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Background Attack Aftermath Evidence Misinformation Analysis Memorial

Phone Call Oddities

Alleged Anomalies of Phone Calls from Doomed Flights

Alleged oddities in the reported phone calls from the jetliners commandeered on 9/11/01 are frequently cited as evidence against the official story of the jetliners' hijacking. Canadian Professor A.K. Dewdney reported experiments suggesting that cell phone calls from aircraft flying above 10,000 feet are difficult or impossible. Dewdney also wrote that cascading is caused by a phone at several thousand feet of elevation being unable to distinguish which of several cellsites has the strongest signal, and that this causes the phone to repeatedly select a new channel and try again, possibly leading to a "network-wide breakdown." Claims that cell phone calls were impossible on 9/11 were bolstered by a news story in 2004 about a new system that supported quality in-flight cell phone service. 1  

The claim that Dewdney's experiments have any relevance to 9/11/01 is questionable for several reasons:

  • Most of the calls from the planes were apparently made from airphones, not cell phones.
  • Dewdney conducted his experiments over Toronto. Are cell phone networks in that area comparable to those in regions over which the doomed jetliners were flying?
  • Some or all of the cell phone calls were apparently made from low altitudes.

Various Purported Anomalies

Other claims about the phone calls have to do with the calls themselves. Before critically evaluating the claims about cell phone calls, 9-11 Research highlighted the following alleged anomalies in the pattern and content of the calls, some originally noted in the book Painful Deceptions.

  • In one of two calls Ted Olsen said he received from his wife, Barbara, she asked "What should I tell the pilot?," referring to Chic Burlingame, the captain, who was then supposedly seated in the rear with Barbara. Chic was a graduate of Naval Academy and flew F-4s in Vietnam. It seems highly doubtful that he could have been persuaded to hand over the stick without a fight, and agree to sit in the back of the plane, especially when controllers had been broadcasting to pilots that Flight 11 had been hijacked.
  • Madeline Sweeney, who called her supervisor from Flight 11, says: "I see, buildings, water, ... Oh my God!", immediately before the crash, as though she, a Massachusetts-based flight attendant of 12 years, had never seen the Manhattan skyline before. Supposedly she was continuously monitoring the view out a window.
  • The call to Mark Bingham's mother, Alice, from someone claiming to be her son, was very short. After his awkward introduction, the caller failed to respond to Alice's twice-repeated question, and then the line went dead. (It bears mentioning, however, that Mark Bingham's mother is on record as saying she has no doubt that it was Mark on the phone.)
  • A person claiming to be Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of the purported Flight 93 passenger revolt, talked to a Verizon supervisor for 13 minutes. Why would Beamer prefer to talk to a stranger than to someone in his own family?
  • The alleged Todd Beamer talked like a reporter, giving the blow-by-blow account of the goings-on right up to the famous "Let's roll".
  • Except for the Beamer call, all of the Flight 93 calls were very short, usually just a few sentences, with the caller ending the conversation by saying they had to go, only to call back later in many cases for another short call. Why did they have to go? Were the hijackers enforcing a one-minute time limit on all conversations?
  • There is no public evidence of recordings of any of the conversations, despite the extended length of some of them, except for the alleged calls from Flight 11 attendants Madeline Sweeney and Betty Ong.

The final point is largely moot given the detailed accounting of calls released by publication of prosecution trial exhibits in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. Other alleged anomalies have ready explanations consistent with the calls being real. For example, it's entirely understandable that the passengers and flight attendants would want to make long phone calls to report events in as much detail as possible.


1. In-flight cell phones 'worked great' in test, USAToday, 7/19/04 [cached]

page last modified: 2011-09-13