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One of the pilots on American Airlines Flight 77—the third plane to be hijacked on 9/11—is not originally booked to be on that flight, and only accepts it shortly before September 11. American Airlines pilot Bill Cheng is originally due to fly Flight 77 on 9/11. But in late August he applies for that day off, so he can go camping. “When another pilot signed up for the slot, Mr. Cheng’s application was accepted.” Whether his replacement is Charles Burlingame, the plane’s captain, or David Charlebois, its first officer, is unstated. (Sciolino and Cushman 9/13/2001) Pilots on two of the other aircraft hijacked on 9/11 are also not originally scheduled to fly that day, but are booked onto those planes shortly before September 11 (see September 10, 2001, Shortly Before September 11, 2001, and Shortly Before September 11, 2001).
The 9/11 Commission says the hijacking of Flight 77 takes place between 8:51 a.m., when the plane transmits its last routine radio communication (see 8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001), and 8:54 a.m., when it deviates from its assigned course (see (8:54 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Based on phone calls made from the plane by flight attendant Renee May (see (9:12 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and passenger Barbara Olson (see (Between 9:15 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001), the commission concludes that the hijackers “initiated and sustained their command of the aircraft using knives and box cutters… and moved all of the passengers (and possibly crew) to the rear of the aircraft.” It adds, “Neither of the firsthand accounts to come from Flight 77… mentioned any actual use of violence (e.g., stabbings) or the threat or use of either a bomb or Mace.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8-9; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 29) People who knew Charles Burlingame, the pilot of Flight 77, will later contend that it would have required a difficult struggle for the hijackers to gain control of the plane from him. (Washington Post 9/11/2002) Burlingame was a military man who’d flown Navy jets for eight years, served several tours at the Navy’s elite Top Gun school, and been in the Naval Reserve for 17 years. (Associated Press 12/6/2001) His sister, Debra Burlingame, says, “This was a guy that’s been through SERE [Survival Evasion Resistance Escape] school in the Navy and had very tough psychological and physical preparation.” (Cohen 12/30/2003) Admiral Timothy Keating, who was a classmate of Burlingame’s from the Navy and a flight school friend, says, “I was in a plebe summer boxing match with Chick, and he pounded me.… Chick was really tough, and the terrorists had to perform some inhumane act to get him out of that cockpit, I guarantee you.” (CNN 5/16/2006) Yet the five alleged hijackers do not appear to have been the kinds of people that would be a particularly dangerous opponent. Pilot Hani Hanjour was skinny and barely over 5 feet tall. (Goldstein, Sun, and Lardner 10/15/2001) And according to the 9/11 Commission, the “so-called muscle hijackers actually were not physically imposing,” with the majority of them being between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 7 in height, “and slender in build.” (9/11 Commission 6/16/2004) Senator John Warner (R-VA) later says “the examination of his remains… indicated Captain Burlingame was in a struggle and died before the crash, doing his best to save lives on the aircraft and on the ground.” (White 12/8/2001)
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