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Personnel at the American Airlines System Operations Control (SOC) center in Fort Worth, Texas, are panicked when they temporarily lose communication with a third American Airlines flight, and they also receive a text message from the plane mistakenly signaling that it has been hijacked. At 9:45 a.m., according to the Wall Street Journal, the airline loses radio contact with the plane, which is flying from Boston to Seattle. SOC personnel are therefore “convinced it [is] a third hijacking,” following American Airlines Flights 11 and 77.
Pilots Send Message Indicating a Hijacking - The plane with which communication is lost appears to be American Airlines Flight 189. According to Donald Robinson, a dispatcher at the SOC who is currently dealing with transcontinental flights, the airline receives a text message from Flight 189 signaling it has been hijacked. Robinson will later tell the FBI that Flight 189 is the “only known flight that sent a hijack message back to the dispatchers.” This “hijack message” is sent using ACARS, an e-mail system that enables airline personnel on the ground to communicate with those in the cockpit of an in-flight aircraft. After receiving the message, Robinson sends a message back to Flight 189, asking the pilots if they are “squawking” the universal code signifying a hijacking. The normal procedure in these circumstances is to send a series of ACARS messages to the plane so as to verify whether a hijacking is indeed in progress and, if so, to obtain information about it.
Dispatcher Later Suggests Message Was Sent Accidentally - Robinson will tell the FBI he believes the crew of Flight 189 mistakenly sent the message that includes the hijack code because a warning message they received from American Airlines made them fear an impending hijacking. (After it learned of the two plane crashes at the World Trade Center, American Airlines had become concerned for its remaining transcontinental flights, and sent them all a message instructing them to keep their cockpit doors shut.) Robinson says that when pilots type the hijack code into an ACARS message, the message is sent automatically, whereas normally it is necessary to press the send key to transmit an ACARS message. He says he suspects the crew did not realize this, and probably keyed in the code “in order to be ready for a possible problem.” Alternatively, he suggests, “the code was squawked by mistake.” However, this is just speculation, and Robinson says it is “unknown why the cockpit sent this message.”
Communication Restored after 10 Minutes - The loss of communication with the aircraft is due to a “radio glitch,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and everyone at the SOC calms down when radio contact with the flight is restored 10 minutes after it is lost. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001)
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