hudson River. His eyes track it toward the Manhattan skyline. It’s moving fast. Too fast. And rocking. Its nose points down in a dive and now it’s banking left and then right and moving as Tepper has never seen a jet move and then it starts to level and …
“Oh my God! He just hit the building,” Tepper tells the caller.
In Herndon, a shout: “There was another one!” and the giant TV monitor glows orange from the fireball. Scores of workers gasp, as if sucking the air from the room.
It can’t be a second one. At the New York control center, McCormick’s deputy, Bruce Barrett, sits incredulous at the watch desk, the facility’s nerve center.
For a moment, Barrett can think only of his daughter, Carissa, who works in lower Manhattan. Could she be visiting someone at the Trade Center? Then he sweeps the thought from his mind. Stay calm, he tells himself.
Controllers who had been watching TV in the break room are rushing onto the floor. They saw the jet hit the other tower. Is there really any question what he should do?
“We’re declaring ATC zero,” he tells air traffic managers. McCormick approves the order. Clear the skies over the region.
If they have overreacted, the decision could ruin both their careers. But after what they just witnessed, they give little thought to asking for permission. A call to Washington could take minutes, and they aren’t sure they have that long. They aren’t certain of anything, except that they need to do something.
A handful of managers spread the word to controllers. It doesn’t seem like enough, Barrett thinks, but it’s the most he can do.
The time: 9:03 a.m.
On its face, the order seems incredible. Not a single flight in or out of New York? Some of the nation’s biggest airports shut down?
Controllers had gone to “air traffic control zero” before, but only when their radar shut down or their radio transmitters went silent. The planes kept flying then, and controllers in other centers guided them.
This time, ATC zero means something far more drastic. It means emptying the skies — something that has never been attempted. And not just the skies over Manhattan. Controllers must clear the air from southern New England to Maryland, from Long Island to central Pennsylvania — every mile of the region they control.
The move reverberates through almost every part of the nation. Controllers from Cleveland to Corpus Christi must reroute jets headed to the region and put some in holding patterns.
In the windowless room of the New York control center, Barrett, at 56 one of the facility’s most senior managers, scans the faces of the other managers. Most pride themselves on their macho, can-do attitudes. Cool under pressure. Calm during the worst. But this… who has prepared for this?
In the dim light, Barrett sees that they’re looking at him strangely, as though they can’t believe what he’s saying.
One controller begins to sob and shake. “I don’t understand how come I’m reacting like this,” the controller says. It reminds Barrett of the traumatized troops he saw as a photojournalist in Vietnam.
You’re scared, Barrett thinks, but he can’t afford to be. He needs to concentrate. To focus. But his phone! It won’t stop ringing. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, including his wife, Denise. She asks about their daughter.
“I don’t have time to talk to you,” Barrett tells her. “Just call and find out if she’s OK.”
At the FAA’s command center in Herndon, attention shifts from the weather maps and the radar displays.
The new focus: a white dry-erase board propped at the front of the room.
On it, staffers have begun to scribble the call letters of every flight that controllers around the nation fear might be in the hands of hijackers.
Weather experts and the specialists who normally work on reducing flight delays have been drafted to investigate. They badger airlines to find out whether anyone knows what’s happening aboard a number of flights.
On this day, the routine glitches of the air traffic system — a missed radio call, even a pilot who seems uncooperative — raise suspicions. Unless a controller or airline official can assure them the glitch is simply routine — that the captain is responding and everyone is safe — the flight’s letters won’t be crossed out.
The phone bridges between air traffic facilities have become emergency hotlines of sorts, and the reports of possible hijackings — many of them sketchy — flow at a frenetic pace.
As Sliney, the operation’s manager, moves around the room, a handful of air traffic specialists follow. Together, they have decades of experience, and no one hesitates to share an opinion. But without good information, Sliney knows that any decision might be risky.
Amid the shouts and chatter and conflicting reports, he reminds himself: Don’t jump to conclusions. Sort it out.
Now, during a massive conference call among air traffic facilities, officials in Herndon learn about a third jet that might be in the hands of hijackers: American Airlines Flight 77, bound for Los Angeles.
The jet departed from Washington’s Dulles International Airport. It stopped talking to controllers somewhere near the Ohio-Kentucky border. Moments later, it disappeared from radar. Its call letters join the list on the white board — a list that will eventually swell to 11.
But why? What is this about? Across the nation, controllers and airline and aviation officials struggle to understand.
These weren’t typical hijackings. Terrorists weren’t seeking political asylum or a trip to Havana. They were using the two jets as guided missiles. They meant to hit the World Trade Center. No question about that.
Most of the pilots in the air don’t know what has happened. Or why. How could they? Officials on the ground are still trying to make sense of it.
Pilots have always been trained to cooperate with terrorists, to do whatever they want in order to save lives. That means a crew probably won’t fight back, at least not at first. And who knows how many other flights have terrorists aboard?
Again, Sliney hears them: the words that came from Flight 11.
“We have some planes.”
9:15 a.m.: 4,360 planes
From the moment air traffic managers McCormick and Barrett start to clear the airspace over New York, government and airline officials across the nation — almost in unison — begin to take similar, unprecedented steps.
In Fort Worth, American operations managers huddle, talking breathlessly about their options. They already have lost one flight. And now, Flight 77 has disappeared. Do they have a choice?
Manager Marquis’ voice booms over the loudspeaker. “Anything that hasn’t taken off in the Northeast,” he says, “don’t take off.”
At the FAA’s command center in Herndon, officials worry about what might be unfolding. Maybe there’s another wave of hijacked jets coming off the West Coast. And what about the international flights?
The center halts takeoffs of all flights bound for New York and New England. Then officials stop takeoffs for any flight headed to Washington, D.C. Moments later, they freeze takeoffs headed to Los Angeles, the destination of the two hijacked flights that crashed into the Trade Center. Then to San Francisco.
The orders will keep hundreds of flights on the ground. As in surgery, each step clamps shut another artery of the air traffic system.
But the moves aren’t strong enough for some of the air traffic specialists at the center, who bombard Sliney with advice.
“Just stop everything! Just stop it!”
The words ring true to Sliney. It doesn’t matter who said them — with the noise in the room, it’s hard even to know. But stopping everything, he thinks. That makes sense.
At 9:25 a.m., with Flight 77 still unaccounted for, Sliney issues another order that no one has ever given: full groundstop. No commercial or private flight in the country is allowed to take off.
The decision is sweeping, but Sliney has no doubt he has made the right call. And if he’s wrong? At least he has erred on the side of safety. If higher-ups want to second-guess him, so be it. He has left the agency before to practice law, and he knows if he has to depart again — if someone thinks he’s screwed up — he can leave with no regrets.
What he doesn’t know — what no one knows — is how crucial this order to ground planes will prove when controllers are asked later to clear the skies.
9:25 a.m.: 4,452 planes
In the New York control center, Bruce Barrett wonders what lies ahead. Scores of overseas flights are heading to New York. Though many are hours from landing, rerouting them from the now-closed airspace will be far more difficult than clearing the skies over the area had been.
Over land, controllers can see jets on radar and reach them by radio. But those tools are useless beyond a 200-mile band near the shoreline. The New York center’s oceanic controllers must use a complicated system to guide jets. They estimate a jet’s position and issue commands to a private company, which relays them to the jet. If the jet doesn’t follow a command, controllers might never know.
Barrett already has told the oceanic supervisor to turn every jet away from U.S. airspace. The primary option: Canada.
“Are you sure this is where we want to go?” the supervisor asked.
Yes, he was certain. But now, he learns that Canadian authorities are not. An official there tells the supervisor that Canada cannot accept all the arrivals streaming across the North Atlantic.
“Just be emphatic,” Barrett tells the supervisor, “and tell them they’re not coming here.”
In Herndon, Sliney considers his options. Do something. Make a decision. That’s the credo of the air traffic controller. Make a decision.
But what? What should he do? Already, they have stopped takeoffs nationwide. What else can they do? Land every plane?
Throughout the morning, few had agreed what the right move was. Officials in Herndon initially questioned whether managers in New York had overstepped their authority when they cleared the airspace there. But all of the moves had proved right. And now, a consensus is building: They should land every plane.
Then, just before 9:30 a.m., a report comes from a controller at Washington Dulles International Airport. She has a jet on radar, heading toward Washington and without a transponder signal to identify it. It’s flying fast, she says: almost 500 mph. And it’s heading straight for the heart of the city. Could it be American Flight 77?
The FAA warns the Secret Service. Fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia race toward Washington. They won’t get there in time.
On his way to the office in Fort Worth, Don Carty, American’s CEO, talks on his cell phone. Flight 77 has vanished, he is told.
He was at home when Flight 11 hit the Trade Center. The TV in the kitchen was on. “Could that be your airplane?” his wife asked. Her face went pale.
Carty, 55, told her no. No, of course not; it couldn’t have been. But even he didn’t believe what he was saying. By the time Carty reaches the office, a jet is bearing down on Washington. Is it Flight 77? A groundstop will keep flights from taking off. But what about the ones in the air? he wonders.
At the airline’s operations center in Fort Worth, vice president Arpey takes charge. “I think we better get everything on the deck,” Arpey says. What the hell am I doing? he thinks, but Carty concurs when he arrives minutes later.
“Do it,” he says, and Arpey puts the order out to land every American plane.
At United headquarters in Elk Grove, Illinois, operations head Studdert issues a similar order: “Tell them to get to the nearest airport they can.”
Before this day, no airline has ordered all of its planes from the sky.
At FAA headquarters, less than a half-mile from the White House and Capitol, Dave Canoles paces before a speakerphone.
The head of air traffic investigations, Canoles has set up phone connections with air traffic facilities. As different regions come on the line, the reports of suspicious planes accumulate. We might be at war by afternoon, Canoles thinks. The FAA had better be ready. Already, some air traffic centers had considered evacuating. Canoles told them to stay put.
Now, about 9:35 a.m., he and others on the conference call listen as an official watching a radarscope tracks the progress of the jet heading for Washington.
Canoles sends an investigator who works for him to an adjoining office with a view to the west. “See if you can spot it,” he tells him.
“Six miles from the White House,” a voice on the phone says.
Canoles glances outside, through a window facing north. He wonders if he and his co-workers are in danger. At 500 mph, the jet is traveling a mile every seven seconds.
“Five miles from the White House.”
No way the FAA is a target, Canoles thinks. It can’t be.
“Four miles from the White House.”
They’d never choose to hit us. No way.
“The aircraft is circling. It’s turning away from the White House.”
Where? Where’s it going?
Then: “It’s gone.”
In the adjoining office, the investigator spots smoke to the west of the city.
The jet has hit the Pentagon. The time: 9:38 a.m.
For the last 30 minutes, since the second Trade Center tower was hit, Sliney has considered bringing every flight down. Now, the manager in charge of the nation’s air traffic system is certain.
He has no time to consult with FAA officials in Washington.
The skies are filled with guided missiles, he thinks. Filled with them. The words he cannot shake have proved true. The hijackers did have more planes.
“Order everyone to land! Regardless of destination!” Sliney shouts.
Twenty feet away, his boss, Linda Schuessler, simply nods. She had organized the command center earlier that day, trying to create order from the chaos so Sliney could focus on what had to be done.
“OK, let’s get them on the ground!” Sliney booms.
Within seconds, specialists pass the order on to facilities across the country. For the first time in history, the government has ordered every commercial and private plane from the sky.
9:45 a.m.: 3,949 planes
In Washington, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and her deputy, Monte Belger, have been moving back and forth between a secret operations center and their offices.
Throughout the morning, staffers have kept Garvey and Belger apprised of Sliney’s decisions.
Now, they tell them of the order to clear the skies. With little discussion, the FAA leaders approve.
Minutes later, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta calls from a bunker beneath the White House, where he has joined Vice President Cheney. Belger explains that the FAA plans to land each plane at the closest airport, regardless of its destination.
Mineta concurs. FAA staffers, following the conversation over the speakerphone with Belger, pump their fists. Then the conversation sours.
Mineta asks exactly what the order means.
Belger says pilots will retain some discretion. All the FAA deputy means is that under long-standing aviation regulations, pilots always have some discretion in the event of an emergency aboard their aircraft.
But the secretary assumes the FAA is not being tough enough. “F—- pilot discretion,” Mineta says. “Monte, bring down all the planes.”
Aboard United Flight 890 over the Pacific, Capt. Hosking and another pilot, Doug Price, wait anxiously for news.
A third pilot, “Flash” Blackman, sleeps in the bunkroom in the cockpit of the 747, unaware of what’s unfolding.
“Why don’t we just let him sleep?” Hosking suggests. Price, set for the next break, agrees.
“I couldn’t go to sleep if I wanted to,” Hosking says.
The message about the hijackings arrived only minutes ago, but the two already have decided: Hijackers are aboard their flight.
They don’t know that for sure. But they decide to believe it, if only to keep the jet safe. For years, they had been instructed to cooperate with hijackers. No longer. This time, they won’t give up without a fight, not when they know someone might try to hijack the jet.
Quickly, they wedge their bags between a jump seat and the flimsy cockpit door. The door opens inward and, with the suitcases there, no one can budge it. Not without a lot of effort.
And if someone does manage to get through the cockpit door?
Price will be waiting as Hosking flies the jet. He has the cockpit’s hatchet-sized crash ax in hand, along with orders to use it.
“If someone tries to come in that door, I don’t want you to hurt him,” Hosking says. “Kill him.”
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