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Tracking the Flights Hijacked on 9/11

June 18, 2004

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flights 175 and 93 and American Airlines Flights 77 and 11 were hijacked by terrorists. As the attack unfolded, the flights were frantically tracked by air traffic controllers; the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA; and the Northeast Air Defense Sector, or NEADS, of the military's aerospace defense command.

Following are excepts of the staff report on the events prepared for the commission investigating the attacks. To read the full report, go to

American Airlines Flight 11

FAA Awareness

At 8:00 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 began its takeoff roll at Logan Airport in Boston. A Boeing 767, Flight 11 was bound for Los Angeles with 81 passengers, 11 crew, and 24,000 gallons of jet fuel. By 8:09 a.m., it was being monitored by FAA's Boston Center (located in New Hampshire). At 8:13 a.m., the controller instructed the flight to "turn twenty degrees right," which the flight acknowledged. This was the last transmission to which the flight responded.

Sixteen seconds later, the controller instructed the flight to climb to 35,000 feet. When there was no response, the controller repeated the command seconds later, and then tried repeatedly to raise the flight.

At 8:21 a.m., American 11 turned off its transponder, immediately degrading the available information about the aircraft. The controller told his supervisor that he thought something was seriously wrong with the plane....

The controller checked to see if American Airlines could establish communication with American 11. He became even more concerned as its route changed, moving into another sector's airspace. Controllers immediately began to move aircraft out of its path, and searched from aircraft to aircraft in an effort to have another pilot contact American 11. At 8:24:38, the following transmission came from American 11:

American 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.

The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words "[w]e have some planes." Then the next transmission came seconds later:

American 11: Nobody move. Everything will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.

Hearing that, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking. The controller alerted his supervisor, who assigned another controller to assist him, and redoubled efforts to ascertain the flight's altitude. Because the controller didn't understand the initial transmission, the manager of Boston Center instructed the center's Quality Assurance specialist to "pull the tape" of the radio transmission, listen to it closely, and report back.

Between 8:25 a.m. and 8:32 a.m., in accordance with the FAA protocol, Boston Center managers started notifying their chain of command that American 11 had been hijacked....

At 8:34 a.m., the Boston Center controller received a third transmission from American 11:

American 11: Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves.

Military Notification, Response

Boston Center did not follow the routine protocol in seeking military assistance through the prescribed chain of command. In addition to making notifications within the FAA, Boston Center took the initiative, at 8:34 a.m., to contact the military through the FAA's Cape Cod facility [in Massachusetts]. They also tried to obtain assistance from a former alert site in Atlantic City, [New Jersey,] unaware it had been phased out. At 8:37:52 a.m., Boston Center reached NEADS. This was the first notification received by the military at any level that American 11 had been hijacked:

FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.

NEADS promptly ordered to battle stations the two F-15 alert aircraft at Otis Air Force Base [on Cape Cod]. At NEADS, the reported hijacking was relayed immediately to Battle Commander Col. Robert Marr. After ordering the Otis fighters to battle stations, Col. Marr phoned Maj. Gen. l Larry Arnold, commanding general of the First Air Force and the Continental Region. Marr sought authorization to scramble the Otis fighters. Maj. Gen. Arnold instructed Marr "to go ahead and scramble the airplanes, and we'd get permission later." Gen. Arnold then called [North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD,] headquarters to report.

F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 a.m. from Otis Air Force Base.

But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft: "I don't know where I'm scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination." ... American 11 impacted the World Trade Center's North Tower at 8:46:40 a.m.

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