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Matt McCluskey directs air and runway traffic from the control tower at Logan International Airport in Boston today. Regional air traffic controllers today offered a detailed chronology of Sept. 11, 2001, when two planes were hijacked from Boston. (AP Photo)

FAA controllers detail Sept. 11 events

By Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, 08/12/02

BOSTON -- Regional air traffic managers on Monday offered a detailed chronology of Sept. 11, when two planes were hijacked from Boston, but refused to say more about what actually happened on the planes.

American Flight 11 took off without incident at 8 a.m., and after it reached 11,000 feet was monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration's Boston Center, in Nashua, N.H., one of 20 FAA facilities nationally that monitor long-distance flights. United Flight 175 left 14 minutes later.

At first, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary, as the American pilot acknowledged he had clearance to take the plane to 29,000 feet.

But then, when given permission to climb to 35,000 feet, communications fell silent, and the "blip" on the radar screen that was Flight 11 went blank, because someone on the plane turned off the transponder that sends out signals to controllers.

"We considered it at that time to be a possible hijacking," air traffic manager Glenn Michael recalled.

FAA managers held news conferences in Boston, New York and Washington on Monday, giving chronological accounts of the terrorist attacks and how they forced an unprecedented shutdown of the U.S. skies.

Representatives from Boston and the Boston Center in Nashua spoke at Logan Airport. They refused to answer questions about what happened on board -- such as how the terrorists got control -- citing the ongoing investigation.

They said there was nothing unusual about United Flight 175 while it was in this region's air space.

In fact, controllers in Nashua asked the pilot on Flight 175 if he could see Flight 11. He confirmed Flight 11 was still in the air, at about 29,000 feet.

Soon after, both flights were out of air space controlled by Nashua -- and were crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers.

After the first crash, flights from the Boston area to New York were grounded. After the second, all air traffic from Boston was halted.

"Once it became obvious what was actually transpiring, air traffic controllers reacted much like Americans reacted across the entire nation, with shock, with disbelief, with just stunned surprise that such acts could occur," said Joseph Davies, air traffic manager at Logan.

FAA officials also said Monday that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is now connected with the FAA network, and would immediately know if a hijacking had taken place.

On Sept. 11, NORAD wasn't notified until 8:40 a.m. -- six minutes before the plane struck the World Trade Center. Today, NORAD would know instantly of a suspected hijacking.

"NORAD is now linked up telephonically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so anything that's an anomaly or a suspected anomaly that's found in the system, NORAD knows about it as quickly as we do," said David Canoles, FAA's manager of air traffic evaluations and investigations.

Air traffic controllers didn't notice anything odd Sept. 11 until communications fell silent with Flight 11's pilot 25 minutes after the plane took off at 8 a.m.

The FAA notified NORAD 15 minutes later; three minutes after that, NORAD was told United Airlines Flight 175 had been hijacked.

The first two military interceptors, Air Force F-15 Eagles from Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts, scrambled airborne at 8:52 a.m., too late to do anything about the second jet heading for the Trade Center or a third heading toward the Pentagon.

Mike McCormick, air traffic control manager at the New York Center -- the main control center for the area -- made the unprecedented decision at 9:04 a.m. to declare "ATC Zero," meaning that no aircraft could fly into, out of or through the airspace over New York and the western Atlantic.

He made the decision after the second plane, United Flight 175, crashed into the twin tower.

At 9:45 a.m., after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been struck by the hijacked planes, the FAA ordered all of the more than 4,000 aircraft in the skies over the United States to land at the nearest airport.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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