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Context of 'August 2000: Improvements to GPS Technology Bring Pilotless Aviation Closer to Reality'

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After a successful test, the FAA makes an enhancement to the Global Positioning System (GPS) called Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) available to some aviation users. WAAS improves the accuracy of GPS data by correcting some known measuring errors. “The system demonstrated one to two meters horizontal accuracy and two to three meters vertical accuracy throughout the contiguous United States,” says the FAA. The system will be operated by Raytheon. [Federal Aviation Administration, 8/24/2000] The deployment of WAAS is only one of many technological advances that could lead to pilotless aircraft navigation, including takeoff and landing. Tests have shown that landing by autopilot is possible (see also August 25, 2001). [Spinoff, 1998; Federal Aviation Administration, 8/13/1999; Rockwell Collins, 10/5/1999] WAAS also has non-aviation uses. It will be used during the rescue effort at Ground Zero. “[A]t the World Trade Center, rescue teams used WAAS to survey the site during the recovery program,” according to Avionics Magazine. [Avionics Magazine, 2/1/2002] After 9/11 there will be some speculation that the hijackers used GPS to navigate to their targets (see (September 12-17, 2001)). Some press reports will claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta was at the WTC the day before the attacks to gather GPS data (see September 10, 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Raytheon

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Alleged 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta is seen by at least two people, examining the security checkpoints at Logan International Airport in Boston—the airport at which he will board Flight 11 on September 11—but no action is taken when the witnesses report their concerns about his suspicious behavior. [Sullivan, 12/23/2013 pdf file; WCVB 5 (Boston), 10/6/2014]
Supervisor Sees Atta Filming a Security Checkpoint - Theresa Spagnuolo, a supervisor for Globe Aviation Services, sees a Middle Eastern man videotaping the main security checkpoint at the airport. The man, Spagnuolo will later describe, is between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 6 tall, with one day’s beard growth. After 9/11, she will recognize him as Atta from photos she is shown by investigators and seeing Atta’s picture on television. Worried by the man’s behavior, she tells her supervisor, James Miller, what she has seen. Miller, though, says nothing can be done about her concerns because the man is in a public area. According to the New York Post, however, this is untrue. “[A]irport security had clear authority to investigate anybody surveilling a checkpoint,” it will state, “and [Atta’s] activity should have raised major red flags.” Shortly after 9/11, Miller will claim he has no recollection of this incident and his alleged conversation with Spagnuolo. [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 9/17/2001 pdf file; New York Post, 10/5/2014]
Technician Sees Two Men Behaving Suspiciously - Meanwhile, Stephen Wallace, an American Airlines technician, notices two Middle Eastern men acting suspiciously sometime between 8:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. outside the main security checkpoint. He sees one of the men taking photos, and recording video of the checkpoint and the flight information display screens. He sees the other man speaking loudly in Arabic on a cell phone. Wallace will describe the men as having a dark complexion and being of medium height or perhaps slightly less than medium height. The man he sees talking on a cell phone has “no chin and dead eyes,” he will say. After 9/11, he will identify this man as Atta from photos he is shown by investigators. Whether he will be able to identify the other suspicious man is unstated. The two men are dressed like they are from Miami, Florida, Wallace will say. Atta is wearing a shiny grey shirt while the other man is wearing a tan shirt with stripes and flowers on it. Both men are wearing new leather shoes but no socks. Wallace observes them behaving suspiciously for about 45 minutes.
Port Authority Employees Think the Men Are Speaking Portuguese - Wallace alerts a couple of Massachusetts Port Authority employees who are nearby. He tells them the men have been taking photos, recording video, and talking Arabic on the phone. However, the Port Authority employees are apparently unconcerned. They tell Wallace the two men are “okay” and are speaking Portuguese, not Arabic. Wallace, though, is sure the men have been talking in Arabic.
Technician Questions the Suspicious Men - Due to his concerns, Wallace eventually walks up to the men and questions them about their carry-on luggage. They have what he will describe as “brand new” pilot bags with them. One of the bags is open and Wallace sees three disposable cameras, a video camera, files, and a cell phone in it. He points to a kiosk display of items that are prohibited on planes and says, “You guys don’t have any of this stuff in your bags, do you?” In response, one of the men addresses the other and refers to Wallace using an Arabic swear word while gesturing toward the technician. The two men then nervously pack up their bags and hurry toward another security checkpoint.
State Trooper Takes No Action - Wallace follows them and, before they reach it, alerts a Massachusetts state trooper to them. [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 9/17/2001 pdf file; Merrill Corp., 7/17/2007 pdf file; New York Post, 10/5/2014] He tells the state trooper: “These two clowns are up to something. They’ve been taking videos and pictures down at the checkpoint.” However, nothing is done in response to his concerns. The men are not stopped, questioned, or asked for IDs. [WCVB 5 (Boston), 10/6/2014] Wallace is unsure if they subsequently get on a plane but he thinks they board a flight to Washington, DC.
Action Today Could Have Prevented 9/11, Expert Will Say - There are no security cameras at the airport’s security checkpoints (see 1991-2000 and September 29, 2001), and so no images of Atta and his companion are recorded. Brian Sullivan, a retired special agent and risk management specialist for the Federal Aviation Administration, will express frustration at the lack of response to the sightings of Atta today when he learns of this incident after 9/11. “I’m convinced that had action been taken after the sighting of Atta, the 9/11 attacks, at least at Logan, could have been deterred,” he will say. Referring to Atta, the New York Post will comment, “[T]he worst terrorist hijacker in history was allowed to waltz through security without anyone stopping him, asking his name, checking his ticket, taking a picture, looking at his driver’s license or passport, opening his bags, or patting him down.” [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 9/17/2001 pdf file; Merrill Corp., 7/17/2007 pdf file; New York Post, 10/5/2014] Atta will again be seen behaving suspiciously at Logan Airport on September 9 (see September 9, 2001). [PBS, 1/17/2002; Associated Press, 5/28/2002; Guardian, 7/5/2002]

Entity Tags: James Miller (Globe Aviation Services), Massachusetts Port Authority, Brian Sullivan, Stephen Wallace, Mohamed Atta, Theresa Spagnuolo

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The US Air Force successfully tests the use of a military technology component that will land planes entirely by autopilot. The component is installed on a commercial airliner. The test takes place at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and uses a Boeing 727. The component for automated landing used by the military is called the Joint Precision Approach and Landing System, or JPALS. The JPALS is a differential GPS ground station developed by Raytheon. It was designed to become interoperable with civilian systems utilizing the same GPS-based technology. The civilian counterpart to the JPALS is known as the Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS). Both the JPALS and the LAAS use GPS data sufficiently accurate to allow a plane’s autopilot to land safely without human intervention. The test demonstrates that “the JPALS and LAAS will provide an interoperable landing capability for military and civil applications,” according to a Raytheon announcement (see also August 2000). [SpaceDaily, 10/1/2001]

Entity Tags: Raytheon

Timeline Tags: US Military

At Boston’s Logan Airport, during the morning, businesswoman Jan Shineman is checking in for Flight 11 to Los Angeles, when she notices a man resembling 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta behaving suspiciously. She later recalls him wearing “summery, holiday-type clothes… and he had no baggage, just a folder with a notebook.” She sees him again at the gate for Flight 11, “taking notes, watching the pilots in the cockpit through the window by the gate. They were running through their pre-flight checks.” She decides, “if he had boarded I would have told the captain about him, he was so odd and frightening.” [Guardian, 7/5/2002; Corbin, 2003, pp. 229] Atta will return to Logan Airport and board Flight 11 to Los Angeles on 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 1-2]

Entity Tags: Jan Shineman, Mohamed Atta, Logan International Airport

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Credit card receipts later discovered by the FBI apparently show that alleged lead 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta is in Manhattan on this day. According to FBI agents, he visits the observation deck on the 107th floor of the south WTC tower. CNN will report, “Officials speculate Atta may have been in New York… to program the towers’ location into a global positioning system.” A global positioning system (GPS) uses satellite technology to pinpoint any location on Earth. According to the FBI, Atta bought himself such a device, costing about $500, by mail order. [ABC News, 5/22/2002; CNN, 5/22/2002] Investigators will reportedly consider this trip necessary, “because they believe the hijackers were too inexperienced to handle the jumbo jets without help.” [New York Daily News, 5/22/2002] BBC reporter Jane Corbin points out that Atta was also witnessed at Boston’s Logan Airport the previous morning (see September 9, 2001), where he could have entered start-point co-ordinates for his 9/11 flight into the GPS device. [Corbin, 2003, pp. 230] However, there is no mention of Atta’s New York visit in the 9/11 Commission Report. According to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Atta spent the previous night at the Milner Hotel in Boston, and then shortly after noon on this day is in Boston where he picks up Abdulaziz Alomari and drives to Portland, Maine. [US Congress, 9/26/2002] The 200-mile journey from Boston to New York takes approximately four hours by car. [MIT, 5/25/2006] So if Mueller’s account is correct, it seems difficult to comprehend Atta having time to travel to New York, go up the WTC, make purchases on his credit card, and then return to Boston, all in the space of one morning. An article in the New York Post will in fact claim that the person in Manhattan was “a distinguished renal and gene specialist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital” in Baltimore, Maryland. This man, who is also called Mohamed Atta, happened to have visited New York in the days before 9/11, “for a whirlwind weekend with his new bride.” The article claims that it had erroneously been reported that alleged hijacker Mohamed Atta “was casing the Twin Towers days before Sept. 11—even after the FBI concluded it was just the kidney doctor, who had planned to take his wife to Windows on the World for dinner in the North Tower.” [New York Post, 5/28/2002]

Entity Tags: World Trade Center, Mohamed Atta

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After arriving at FAA headquarters on September 12, Tony Ferrante, the manager of FAA investigations, spends several days working out the movements of the four hijacked planes. He is astonished at the precision with which they were flown towards their targets, later saying: “[I]t was almost as though it was choreographed.… It’s not as easy as it looks to do what they did at 500 miles an hour.” He concludes that either the hijackers were better pilots than originally thought, or they were aided by additional equipment such as radios to communicate among the four planes or handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. [Freni, 2003, pp. 74 and 76] 9/11 Commission investigators will in fact later speculate that the hijackers may have purchased GPS devices, “so they could determine the latitude and longitude of their intended targets.” According to a summary of a Commission interview, “Any autopilot changes made by the terrorist pilots to assist them in navigating to predetermined coordinates would simply have been to enter a specific location such as Newark or Reagan National” Airport. However, airline personnel will tell the 9/11 Commission investigators that “Entering changes to the autopilot is something that terrorist pilots probably would not have been trained or able to do.” Even a United Airlines senior pilot, who instructs on how to do this, says “he always has to pause before he makes such corrections to make sure to remember how to enter the change.” [9/11 Commission, 11/17/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Tony Ferrante

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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