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Context of '9:08 a.m. September 11, 2001: American Airlines Thinks Flight 77 Hit the WTC'

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An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs it that contact has been lost with Flight 77. The controller is a sector radar associate, whose job is to help with hand-offs and to coordinate with other sectors and facilities. He speaks to American Airlines dispatcher Jim McDonnell. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 30; Spencer 2008, pp. 63) The controller begins, “This is Indianapolis Center trying to get a hold of American 77.” McDonnell asks for clarification, “Who you trying to get a hold of?” and the controller replies: “American 77.… On frequency 120.27.… We were talking to him and all of a sudden it just, uh…” McDonnell interjects: “Okay, all right. We’ll get a hold of him for you.” The call comes to an abrupt end and the controller then continues trying to contact Flight 77. (New York Times 10/16/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 63-64) Soon after this call, American Airlines’ executive vice president of operations, Gerard Arpey, will give an order to stop all American flight takeoffs in the Northeast US (see Between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. September 11, 2001). By 8:59 a.m., American Airlines begins attempts to contact Flight 77 using ACARS (a digital communications system used primarily for aircraft-to-airline messages). Within minutes, some time between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., American will get word that United Airlines also has lost contact with a missing airliner (presumably Flight 175). When reports of the second WTC crash come through after 9:03 a.m., one manager will mistakenly shout, “How did 77 get to New York and we didn’t know it?” (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 454; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 31) The sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center will call American Airlines again about Flight 77 at 9:02, and again speak with McDonnell (see 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001). (New York Times 10/16/2001)

By this time, officials at American Airlines’ System Operations Control in Fort Worth, Texas have mistakenly concluded that the second aircraft to hit the World Trade Center might have been Flight 77. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 30) American Airlines learned that communications had been lost with Flight 77 just before 9 a.m. (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Craig Parfitt.Craig Parfitt. [Source: Publicity photo]The United Airlines dispatch operations manager speaks with the American Airlines dispatch operations manager, and they discuss the two plane crashes in New York. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 25) Mike Barber, the United dispatch manager, is at the airline’s System Operations Control (SOC) center, just outside Chicago, while Craig Parfitt, the American dispatch manager, is at that airline’s SOC center in Fort Worth, Texas. (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001) At 9:10, United Airlines is aware a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center, but it does not realize this is one of its own flights. During their call, Parfitt says to Barber he believes both the aircraft that hit the WTC belonged to American Airlines. (At 9:08 a.m., officials at American Airlines’ SOC mistakenly concluded the second aircraft to hit the WTC might have been Flight 77 (see 9:08 a.m. September 11, 2001).) But Barber says he is increasingly “confident” that the second plane was United Airlines Flight 175. “In slow motion and enlarged images of the second impact on CNN, he could see that the airplane did not have the shiny metallic color of American jets.” By 9:20, according to the 9/11 Commission, although Barber believes the second crashed plane was Flight 175, the identity of this aircraft is “still unconfirmed.” (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 25-26)

Toni Knisley.Toni Knisley. [Source:]At some time before the Pentagon is hit, one of the parents of flight attendant Renee May call an American Airlines employee at Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, DC, and report that their daughter has contacted them from Flight 77, which has been hijacked. May called her parents at 9:12 a.m., reported that her plane was being hijacked, and asked them to pass this information on to American Airlines (see (9:12 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 31) The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that it is May’s mother, Nancy May, who makes the call to American Airlines. (Patton 9/13/2001) This claim is repeated at the 2006 Zacarias Moussaoui trial. (US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 7/31/2006, pp. 7 pdf file) But according to author Tom Murphy, it is her father, Ronald May, who makes the call. (Murphy 2006, pp. 57) The parent describes the information provided by their daughter, including her flight number and her phone number on board the plane. According to the 9/11 Commission, the American Airlines employee initially thinks May’s mother (who the Commission indicates makes the call) is talking about the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center. But Nancy May repeats that she is referring to Flight 77, which is still in the air. (The error could possibly be because, by 9:08 a.m., officials at American Airlines’ System Operations Control in Texas mistakenly concluded that the second aircraft to hit the World Trade Center may have been Flight 77 (see 9:08 a.m. September 11, 2001).) (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 30-31) The employee, a secretary, then passes on the information about May’s call to Toni Knisley, a flight service manager at the airport. Knisley rushes to her office and enters May’s employee number into the computer to call up her schedule. This shows she was booked on Flight 77, Washington Dulles Airport to Los Angeles, scheduled to depart at 8:10 a.m. Knisley tries to log onto the flight to view its status, but the information is blocked, so she cannot see if it is still flying or where it is. (Murphy 2006, pp. 56-57) (It is possible the information is blocked as a result of American Airlines having already initiated “lockout” procedures to protect information about Flight 77 (see 9:05 a.m. September 11, 2001).)

Bill Halleck, an American Airlines air traffic control specialist at the airline’s System Operations Control (SOC) in Fort Worth, Texas, phones an official at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, to ask about the status of New York City air traffic. During their two-and-a-half minute conversation, Halleck says American thinks Flight 11 crashed into the WTC, and says that Flight 77 is “missing.” Presently, he receives an update from someone else at SOC, indicating that Flight 77 may also have crashed into the WTC (see 9:08 a.m. September 11, 2001). He wonders how it could have gotten to New York, but updates the FAA official on this news. The FAA official replies that the second WTC crash may not have been Flight 77 because “we have another call sign” for that incident. The FAA Command Center is currently uncertain of the identity of either of the planes that hit the Twin Towers, and provides no further information. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 31 and 94)

According to the 9/11 Commission, the FAA Command Center advises FAA headquarters that American 77 is lost in Indianapolis flight control’s airspace, that Indianapolis has no primary radar track, and is looking for the aircraft. (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) When exactly the Command Center first learned that Flight 77 was lost is unclear. The earliest time reported by the 9/11 Commission is when an American Airlines employee mentioned it when calling the center at 9:16 a.m. (see 9:16 a.m.-9:18 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 24) American Airlines headquarters was notified of the loss of contact with Flight 77 before 9:00 a.m. (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001), but had mistakenly thought this was the aircraft that hit the second WTC tower minutes later (see 9:08 a.m. September 11, 2001).

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