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Context of '(After 9:19 a.m.) September 11, 2001: United Flight 23 Cancels Takeoff, Possibly Avoids Being Hijacked'

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Jim Goodwin.Jim Goodwin. [Source: Chicago Tribune]Rich Miles, the manager at the United Airlines System Operations Control (SOC) center just outside Chicago, receives a call from a supervisor at United’s maintenance office in San Francisco, informing him that Flight 175 has been reported as hijacked. (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 22) The maintenance office received a call minutes earlier from a flight attendant on United 175, who said their plane had been hijacked (see 8:52 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 7-8) When the supervisor tells Miles about this, he initially responds, “No, the information we’re getting is that it was an American 757.” (The FAA has just informed United Airlines that the plane that hit the World Trade Center was a hijacked American Airlines 757 (see (Shortly After 8:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001).) But the supervisor insists, “No, we got a call from a flight attendant on 175.” (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001) Miles notifies his boss Bill Roy, the SOC director, about this information. Roy then contacts United’s CEO Jim Goodwin and its chief operating officer Andy Studdert, who are in a meeting at the airline’s headquarters, located next to the SOC. Roy then begins the process of activating the crisis center at the United headquarters, which will take about 30 minutes to complete. (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 22)

Beginning at 9:03, a number of United Airlines flight dispatchers send text messages to several United aircraft, indicating to the pilots that planes have flown into the World Trade Center. But, according to the 9/11 Commission, “These messages provided no details or warnings.” (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 36) It is not until 9:21 that United dispatchers are told to warn their flights to secure cockpit doors (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) The dispatcher responsible for Flight 175 and Flight 93—Ed Ballinger—begins sending warning messages to the flights he is monitoring at 9:19 a.m., informing them that two aircraft have hit the WTC (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 37) Airline dispatchers have an important part to play in managing aircraft in flight. According to commercial pilot and author Lynn Spencer, under FAA rules, dispatchers “take guardianship of each company aircraft in the sky. They are assigned to a certain number of aircraft and know all there is to know about each: who is flying, who is working the cabin, how many pounds of fuel are onboard, the flight plan, the alternate plan, and anything at all relevant to that flight. If there is a glitch in the system, the pilot talks to the dispatcher, and together they formulate a plan of action.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 35 and 72) United Airlines dispatchers are each responsible for monitoring from ten to 30 flights during a shift, and monitor anything up to two dozen flights at a time. (Longman 2002, pp. 68)

Shortly after he learns a second plane has hit the World Trade Center, United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger takes the initiative to begin sending a warning message to the flights he is monitoring, including Flight 93 and Flight 175 (although this aircraft has already crashed). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 11; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 26 and 37) Ballinger is responsible for monitoring United’s aircraft flying from the East Coast to the West Coast. He has 16 such flights he is in charge of. (Davis 4/14/2004) He sends out a text message to his airborne flights: “Beware any cockpit intrusion… Two aircraft in NY hit [World] Trade Center builds.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 11; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 26) Although United Airlines has suspected Flight 175 as being hijacked since around 9:00 a.m. (see Shortly Before 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001), Ballinger is still responsible for multiple flights. (In contrast to United, American Airlines has a policy that flight dispatchers should only manage the hijacked flight, and be relieved of responsibility for their other flights.) (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 455-456) Ballinger’s warning is therefore sent out to his aircraft in groups, and will not be sent to Flight 93 until 9:23 a.m. (see 9:23 a.m.-9:26 a.m. September 11, 2001). Unaware that it was the second plane that hit the WTC, Ballinger will also send the message to Flight 175 (see 9:23 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 26 and 37) Ballinger begins sending out these warnings two minutes before United Airlines instructs its dispatchers to warn their flights to secure their cockpit doors (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 455) According to the 9/11 Commission, his text message represents “the first occasion on 9/11 when either American or United sent out such a warning to their airborne aircraft.” (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 37) Ballinger will later recall: “As soon as I had a grasp of what was going on… I sent [the warning] out immediately. It was before [Transportation Secretary Norman] Mineta, and even before the airlines told us to alert the crews.” (Davis 4/14/2004)

United Airlines Flight 23, a Boeing 767 bound from JFK International Airport in New York to Los Angeles, cancels its takeoff and may thus avoid becoming the morning’s fifth hijacked plane. It was scheduled to depart at 8:30 a.m., but was late in pushing back from the gate and is still waiting in line to take off. (Associated Press 9/13/2001; Wald 10/20/2001) The plane’s pilots, Tom Mannello and Carol Timmons, have heard a report over their radio that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. They then receive a text message from United Airlines dispatcher Ed Ballinger, which reportedly states: “We have gone to heightened security. Do not open cockpit doors. Secure the cockpit.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 102-103) This is presumably the message Ballinger sent out at 9:19 (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001), though it seems to be more like a description of the message he sends out at 9:32 (see 9:32 a.m.-9:33 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 37 and 39)
Pilots Alarmed at Warning - Having never received a warning like this before, the pilots are alarmed. Timmons starts barricading the cockpit door with their suitcases while Mannello grabs the crash ax for protection. Mannello calls the plane’s lead flight attendant to inform her of the threat, and tells her not to open the cockpit door under any circumstances. Soon afterwards, she calls back and informs him: “We [the plane’s flight attendants] just think you should know this because we think it is unusual. We have four young Arab men sitting in first class this morning.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 103) (Other accounts will claim there are three or even six suspicious passengers on the flight. (Associated Press 9/13/2001; Davis 4/14/2004) ) Mannello hasn’t been told what the reported threat is about or if it relates to Arabs, so simply thanks the attendant for the information. Minutes later, the pilots receive a radio message from ground control, announcing, “All aircraft, be advised that the airport is now closed.” A subsequent message announces the airport is being evacuated. Mannello decides to move his aircraft back to the terminal. (Spencer 2008, pp. 103-104)
Arab Passengers Become Aggressive - After the passengers are told their flight has been canceled, the Arab men become upset. They stand up and start urgently consulting with each other, and then refuse to return to their seats. (Associated Press 9/13/2001; Wald 10/20/2001) One official will later describe: “These guys got belligerent, and said something like, ‘We’ve got to be on this plane.’ They expressed a desire to remain on the plane and resisted getting off.” (Levy and Rashbaum 9/14/2001) According to the Associated Press, “The argument with a member of the flight crew became so heated that the crew member called airport security. But before security arrived, the men had vanished.” (Associated Press 9/13/2001)
Evidence Indicates Plans for Hijacking Plane - Authorities will later check the men’s unclaimed baggage and find box-cutters, copies of the Koran, and al-Qaeda instruction sheets. (Davis 4/14/2004; Spencer 2008, pp. 105) In 2002, apparently referring to this incident, Lieutenant General Ken Pennie, the deputy commander of NORAD, will state, “We suspect there might have been more than just the four aircraft involved” as targets for the 9/11 attacks. (Ha 6/13/2002) The FBI will investigate this incident and go through the flight manifest to determine the names of the Arab men, who are believed to have had ticketed reservations. (Associated Press 9/13/2001; Levy and Rashbaum 9/14/2001) Investigators will interview the plane’s crew nearly half a dozen times. But no information about the suspicious Arab passengers is ever released to the public. (Spencer 2008, pp. 105) On September 14, it is reported that investigators believe at least one of these passengers was among a number of individuals taken into custody at JFK and La Guardia Airports the previous day (see September 13-14, 2001). (Levy and Rashbaum 9/14/2001) However, these detained individuals are soon cleared of any connection with the events of 9/11 and are released. (Associated Press 9/14/2001) In 2004, Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL) will say the suspicious Flight 23 passengers were never found and are likely still at large. (Davis 4/14/2004)

United Airlines issues a companywide order for its flight dispatchers to warn their flights to secure their cockpit doors. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 455) The airline’s air traffic control coordinator sends a message to all of the airline’s dispatchers, telling them: “There may be addnl [additional] hijackings in progress. You may want to advise your flts [flights] to stay on alert and shut down all cockpit access inflt [in flight]. Sandy per Mgmt.” United Airlines dispatchers began notifying their aircraft that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center at 9:03 (see 9:03 a.m. and After September 11, 2001). However, with the exception of one dispatcher (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001), the airline has so far not sent any warnings to its aircraft. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 36-37) United Airlines did not initially realize the second plane to hit the WTC was one of its own (see Between 9:10 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. September 11, 2001), and it is not until 9:22 that it notifies its dispatchers that UAL Flight 175 has been involved in “an accident” in New York (see 9:22 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Ed Ballinger, the United Airlines flight dispatcher monitoring Flight 93, sends a warning message to this flight, telling the pilots to beware of any cockpit intrusion. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 11) At 9:21, United Airlines instructed its dispatchers to warn their flights to secure their cockpit doors (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001), but Ballinger had already taken the initiative two minutes earlier to begin warning the 16 flights he is monitoring (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). His text message reads: “Beware any cockpit intrusion… Two aircraft in NY hit [World] Trade Center builds.” Because this message is sent out to Ballinger’s 16 aircraft in groups, it is not until 9:23 a.m. that it is transmitted to Flight 93. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 26 and 37) The warning is received in the plane’s cockpit one minute later. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 11) Then, at 9:26, Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl responds with the text message, “Ed confirm latest mssg plz [message please]—Jason.” Apart from a routine radio contact with the FAA’s Cleveland Center a minute later (see 9:27 a.m. September 11, 2001), this is the last normal communication made from Flight 93’s cockpit before the hijacking occurs. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 38) Ballinger will later complain: “One of the things that upset me was that they knew 45 minutes before that American Airlines [Flight 11] had a problem. I put the story together myself [from news accounts]. Perhaps if I had the information sooner, I might have gotten the message to [Flight] 93 to bar the door.” (Davis 4/14/2004)

After United Airlines learns that Flight 93 is not responding to air traffic controllers, it notifies its flight dispatchers of this, and two of its employees try to contact the flight. At about 9:30, the FAA’s Cleveland Center informed the United Airlines headquarters, near Chicago, that Flight 93 was not responding to attempted radio contacts (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). At 9:31, officials at the headquarters inform the airline’s dispatchers—who are responsible for monitoring aircraft in flight—that there is a potential problem with Flight 93. Over the next minute, United’s air traffic control coordinator and another of its employees each send a text message to Flight 93, stating, “ATC looking for you on 133.37.” Flight 93 does not respond to these or any subsequent text messages. (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 39)

United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger sends a warning message to the flights he is monitoring, which include Flight 93. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 39) Ballinger is responsible for monitoring 16 transcontinental flights. (Davis 4/14/2004) Beginning at 9:32, he sends out a text message to these flights: “High security alert. Secure cockpit.” He presumably sends this in response to United Airlines’ notification a minute earlier that there is a potential problem with Flight 93 (see 9:31 a.m.-9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). Ballinger’s message is transmitted to Flight 93 at 9:33, but the plane does not respond. Ballinger apparently informs his colleagues of this lack of response: United Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andy Studdert will later tell the 9/11 Commission that at “approximately 9:30, a United dispatcher reports that we cannot reach Flight 93.” (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 39) Ballinger previously sent out a message at 9:19, warning his flights to “Beware any cockpit intrusion” (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 11)

United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger sends two messages to Flight 93, which he is monitoring, warning its pilots (who in fact are no longer in control of the plane) to secure the cockpit. At 9:40, he sends the text message to Flight 93: “High security alert. Secure cockpit. Two airliner hit NY Trade Center. And 1 aircraft in IAD missing. And one in EWR missing… too. UAL 175/93 missing.” A minute later, he again sends this message to Flight 93, but with “UAL 175/93 found” added at the end. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 43) “IAD” is the code for Washington’s Dulles International Airport, from where Flight 77 took off, while “EWR” is the code for Newark Airport, from where Flight 93 took off, so presumably it is these missing aircraft that Ballinger is referring to. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file) Ballinger sent previous warning messages to Flight 93 earlier on, telling it to “Beware any cockpit intrusion” at 9:23 (see 9:23 a.m.-9:26 a.m. September 11, 2001), and to “Secure cockpit” at 9:33 (see 9:32 a.m.-9:33 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 37 and 39)

Barry Mawn.Barry Mawn. [Source: Associated Press]On September 13, New York authorities take into custody ten people of Middle Eastern descent at JFK International and La Guardia Airports, reportedly fearing they intend to hijack aircraft and commit another suicidal terrorist attack on a US target. This leads to all three major New York-area airports—JFK, La Guardia, and Newark—being abruptly shut down, just hours after they reopened for the first time since the 9/11 attacks took place. (Associated Press 9/14/2001; Mittelstadt and Jackson 9/14/2001; Levy and Rashbaum 9/14/2001; Eggen and Slevin 9/14/2001)
Armed and Carrying False ID - According to the Washington Post, the detained individuals are carrying knives and false identification. (Eggen and Slevin 9/14/2001) Four of them are reportedly arrested as they try to board a flight from JFK Airport to Los Angeles, and a woman is held on suspicion of assisting these four. Some of the four are reported as having pilots’ certificates from Flight Safety International in Vero Beach, Florida, where some of the alleged 9/11 hijackers are currently believed to have taken flying lessons. Later on, the other five men are arrested at La Guardia Airport “under similar circumstances.” (Mittelstadt and Jackson 9/14/2001) According to the New York Times, “Law enforcement officials said one of those held was carrying a false pilot’s identification.” Furthermore, several of the detained men “showed up at the airport with tickets for flights canceled on Tuesday [September 11] and tried to use them.” Investigators say they believe one of the men had been among a group of passengers that behaved suspiciously and became aggressive after their aircraft—United Airlines Flight 23—had its takeoff canceled on the morning of 9/11 (see (After 9:19 a.m.) September 11, 2001). New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik says one of the men arrested at JFK Airport “attempted to clear security and he was stopped.” (Levy and Rashbaum 9/14/2001)
Men Released, No Connections Found to 9/11 Attacks - However, the following morning the FBI announces that none of the detainees had any connection to the 9/11 attacks, and all but one of them have been released. Barry Mawn, the head of the New York FBI office, says: “The reporting that has been going on all night, I can definitively tell you, is inaccurate.… [W]e did talk to approximately a dozen individuals. We have only one individual left who is still being questioned by the task force. All other ten have been released.” (CNN 9/14/2001; PBS 9/14/2001) Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker says that no knives, box cutters, guns, or other weapons were found on the individuals. (Thompson 9/15/2001) After talking to the directors of the FBI and CIA, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) tells CNN that the detained men had “no connection whatsoever to what happened at the World Trade towers or the Pentagon, or this organizational network.” He explains: “One guy, an actual pilot, got on the plane, coincidentally had his brother’s identification as well. His brother happened to live in the apartment complex that was one in Boston where some of [the alleged hijackers] had actually been.” Biden adds: “Ten other people were going to a Boeing conference. They had stickers on their bags.… The folks at the airport thought, hey, wait a minute, are they impersonating crew? And they weren’t.” Biden says the one man who has not yet been released “was a screwball who was acting out, you know, acting out and saying and demanding.… Making problems, and they arrested him.” By 11:20 a.m. on September 14, the three New York-area airports are reopened. (Associated Press 9/14/2001; CNN 9/14/2001)

The FBI claims on this day that there were six hijacking teams on the morning of 9/11. (Johnston and Risen 9/19/2001; Borger and Hooper 10/13/2001) A different report claims investigators are privately saying eight. (Gumbel 9/25/2001) However, the reports below suggest there may have been as many as nine aborted flights, leading to a potential total of 13 hijackings:
bullet Knives of the same type used in the successful hijackings were found taped to the backs of fold-down trays on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark. (Kelso et al. 9/19/2001)
bullet The FBI is investigating American Airlines Flight 43, which was scheduled to leave Boston about 8:10 a.m. bound for Los Angeles but was canceled minutes before takeoff due to a mechanical problem. (BBC 9/18/2001; Chicago Tribune 9/18/2001; Kelso et al. 9/19/2001) Another version claims the flight left from Newark and made it as far as Cincinnati before being grounded in the nationwide air ban. (Johnston and Risen 9/19/2001)
bullet Knives and box cutters were found on two separate canceled Delta Airlines planes later that day, one leaving Atlanta for Brussels and the other leaving from Boston. (Donnelly 9/22/2001; Gumbel 9/25/2001)
bullet On September 14, two knives were found on an Air Canada flight that would have flown to New York on 9/11 if not for the air ban. (Sieberg 10/15/2001)
bullet Two men arrested on 9/11 may have lost their nerve on American Airlines Flight 1729 from Newark to San Antonio via Dallas that was scheduled to depart at 8:50 a.m., and was later forced to land in St. Louis. Alternately, they may have been planning an attack for September 15, 2001. Their names are Mohammed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan, whose real name according to later reports is Syed Gul Mohammad Shah. (Johnston and Risen 9/19/2001)
bullet There may have been an attempt to hijack United Airlines Flight 23 flying from JFK Airport, New York to Los Angeles around 9:00 a.m. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger sent out a warning about the first WTC crash to the flights he was handling (see 9:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). Because of this warning, the crew of Flight 23 told the passengers it had a mechanical problem and immediately returned to the gate. Ballinger was later told by authorities that six men initially wouldn’t get off the plane. When the men finally disembarked, they disappeared into the crowd and never returned. Later, authorities checked their luggage and found copies of the Koran and al-Qaeda instruction sheets. (Prial 9/14/2001; Davis 4/14/2004) In mid-2002, a NORAD deputy commander says “we don’t know for sure” if Flight 23 was to have been hijacked. (Ha 6/13/2002)
bullet According to anonymous FAA officials, a plane bound for Chicago, home of the Sears Tower, could have been another target for hijacking. The plane landed unexpectedly at the Cleveland airport after the FAA initiated a national ground stop. Four Middle Eastern men had deplaned and left the airport before officials could detain them for questioning. (Freni 2003, pp. 81)
bullet A box cutter knife was found under a seat cushion on American Airlines Flight 160, a 767 that would have flown from San Diego to New York on the morning of 9/11 but for the air ban. (Bendavid 9/23/2001)
The FBI is said to be seeking a number of passengers who failed to board the same, rescheduled flights when the grounding order on commercial planes in the US was lifted. (BBC 9/18/2001) The Independent points out suspicions have been fueled “that staff at US airports may have played an active role in the conspiracy and helped the hijackers to circumvent airport security.” They also note, “It is possible that at least some of the flights that have come under scrutiny were used as decoys, or as fallback targets.” (Gumbel 9/25/2001)

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