Hijack response reveals holes in air defense rules

No clear course of action against passenger jets

Terrorism Strikes America


WASHINGTON - During the hour or so that American Airlines Flight 77 was under the control of hijackers, up to the moment that it struck the west side of the Pentagon, military officials in a command center on the east side of the building were urgently talking to law enforcement and air traffic control officials about what to do.

But despite elaborate plans that link civilian and military efforts to control the nation's airspace in defense of the country, and despite two other jetliners' having hit the World Trade Center in New York, the fighter planes that scrambled into protective orbits around Washington did not arrive until 15 minutes after Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Even if they had been there sooner, it is not clear what they would have done to thwart the attack.

The Federal Aviation Administration has officially refused to discuss its procedures or the sequence of events Tuesday morning, saying these are part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's inquiry. But controllers in New England knew about 8:20 a.m. that American Airlines Flight 11, bound from Boston to Los Angeles, had probably been hijacked. When the first news report was made at 8:48 a.m. that a plane might have hit the World Trade Center, they knew it was Flight 11. And within a few minutes more, controllers would have known that both United 175 (the second plane to hit the World Trade Center) and American 77 (which hit the Pentagon) also had probably been hijacked.

Flight 77, which took off from Washington Dulles International Airport shortly after 8 a.m., stayed aloft until 9:45 a.m. and would have been visible on the FAA's radar system as it reversed course in the Midwest an hour after takeoff. The radars would have detected it even though its tracking beacon had been turned off.

By 9:25 a.m. the FAA, in consultation with the Pentagon, had taken the radical step of banning all takeoffs around the country, but fighters had not been dispatched. At that same time, the government learned from Barbara K. Olson, who was a passenger on Flight 77, that the plane had been hijacked. She twice called her husband, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, on her cell phone to tell him what was happening.

Despite provisions for close communication between civilian and military traffic officials, and extensive procedures for security control over air traffic during attacks on the United States, it does not appear that anyone had contemplated the kind of emergency that was unfolding. The 1950s-era procedures cover how to send fighter planes to shadow a hijacked plane on its way, perhaps, to Cuba. They tell how to intercept a plane entering the nation's airspace through the air defense zone along the Atlantic Coast, but not what to do with suicide pilots.

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