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Background Attack Aftermath Evidence Misinformation Analysis Memorial

Phone Calls

Alleged Oddities of Phone Calls from Doomed Flights

Examining the distribution of the phone calls on the flights commandeered on 9/11/01 reveals an interesting pattern. There are reports of phone calls from thirteen Flight 93 passengers, but only one to three from passengers on any of the other flights. If passengers on Flight 93 were able to complete so many cell phone calls, why were they so rare on the other flights? Presumably the teams of four or five hijackers would have been too busy flying the airplanes to police passengers. The airphone calls attributed to Flight 11 attendants Betty Ong and Madeline Sweeney both went on for a number of minutes.

Some researchers have noted that the reported contents of some of the phone conversations suggest that the calls were not really from victims on the planes. Two of the more oft-cited examples are the calls attributed to Barbara Olson and Madeline Sweeney.

Madeline Sweeney
Madeline Amy Sweeney was a flight attendant based in Massachusetts.
  • In one of two calls Ted Olson said he received from his wife on Flight 77, she reportedly asked "What should I tell the pilot?," referring to Chic Burlingame, the captain, who was then supposedly seated in the rear with Barbara. Burlingame was a graduate of Naval Academy and flew F-4s in Vietnam. How could Burlingame have been persuaded to hand over the stick 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, reportedly stated: "I see, buildings, water, ... Oh my God!", immediately before the crash. Why would Sweeney -- a Massachusetts-based flight attendant of 12 years -- speak as though she had never seen the Manhattan skyline before? (Part of the answer may be that the account is an incomplete paraphrase. The 9-11 Commission Report relates the three final statements by Sweeney's as: "Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent... we are all over the place"; "We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low"; and "Oh my God we are way too low".) 1  

Other alleged anomalies appear less than compelling when one considers the natural inclinations of the passengers making the calls in such circumstances.


The Faked Cell Phone Calls Theory

Some researchers have asserted that several of the phone calls attributed to Flight 93 passengers must have been faked because they were reportedly made from cell phones, which, according to the theory, aren't possible from high-flying aircraft. This theory is controversial because it holds that call recipients who believed they had spoken with family members had been duped, is based on questionable conclusions about cell phone functioning, and overlooks an alternative hypothesis that explains the alleged oddity.

Canadian writer A.K. Dewdney built his reputation as a 9/11 researcher on the idea that the cell-phone calls from aircraft above a few thousand feet aren't generally possible, and therefore the calls attributed to Flight 93 passengers were faked. In an article entitled Ghost Riders in the Sky, Dewdney gives expert-sounding explanations of reasons cell phone calls from jetliners wouldn't work. At altitude, he states, the signal would be too weak, and below 10,000 feet, calls made from a jet would cause problematic "cascades" in networks of cellsites on the ground. (Dewdney cites "Frazer 2002" for this.)

Contrary to Dewdney's findings, we have received reports that cell phones do work from aircraft. Other evidence that cell phone calls are possible from jetliners in flight comes from a study by Carnegie Mellon researchers that monitored spectrum frequencies generated by cell phone transmissions during commercial passenger flights. They found that an average of one to four cell phone calls are made during a typical flight. 2   It may be, however, that such calls are not made at high altitudes.

In an apparent tacit acknowledgement of the difficulty of making cell phone calls from a jetliner at altitude, the FBI's 2006 report describing phone calls from Flight 93 explicitly attributes only two calls to cell phones, both of which occurred late in the flight when the plane's altitude was low.


Technical Challenges of the Faked Calls Theory

In Ghost Riders in the Sky, Dewdney provides an elaborate scenario to explain how the Flight 93 cell phone calls could have been faked. It goes something like this:

The operatives first gathered personal data on regulars of the flight through a combination of data mining and human engineering. Then they leveraged that information by repeatedly taking the flight and engaging flight regulars in conversation to get personal details and record voice samples for study and practice.

On the big day, the operatives worked in a single "war room" with a big screen to keep them on the same page. Calls (except to strangers) were kept brief so that the callers could report details of the flight but not get into personal conversation that might alert family members to the fraud. Calls that went poorly (like the one to Mark Bingham's mother) were not repeated.

The quality of acting necessary to convince family members they were talking to their loved ones was lower than in a normal situation, given the allowance people naturally make for voice distress in stressful situations.

Such an undertaking would have been very complex and risky for the perpetrators, as it would have required, presumably, a large number of skilled operatives, and it would have made the whole operation vulnerable to exposure. Supposing the employment of advanced technologies such as voice-morphing fails to address the inherent uncertainties involved in relying on such to fool all of the call recipients into believing they are talking to loved ones.

The no-cell-phone-calls theory is difficult to evaluate because we lack verifiable data on the performance of cell phones on aircraft. However, it appears to have value in alienating the public, and particularly families of the victims, from skeptics of the official story.


The Cell Phone Repeater Hypothesis

To review, the main argument used to support the theory that the cell phone calls attributed to Flight 93 passengers were faked goes like this:

Given that several calls from the jetliner when at altitude were reportedly from cell phones; and that cell phone calls on a plane above 10,000 feet cannot communicate with ground cell stations; it follows that the reported calls were not made by the victims but were faked.

A fatal flaw in this syllogism is exposed by the following simple hypothesis, apparently first published on this page in June of 2009.

A self-powered cell phone repeater the size of a shoe box is placed on board Flight 93 within a piece of luggage. The repeater is sufficiently powerful to establish reliable connections with ground stations for several minutes at a time, and forwards all the communications between the cell phones aboard the plane and ground stations. The repeater is programmed to broadcast on a separate encrypted channel a duplicate of all the call data in real time, which is monitored by operatives who have ability to block any of the calls at any time.

Besides being technically straightforward, this method would have afforded the attack planners great benefits with little risk of exposure. Genuine reports of the theatrics of the red-bandanna-wearing bomb-displaying Arabic-looking patsies aboard Flight 93 could be allowed to get through as long as the operatives wanted, adding realism to the hijackings so central to the official account. But the same operatives could "cut the feed" at the moment events took a turn threatening to evince something other than that account.


1. Extract: 'We have some planes, news.bbc.co.uk, 03/2006
2. Unsafe At Any Airspeed?, spectrum.ieee.org, 03/2006 [cached]

page last modified: 2011-09-13