- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

Air-traffic controllers knew there was a problem with the hijacked flights before they crashed in suicidal raids on Tuesday but said there was little they could do to stop them, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
The controllers' only options were to get the other planes out of the way and to notify the FAA, starting a process which would end with the Air Force shooting down the hijacked planes. Neither option provided a realistic way to prevent the huge loss of life that seemed inevitable, based on limited information known while the hijacked planes still flew, according to airline industry officials.
The best way to stop hijackers is to get them while they still are on the ground, they said. Otherwise, air-traffic controllers can only file flight deviation reports and threaten to take pilots' licenses away from them.
"It's difficult to imagine what air-traffic controllers could do to prevent armed people from taking over an airplane," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "The focus obviously has to be on keeping those kinds of people and those kinds of weapons off the airplanes in the first place."
No proposals for changing air-traffic-control procedures to prevent hijackings are being considered by the FAA or Congress, Mr. Dorr said.
The FAA is trying to replace the current air-traffic-control system with a new system called STARS, or Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System. Although it might help prevent runway collisions and would cost less to maintain, it would do little to prevent hijackings, Mr. Dorr said.
STARS uses digital technology that gives more precise tracking information with high-resolution color displays. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on the long-delayed system yesterday.
"Air-traffic controllers, if they see an aircraft veering off course, they're instructed to try to contact that aircraft and get them back on course," Mr. Dorr said. "They were not in control of the flight crew that was supposed to be controlling the plane." Air-traffic controllers noticed deviations in the planes' flight paths and tried to contact the pilots on the flights.
Afterward, the controllers tracked the jetliners by their transponders or radar signals. Transponders are devices that reply to radio signals by transmitting their flight number, speed, altitude and location. If pilots punch in the right code, they can transmit warnings that they are being hijacked.
None of the pilots transmitted the code, indicating they probably were overwhelmed by the hijackers before they had time to act. On American Airlines Flight 11, the pilot turned on his microphone, apparently to let air-traffic controllers listen as the hijackers took control. A controller heard someone say, "Nobody do anything stupid" and no one would get hurt, a controller at the Nashua, N.H., control center told the Nashua Telegraph. Controllers continued speaking with the hijackers on the radio but never suspected a suicide attack on the World Trade Center.
The controller reportedly said the two hijacked planes that took off within minutes of each other from Boston's Logan International Airport nearly collided over New Windsor, N.Y.
For both flights aimed at Washington targets, the transponders were turned off at least part of the time. As a result, air-traffic controllers could only track the airplanes on radar. Radar does not give accurate altitude readings.
The lack of information about where the airplanes were headed and the intentions of the pilots made any Air Force response unrealistic, said Bob Vandel, executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation, an Alexandria air safety advocacy organization.
"If you're going to shoot down an airplane, you better be damned certain that something vile is going on," Mr. Vandel said. "To shoot down an airplane, you would need the authority of the president of the United States."
Some reports indicate a downing was at least a possibility for one of the hijacked planes.
The Nashua Telegraph quoted a controller saying an Air Force F-16 was pursuing United Flight 93 as it veered from its flight to Los Angeles toward Washington, apparently headed for the White House. The flight ended with a dive into a southern Pennsylvania field, apparently during an onboard fight as passengers tried to gain control of the aircraft.
Officials from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said only that they did not shoot down Flight 93, but would not confirm one of their fighter jets was following the airliner.
"NORAD-allocated forces have not engaged with weapons any aircraft, including Flight 93," said Maj. Barry Venable, NORAD spokes-man.
"Aside from that statement, we are not discussing specific operations we may or may not be engaged in."
For American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon about an hour after takeoff from Dulles International Airport, even radar contact was difficult for controllers. After cutting off radio contact, someone turned off the transponder and made the airplane descend to a level below radar visibility.
Air-traffic controllers at Dulles picked up the plane again as it ascended for a final suicidal plunge. The aircraft, which was unidentified at that point, was entering the restricted air space around the White House.
They noticed the plane east-southeast of Ronald Reagan National Airport and called air-traffic controllers there to warn them. The controllers then called the White House to tell them the airplane was coming straight at them at full throttle.
At the last moment, the plane made a sharp 270-degree turn to the right to approach the Pentagon from the west. Once again, the plane disappeared below radar level and then slammed into the Pentagon at 9:40 a.m.


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