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Context of '(11:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001: 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron Begins Reconstructing Radar Data'

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A map showing the planned flight path of Payne Stewart’s plane and the crash site location.A map showing the planned flight path of Payne Stewart’s plane and the crash site location. [Source: CNN]A runaway Learjet crashes near Mina, South Dakota, after flying on autopilot for several hours. On board is champion golfer Payne Stewart, along with five others. It is believed the accident is due to a loss of cabin pressure at high altitude, which would have caused all on board to go unconscious from lack of oxygen. (Sealey 10/25/1999; Walsh and Claiborne 10/26/1999; National Transportation Safety Board 11/28/2000) After air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane, it was tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), assisted by several Air Force and Air National Guard fighters and an AWACS radar control plane, up until when it crashed. It was also tracked on radar screens inside the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. (McIntyre 10/26/1999) The Learjet had departed Orlando, Florida at 9:19 a.m., bound for Texas. The FAA says controllers lost contact with it at 9:44 a.m. (Walsh and Claiborne 10/26/1999) , but according to a later report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) the plane first failed to respond to air traffic control at 9:33 a.m., after which the controller repeatedly tried to make contact for the next 4 1/2 minutes, without success. (National Transportation Safety Board 11/28/2000) NORAD’s Southeast Air Defense Sector was notified of the emergency at 9:55 a.m. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 459) At 10:08 a.m., two F-16 fighters from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida that were on a routine training mission had been asked by the FAA to intercept the Learjet, but never reached it. At about 10:52 a.m., a fighter from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was directed to within 9 miles of it, and at around 11:00 a.m. began a visual inspection of the plane. It accompanied the Learjet from 11:09 to 11:44 a.m. At 11:59 a.m., according to early accounts, four Air National Guard fighters and a refueling tanker from Tulsa, Oklahoma were told to chase the Learjet, but got no closer than 100 miles from it. However, the NTSB later claims that two Tulsa fighters were with it between 12:25 and 12:39 p.m., and were able to visually inspect it. At 12:54 p.m., two Air National Guard fighters from Fargo, North Dakota intercepted the Learjet. Soon after 1:14 p.m., it crashed in swampland, after spiraling to the ground. (Walsh and Claiborne 10/26/1999; Associated Press 10/27/1999; National Transportation Safety Board 11/28/2000) During its flight, the FAA had routed air traffic around the Learjet, and made sure no other planes flew beneath it, due to the danger of it crashing. (Associated Press 10/26/1999) There is some discussion as to what could have been done had the plane been on a collision course with a populated area, with CNN reporting, “[O]nly the president has the authority to order a civilian aircraft shot down.” Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon says the military has no written instructions for shooting down manned civilian planes. According to a 1997 military instruction, the shooting down of unmanned objects such as missiles requires prior approval from the secretary of defense. (US Department of Defense 7/31/1997 pdf file; McIntyre 10/26/1999) A Pentagon spokesman says the fighters that monitored the Learjet had no missiles, but two other fighters on “strip alert” at Fargo had been armed but didn’t take off. (CNN 10/26/1999) The 9/11 Commission will later compare NORAD’s response to this incident with its response to Flight 11 on 9/11, and claim: “There is no significant difference in NORAD’s reaction to the two incidents.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 459)

A number of key senior FAA personnel happen to be away from their usual bases this morning, at the time of the attacks.
bullet Bill Peacock, the FAA director of air traffic services, is in New Orleans for a meeting with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Among his many duties, Peacock is “the ultimate manager of all the air traffic controllers in the country’s system.” He will be transported from New Orleans later in the day in an FAA business jet, one of the few aircraft permitted to fly, and only arrive at FAA headquarters shortly after 5:00 p.m. (Freni 2003, pp. 12 and 70)
bullet Jack Kies, the FAA’s manager of tactical operations, is in Nashua, New Hampshire for a meeting with representatives of the Canadian air traffic control organization. (Freni 2003, pp. 65-66) Consequently Linda Schuessler, the deputy director of system operations, has to take his place in charge of the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. (Lavey 5/18/2006)
bullet Tony Ferrante, the manager of the FAA’s air traffic investigation arm, is in Chicago to testify at a hearing. He will become frustrated later in the day about being stuck there, knowing he should he at his post in Washington gathering forensic data on the hijackings and crashes. (Freni 2003, pp. 7, 19 and 47-48)
bullet Rick Hostetler, a member of the FAA’s planning and procedures organization, is at the dentist’s in Waldorf, Maryland when the attacks begin. His job includes acting as the FAA’s primary air traffic liaison for the Secret Service, the US Special Operations Command, and the Pentagon. After seeing the second WTC tower hit live on television, reportedly while sitting in the dentist’s chair, he will quickly set out for his duty station at the FAA Command Center. But due to the heavy traffic, his journey will take hours and the attacks will be over by the time he gets there. (Freni 2003, pp. 27, 47 and 90)
bullet Mike Canavan, the director of the FAA’s Office of Civil Aviation Security, is visiting the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He will only make it back to Washington in the evening, on a special Army flight. (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) As part of his job, Canavan is the FAA’s hijack coordinator, responsible for requesting military assistance in the event of a hijacking (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 17-18)
bullet FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is in a breakfast meeting at the Department of Transportation, in Washington, DC. She will quickly relocate to FAA headquarters soon after the first attack (see (8:48 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Freni 2003, pp. 62-63)
Whether the absence of these senior personnel impairs the FAA’s ability to respond to the attacks is unknown.

A Fairfax, Virginia company that makes computer software that tracks and records the flight paths of planes helps media companies and airlines to reconstruct the paths of all four of the hijacked aircraft. (Lincoln 9/11/2001; McCarthy 9/13/2001) Flight Explorer sells an Internet-accessible application that provides constantly updated information on the positions of aircraft in flight. It uses radar feeds that the FAA collects from control centers across the US. (Business Wire 6/16/2000; Huettel 8/12/2001) All of Flight Explorer’s employees begin sorting through its data “after the first crash [of Flight 11] was reported,” so presumably this is at around 8:50 a.m. Whether any particular agency, such as the FAA, requests this or they do it of their own initiative is unknown. Although there are some 4,000 planes in the air above the US at the time of the attacks, the company is quickly able to pinpoint the paths of all four hijacked aircraft. It then creates charts and animated videos of the four flights’ actual and intended routes. About 12 news agencies, including all the major networks, request these animated illustrations. (Lincoln 9/11/2001; McCarthy 9/13/2001) Flight Explorer is apparently unhindered by the fact that flights 11 and 93 have their transponders turned off during the hijackings. Its reconstruction of Flight 77’s path ends, however, at 8:57, around the time that aircraft’s transponder goes off and it disappears from controllers’ radar screens (see (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Yet the 9/11 Commission will later say that, despite this disappearance, “Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked the flight from the moment its transponder was turned off.” Why the Flight Explorer illustration does not therefore show the rest of Flight 77’s journey is not clear. (AVweb 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) Until a few years back, Flight Explorer was the only company that recorded flight paths. Since the 1999 death of golfer Payne Stewart (see October 25, 1999) the FAA has also been recording these paths. (Lincoln 9/11/2001) The final report of the 9/11 Commission will make no mention of the Flight Explorer flight path recordings. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 222)

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is in a breakfast meeting with the Belgian transportation minister, to discuss aviation issues. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is also in the meeting, which is in the conference room next to Mineta’s office at the Department of Transportation (DOT) in Washington, DC. Soon after 8:45 a.m., Mineta’s Chief of Staff John Flaherty interrupts, and takes Mineta and Garvey aside to Mineta’s office to tell them that news agencies are reporting that some kind of aircraft has flown into the WTC. While Garvey immediately goes to a telephone and contacts the FAA Operations Center, Mineta continues with the meeting. But a few minutes later Flaherty again takes him aside to tell him the plane is confirmed to be a commercial aircraft, and that the FAA had received an unconfirmed report of a hijacking. The TV is on and Mineta sees the second plane hitting the WTC live. He terminates his meeting with the Belgian minister, and Garvey heads off to the FAA headquarters. The White House calls and requests that Mineta go and operate from there, so he quickly heads out too. He will soon arrive there, and enters its underground bunker at around 9:20 a.m. (see (Between 9:20 a.m. and 9:27 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (US Congress 9/20/2001; Freni 2003, pp. 62-63; 9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) Before leaving the Department of Transportation, Mineta orders the activation of the DOT’s Crisis Management Center (see 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001). (US Congress 10/10/2001)

According to the 9/11 Commission, “Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked [Flight 77] from the moment its transponder was turned off at 8:56 [a.m.].” However, for eight minutes and 13 seconds, between 8:56 and 9:05, this primary radar data is not displayed to Indianapolis Center air traffic controllers. “The reasons are technical, arising from the way the software processed radar information, as well as from poor primary radar coverage where American 77 was flying.” (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) According to the Washington Post, Flight 77 “was hijacked in an area of limited radar coverage.” The Post adds that there are two particular types of radar system. “Secondary” radar “is the type used almost exclusively today in air traffic control. It takes an aircraft’s identification, destination, speed, and altitude from the plane’s transponder and displays it on a controller’s radar screen.” “Primary” radar, on the other hand, “is an older system. It bounces a beam off an aircraft and tells a controller only that a plane is aloft—but does not display its type or altitude. The two systems are usually mounted on the same tower.” Normally, “If a plane simply disappears from radar screens, most controllers can quickly switch on the primary system, which should display a small plus sign at the plane’s location, even if the aircraft’s transponder is not working. But the radar installation near Parkersburg, W. Va., was built with only secondary radar—called ‘beacon-only’ radar. That left the controller monitoring Flight 77 at the Indianapolis Center blind when the hijackers apparently switched off the aircraft’s transponder (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001), sources said.” (Phillips 11/3/2001) In its final report, the 9/11 Commission will include a rather elaborate explanation for the loss of primary radar contact with Flight 77, saying it is because “the ‘preferred’ radar in this geographic area had no primary radar system, the ‘supplemental’ radar had poor primary coverage, and the FAA ATC [air traffic control] software did not allow the display of primary radar data from the ‘tertiary’ and ‘quadrary’ radars.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 460) The Commission will note that two managers at the Indianapolis Center who assist in the search on radar for the missing aircraft do “not instruct other controllers at Indianapolis Center to turn on their primary radar coverage to join in the search for American 77.” (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004)

Bill Peacock, the FAA director of air traffic services, is currently away from FAA headquarters for a meeting in New Orleans (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). His staff called him earlier to alert him to the possible hijacking of Flight 11. He returned to his hotel room in time to see the second attack live on CNN. He quickly phones FAA headquarters, trying to contact his staff, and has his call added to the teleconference being run from the conference room next to his office. (Freni 2003, pp. 12 and 22) According to a statement provided by the FAA to the 9/11 Commission in 2003, this teleconference began “[w]ithin minutes” of the first WTC tower being hit (see (8:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Yet the 9/11 Commission will later claim that it was not established until “about 9:20” (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001), which is about 15 minutes later than Peacock supposedly joined it. (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 36)

Within two hours of the attacks the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron (RADES) based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah begins reviewing the radar trails of the four earlier hijacked aircraft, after Pentagon officials have turned to them to find out exactly what happened. Using their own software, the unit has the unique ability to create a “track of interest analysis,” singling out and zooming in on each of the planes. The unit has captured most of the flights of the four planes, but lost sight of Flight 93 at some point. (Desjarlais 12/2003) The FBI also contacts RADES within hours of the attacks, requesting detailed information on the hijacked planes. (Garbarino 4/15/2004) NORAD official Colonel Alan Scott later will tell the 9/11 Commission that much of his radar data for the “primary targets” on 9/11 was not seen that day. He will say, “It was reconstructed days later by the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron, and other agencies like it who are professionals at going back and looking at radar tapes and then given that they are loaded with knowledge after the fact, they can go and find things that perhaps were not visible during the event itself.” (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) Data reconstructed by RADES will be used as a source several times in the account of the hijackings and military response to them in the 9/11 Commission’s final report. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 457-459)

At FAA headquarters in Washington, DC, David Canoles, the FAA’s manager of air traffic evaluations and investigations, and his staff begin coordinating the collection of forensic evidence that might clarify how the morning’s attacks unfolded. They coordinate the capture and copying of radar track data showing the paths of the four hijacked planes, and obtain air traffic control voice tapes from every facility that had spoken with these planes. FAA Assistant Investigations Manager Tony Mello and other employees will work for most of the afternoon, all night, and part of the following day, gathering data and coordinating with the FBI, Secret Service, Defense Department, White House, and National Transportation Safety Board, making sure these other agencies receive as much evidence as is available. Radar tracks are crudely plotted, showing the flight paths of the four jets, and voice tapes are transcribed. Having been stuck in Chicago when the attacks occurred, (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001), Tony Ferrante, the manager of FAA investigations, will finally arrive at FAA headquarters at 5:00 a.m. on September 12. His first priority is “to ensure that the radar data and voice tapes from every location involved in the attack [are] put under lock and key as soon as possible,” presumably to be kept safe for any investigations. He looks at and listens to the relevant controller tapes, and begins constructing a detailed timeline of the four hijacked aircraft. Along with Tony Mello and others of his staff, Ferrante will spend several days working out the movements of the four planes. FAA radar experts Dan Diggins and Doug Gould will also spend days interpreting the radar tracks of the four planes, piecing together a detailed timeline of their actions from takeoff to crash. (Freni 2003, pp. 74 and 76-77) The FAA will publish a fairly comprehensive chronology of the hijackings on September 17, though this will not be made public until September 2005. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file; National Security Archive 9/9/2005) Presently, it refers any media requests for flight patterns to Flight Explorer, a software company that makes charts of plane routes using information from the FAA’s radar system (see After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). (McCarthy 9/13/2001) The US military has also started doing its own reconstructions of the radar data for the hijacked aircraft (see (11:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001).

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