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Profile: Washington Dulles International Airport
Washington Dulles International Airport was a participant or observer in the following events:
Trans World Airlines Flight 514, a Boeing tri-jet 727 carrying 85 passengers and seven crew members from Columbus, Ohio, to Washington, DC, prematurely descends and slams into a 2,000-foot-high peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, approximately 50 miles west of the nation’s capital. All 92 people on board are killed. The crash occurs near a highly classified underground installation known as Mount Weather. The incident will draw significant public attention to the secret bunker for the first time since its construction in the 1950s (see 1952-1958). A federal spokesman will refuse to answer questions regarding the complex, but will say the facility is run by the Office of Preparedness, which is responsible for “continuity of government in a time of national disaster.” The Office of Preparedness was formally known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness (see October 28, 1969).
Misunderstanding Blamed for Crash - The National Transportation Safety Board will later rule by split decision that the crash was caused by a misinterpreted instruction given to the pilots by an air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport. The controller alerted the pilots that the flight was “cleared for approach,” which the flight crew incorrectly assumed gave them a clear path to descend to 1,800 feet. Experts will tell the NTSB that the phrase “cleared for approach” is open to misunderstanding. Three of the five board members will fault the plane crew for misinterpreting the command, while the other two will place responsibility on the air traffic controller for not specifically telling the flight to maintain its altitude. [Associated Press, 12/2/1974; Associated Press, 1/22/1976; Emerson, 8/7/1989]
A parcel mailed from Chicago catches fire in a mailbag aboard American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington, DC. The package contains a bomb which was apparently constructed to explode inside the cargo hold. Twelve passengers are treated for smoke inhalation; the flight conducts an emergency landing at Dulles Airport near Washington. [BBC, 11/12/1987; Washington Post, 1998] The bomb does not ignite because instead of explosive powder, it contains barium nitrate, a powder often used to create green smoke in fireworks. [World of Forensic Science, 1/1/2005] The bombing is later shown to be the work of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber” (see April 3, 1996). After the airline bombing and the subsequent bombing of a United Airlines executive (see June 10, 1980), the FBI ties the previous bombings (see May 25-26, 1978 and May 9, 1979) to this one and code-names the file UNABOM, for “UNiversity and Airline BOMber.” The media will soon dub the unknown assailant the “Unabomber.” [Washington Post, 4/4/1996; World of Forensic Science, 1/1/2005] Kaczynski will later express regret for trying to bomb the plane (see April 24, 1995).
Virginia Buckingham [Source: Publicity photo]Data compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shows that over this period Boston’s Logan Airport has one of the worst records for security among major US airports. Flight 11 and Flight 175 depart from Logan on 9/11. While it is only America’s eighteenth busiest airport, it has the fifth highest number of security violations. FAA agents testing its passenger screening are able to get 234 guns and inert hand grenades and bombs past its checkpoint guards or through its X-ray machines. Though it is possible that the high number of violations is because the FAA tests more frequently at Logan than elsewhere, an official later quoted by the Boston Globe says lax security is the only explanation, as all checkpoints at every major airport are meant to be tested monthly. In contrast, Newark Airport, from where Flight 93 departs on 9/11, has an above average security record. Washington’s Dulles Airport, from where Flight 77 takes off, is below average, though not as bad as Logan. Officials familiar with security at Logan will, after 9/11, point to various flaws. For example, the State Police office has no video surveillance of the airport’s security checkpoints, boarding gates, ramp areas, or perimeter entrances. [Boston Globe, 9/26/2001] Security cameras had been put into use at most US airports in the mid-1980s. When Virginia Buckingham takes over as executive director of Massachusetts Port Authority in 1999, she is surprised at the lack of cameras at Logan, and orders them that year. Yet by 9/11, they still will not have been installed. [Boston Herald, 9/29/2001; Boston Globe, 9/30/2001] In spite of Logan’s poor security record, after 9/11 the Boston Globe will report, “[A]viation specialists have said it is unlikely that more rigorous attention to existing rules would have thwarted the 10 hijackers who boarded two jets at Logan on Sept. 11.” [Boston Globe, 10/17/2001]
Marvin Bush. [Source: Eric Draper / White House]A security company called Stratesec acquires an $8.3 million contract to help provide security at the World Trade Center. It is one of numerous contractors hired in the upgrade of security at the WTC following the 1993 bombing. Stratesec, which was formerly called Securacom, is responsible for installing the “security-description plan”—the layout of the electronic security system—at the World Trade Center. It has a “completion contract” to provide some of the center’s security “up to the day the buildings fell down,” according to Barry McDaniel, its CEO.
Involved with Airport Security - Another of Stratesec’s biggest security contracts, between 1995 and 1998, is with the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, providing electronic security for Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. Its work includes maintaining the airfield access systems, the CCTV (closed circuit television) systems, and the electronic badging systems. American Airlines Flight 77—one of the planes hijacked on 9/11—takes off from Dulles.
Directors Include Bush Family Member - Marvin P. Bush, the youngest brother of future President George W. Bush, is a director at Stratesec from 1993 to June 2000, when most of its work on these big projects is done. Wirt D. Walker III, a distant relative of George W. Bush, is chairman of the board at Stratesec from 1992, and its CEO from 1999 until January 2002. Another of Stratesec’s directors, from 1991 to 2001, is Mishal Yousef Saud Al Sabah, who is a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. Al Sabah is also chairman of an investment company called the Kuwait-American Corporation (KuwAm), which, between 1993 and 1999, holds a large, often controlling share of Stratesec. In 1996, it owns 90 percent of the company; by 1999 it owns 47 percent.
Other Interests - Walker and Al Sabah are also co-investors in two inter-related aviation companies: Aviation General and Commander Aircraft. According to a 2005 report by freelance journalist Margie Burns: “Aviation General boasted of its international clientele. A 1996 press release announced its sale of airplanes to the National Civil Aviation Training Organization (NCATO) of Giza, Egypt, ‘the sole civilian pilot training organization in Egypt.’ The announcement mentions Al Sabah as chairman of KuwAm and board member of Commander Aircraft Company.” NCATO also has contractual partnerships with several US flight schools, including Embry-Riddle University in Florida.
Connections with Foreign Company a Delicate Matter - According to Wayne Black, the head of a Florida-based security firm, it is delicate for a security company serving international facilities to be so interlinked with a foreign-owned company. He suggests, “Somebody knew somebody.” Black also points out that when a company has a security contract, “you know the inner workings of everything.” Furthermore, if another company is linked to the security company, then “what’s on your computer is on their computer.” After 9/11 Stratesec CEO Barry McDaniel will be asked whether FBI or other agents have questioned him or others at Stratesec about their security work related to 9/11. He answers, “No.” [American Reporter, 1/20/2003; Prince George's Journal, 2/4/2003; Progressive Populist, 3/1/2003; Progressive Populist, 4/15/2003; Washington Spectator, 2/15/2005] Other companies involved with the security overhaul during this time include Ensec Inc., which is in charge of creating a new parking access control system, E-J Electric Installation Co., and Electronic Systems Associates, a division of Syska Hennessy. [Access Control & Security Systems, 7/1/1997; CEE News, 1/1/2001; CEE News, 10/1/2001; Building Design and Construction, 7/1/2002]
Entity Tags: Mishal Yousef Saud Al Sabah, Kuwait-American Corporation (KuwAm), Marvin Bush, Stratesec, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, World Trade Center, Wirt D. Walker III, Washington Dulles International Airport, Ensec, Inc., Embry-Riddle University, National Civil Aviation Training Organization, E-J Electric Installation Co., Commander Aircraft, Aviation General, Electronic Systems Associates
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
The FBI conducts a training exercise based on the scenario of an aircraft hijacking at Washington Dulles International Airport, the airport from which American Airlines Flight 77—the third plane to be hijacked—will take off on 9/11 (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The FBI exercise is based around a “traditional” hijacking that involves hostages being taken by the hijackers, according to Dana Pitts, an airport operations manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Members of the Dulles Airport staff provide some “operational support” during the exercise. Further details, including the date when the exercise is held, are unstated. [9/11 Commission, 10/16/2003 ] The FBI is the agency that has jurisdiction if a hijacking or hostage-taking incident occurs on an aircraft that is still on the ground. [Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, 5/6/2000 ; NPR, 9/20/2001]
Hijacker brothers Salem (white shirt) and Nawaf Alhazmi (dark shirt) pass through security in Dulles Airport in Washington. [Source: FBI] (click image to enlarge)Flight 77 hijacker Hani Hanjour checks in at the American Airlines ticket counter at Washington’s Dulles International Airport some time between 7:25 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., the 9/11 Commission will later estimate. (American Airlines will be unable to locate information confirming his check-in time.) [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 93]
Hanjour Almost Stopped? - Hanjour is selected for additional scrutiny by airport security under the FAA’s CAPPS program (see (6:20 a.m.-7:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001), but this has no consequences. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 3; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 27-28] In 2003, former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro will claim: “This person goes through the metal detection machine and it starts buzzing.… They call the person out so that they can do a hand search. Just as the person was beginning to do that, a pretty woman walks by and the guard looks at her and waves the guy on. Well, that person happened to be Hani Hanjour, and he basically had box cutters and razor blades in his pockets.” [Fouda and Fielding, 2003, pp. 143] It is unclear how Cannistraro may have known this, and presumably he is speculating as to what Hanjour has in his pockets.
Alhazmi Brothers Seem Suspicious - The final two Flight 77 hijackers, brothers Nawaf and Salem Alhazmi, check in at approximately 7:29 a.m. The customer service representative makes both of them CAPPS selectees, because one of them cannot provide photo identification and seems unable to understand English, and he finds both of them suspicious. However, the only consequence is that Salem Alhazmi’s luggage is not loaded onto the plane until it is confirmed that he has boarded. Surveillance cameras monitor the security checkpoints at Dulles Airport. According to the 9/11 Commission’s review of security footage, Hanjour passes through the main terminal’s west security screening checkpoint at 7:35 a.m. He proceeds through the metal detector without setting off the alarm, and his two carry-on bags set off no alarms when placed on the X-ray belt. The Alhazmis arrive at the same checkpoint a minute later. Salem Alhazmi successfully clears the metal detector and is permitted through the checkpoint. Nawaf Alhazmi sets off the alarms for both the first and second metal detectors, and is subsequently subjected to a personal screening with a metal detection hand wand before being passed. His shoulder bag is swiped by an explosive trace detector and returned without further inspection. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 3; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 27-28] Immediately after the attacks, when the FAA’s local civil aviation security office investigates the security screening at Dulles on 9/11, it will find the airport’s screeners recall nothing out of the ordinary, and cannot recall any of the passengers they screened having been CAPPS selectees. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 3; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 93] The 9/11 Commission will later conclude that the Alhazmi brothers’ passports are “suspicious” and could have been linked to al-Qaeda, but it will not explain why or how. [Baltimore Sun, 1/27/2004]
The air traffic control tower at Dulles International Airport. [Source: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority]The FAA’s Herndon Command Center informs a supervisor at the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington Dulles International Airport that the FAA has lost contact with American Airlines Flight 77 and is trying to locate it. The Dulles TRACON then informs its air traffic controllers that a commercial aircraft is missing, and instructs them to look for primary targets on their radar screens. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] (A primary target is a radar track that provides an aircraft’s position and speed, but not its altitude, and which can still be viewed when the plane’s transponder has been turned off. [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Salon, 9/10/2004] ) Dulles Airport is located 26 miles west of Washington, DC, and 22 miles from the Pentagon. [New York Times, 6/19/1994; USA Today, 9/13/2001] According to the 9/11 Commission, controllers at its TRACON will locate an unidentified aircraft on their radar screens at 9:32 (see 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001), although other accounts will suggest they locate the target slightly earlier (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33]
Shortly after 9/11, NORAD reported that the FAA notified them at this time that Flight 77 “may” have been hijacked and that it appears headed toward Washington. [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; CNN, 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/18/2001; Guardian, 10/17/2001; Associated Press, 8/21/2002] Apparently, flight controllers at Dulles International Airport discover a plane heading at high speed toward Washington; an alert is sounded within moments that the plane appears to be headed toward the White House. [Washington Post, 11/3/2001] In 2003, the FAA supported this account, but claimed that they had informally notified NORAD earlier. “NORAD logs indicate that the FAA made formal notification about American Flight 77 at 9:24 a.m. (see (9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001), but information about the flight was conveyed continuously during the phone bridges before the formal notification.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 5/22/2003] Yet in 2004, the 9/11 Commission claims that both NORAD and the FAA are wrong. The 9/11 Commission explains that the notification NEADS received at 9:24 a.m. was the incorrect information that Flight 11 had not hit the WTC and was headed south for Washington, D.C. Thus, according to the 9/11 Commission, NORAD is never notified by the FAA about the hijacking of Flight 77, but accidentally learns about it at 9:34 a.m. (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]
Todd Lewis. [Source: NBC]After air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport notice an unidentified aircraft, later determined to be Flight 77, approaching Washington on their radar screens (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001), they initially think it is a military fighter plane, due to its high speed and the way it is being flown. [ABC News, 10/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] Yet the alleged hijacker pilot of Flight 77 has been known for his poor flying skills. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001; New York Times, 5/4/2002]
Aircraft Performs Elaborate Maneuver - The Dulles controllers are unable to identify the plane because its transponder—which transmits identifying information about an aircraft to radar screens—has been turned off (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Washington Post, 9/12/2001] It is flying at almost 500 miles per hour while approaching Washington, and then performs a rapid downward spiral, “dropping the last 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes,” before hitting the Pentagon (see 9:34 a.m.- 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [CBS News, 9/21/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002]
Moving 'Like a Military Aircraft' - Controller Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001] Another controller, Todd Lewis, will recall: “[N]obody knew that was a commercial flight at the time. Nobody knew that was American 77.… I thought it was a military flight. I thought that Langley [Air Force Base] had scrambled some fighters and maybe one of them got up there.… It was moving very fast, like a military aircraft might move at a low altitude.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002]
Alleged Pilot 'Could Not Fly at All' - Yet many people who have met Hani Hanjour, the hijacker allegedly at the controls of Flight 77, considered him to be a very poor pilot (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, February 8-March 12, 2001, and (April-July 2001)). Just a month previously, an airport refused to rent him a single-engine Cessna plane because instructors there found his flying skills so weak (see Mid-August 2001). [Gazette (Greenbelt), 9/21/2001; Newsday, 9/23/2001] And an employee at a flight school Hanjour attended earlier in the year will later comment: “I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all” (see January-February 2001). [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
According to an FAA report, between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., air traffic controllers at the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington Dulles International Airport notice an unidentified blip, later identified to be Flight 77, on their radar screens. This is several minutes earlier than the 9/11 Commission will claim they notice it. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9]
Plane Flying East at High Speed - The TRACON at Dulles Airport, which is about 22 miles west of the Pentagon, learned several minutes earlier that the FAA had lost contact with Flight 77. It then advised its controllers to look out for “primary targets” (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 9/13/2001; Navy Times, 9/22/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] These are radar tracks that can still be viewed when a plane’s transponder has been turned off. [Salon, 9/10/2004] Several of the facility’s controllers now observe a primary radar target heading eastbound toward Washington at high speed, almost 500 miles per hour. Although the aircraft has no transponder signal to identify it, it is later determined to be Flight 77. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; USA Today, 8/12/2002]
Conflicting Times - According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the Dulles TRACON controllers only notice this aircraft at 9:32 a.m. (see 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] The FAA report, which is published less than a week after 9/11, will state that its time of between 9:25 and 9:30 is “approximate, based on personnel statements from Dulles Terminal Radar Approach Control.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ] But this earlier time will receive some corroboration from a report in USA Today, which states that the FAA’s Command Center is notified by a Dulles controller of the unidentified aircraft at “just before 9:30 a.m.” [USA Today, 8/12/2002] Furthermore, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is currently at the White House, will tell the 9/11 Commission that at “about 9:25 or 9:26” he overhears someone warning Vice President Dick Cheney of an aircraft approaching Washington (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003] Radar evidence obtained by CBS News will show that “at 9:30 a.m.… radar tracked the plane as it closed to within 30 miles of Washington.” [CBS News, 9/21/2001]
Danielle O’Brien. [Source: ABC News]At 9:32 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, several air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport notice a fast-moving target, which is later determined to be Flight 77, heading eastbound on their radar screens. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33] At the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Dulles Airport, which is 22 miles west of the Pentagon, controllers have been searching for primary radar targets since 9:21, when the facility was notified of the loss of contact with Flight 77 (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 9/13/2001; Navy Times, 9/22/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25]
Controllers See Fast-Moving Radar Track - They now notice an unidentified blip on their screens, heading toward the White House at unusually high speed. [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 145] Controller Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “I noticed the aircraft. It was an unidentified plane to the southwest of Dulles, moving at a very high rate of speed.… I had literally a blip and nothing more. I slid over to the controller on my left, Tom Howell, and I asked him, ‘Do you see an unidentified plane there southwest of Dulles?’ And his response was, ‘Yes. Oh, my gosh, yes! Look how fast he is.’” According to O’Brien, the aircraft is between 12 and 14 miles away when she notices it. It is heading for what is known as Prohibited Area 56 (P-56), which is the airspace over and near the White House, at a speed of about 500 miles per hour. [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; Department of Transportation, 8/4/2005] Because the plane’s transponder has been turned off (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001) its identity and type are presently unknown, and the Dulles controllers initially think it is a military aircraft (see (9:25 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25]
TRACON Notifies Others - The Dulles TRACON alerts Washington’s Reagan National Airport (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and the Secret Service (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001) to the approaching aircraft. Its operations supervisor also provides continuous updates over a teleconference that has been established at the FAA’s headquarters. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25] According to an FAA chronology that is published shortly after 9/11, the Dulles TRACON controllers notice the unidentified aircraft earlier than the 9/11 Commission says, at between 9:25 and 9:30 (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ]
A supervisor at Washington Dulles International Airport contacts the Secret Service at the White House and informs it that an unidentified aircraft is heading toward Washington at a high rate of speed. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/22/2003 ] Air traffic controllers at the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Dulles Airport have recently noticed this aircraft on their radar screens (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). Its identity and type are currently unknown, but it is later determined to be Flight 77. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9, 25]
Supervisor Calls White House over Hotline - The Dulles TRACON has a direct phone line to the Secret Service at the White House. After a controller alerts him to the suspicious aircraft, John Hendershot, the operations supervisor, calls the Secret Service over this line. [9/11 Commission, 7/22/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 12/22/2003 ] He says, “We have an unidentified, very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, eight miles west.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001]
Supervisor Uncertain about Response - Hendershot is unsure what response his call elicits. He will tell the 9/11 Commission, “I guess the operator picked it up,” and say that he assumed the information he provided was relayed to the relevant people at the White House. He will also tell the Commission that, following his call, “no one from Dulles tower was talking to the White House during the minute-minute countdown concerning the unknown primary approaching from the west.” [9/11 Commission, 12/22/2003 ] A supervisor at Washington’s Reagan National Airport also contacts the Secret Service around this time, to notify it of the approaching aircraft (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] But, while the White House is alerted, personnel at Dulles Airport will tell the 9/11 Commission that there is no discussion about notifying the US Capitol of the unidentified aircraft. [9/11 Commission, 7/22/2003 ]
Reagan National Airport. [Source: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority]Air traffic controllers at Washington’s Reagan National Airport are contacted by controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport, and informed of a fast-moving unidentified aircraft, later determined to be Flight 77, which is approaching the restricted airspace around the White House. [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 6/4/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33] Reagan Airport is less than a mile from the Pentagon and only a few miles from the White House. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/19/2001] During a shift, it has 10 or 11 controllers working in its Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and seven or eight controllers working in its air traffic control tower. [9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ] Controllers at the Dulles TRACON have recently noticed the unidentified aircraft on their radar screens (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9]
TRACON Told of Aircraft - A Dulles Airport controller now calls the TRACON at Reagan Airport, and says: “Hey! Untracked target 15 [miles] west of you. Primary target eastbound! Heading toward P-56!” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 145-146] (P-56, or Prohibited Area 56, is the restricted airspace above and near the White House. [Department of Transportation, 8/4/2005] ) Reagan Airport controller Dan Creedon checks his radar screen and sees the aircraft’s target about 10 miles west of the White House. The radar track is untagged, so he attaches a data box to it with the word “LOOK” in it. This will allow other controllers to quickly spot the aircraft. It also causes its ground speed to appear on the screen. According to author Lynn Spencer, the aircraft is shown to be flying at 290 miles per hour. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 146] But other accounts will claim it is flying at between 400 and 500 mph as it approaches Washington. [CBS News, 9/21/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/28/2003 ] Creedon then calls out to Victor Padgett, the operations supervisor in the TRACON, and tells him about the aircraft heading their way. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/14/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 146]
Controllers Notify Others - After the Reagan Airport controllers learn of the approaching aircraft, they promptly contact other agencies about it. Padgett calls the Secret Service (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/14/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ] And another controller will issue traffic advisories on the aircraft to a C-130 military cargo plane that is flying in the area, and then instruct the C-130 to identify and follow the aircraft (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33; Spencer, 2008, pp. 146-147] A controller in the TRACON will also call the Reagan Airport control tower, and alert it to the approaching aircraft (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 158]
Before crashing into the Pentagon, Flight 77 performs a rapid downward spiral, flying almost a complete circle and descending 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes. [CBS News, 9/21/2001]
330-Degree Turn - At 9:34 a.m., Flight 77 is about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon. But, at an altitude of around 7,000 feet, it is flying too high to hit its target. [CBS News, 9/21/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ] Based on an analysis of radar data and information from the plane’s flight data recorder, a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board report will describe the maneuver the aircraft then performs: “[Flight 77] started a right 330-degree descending turn to the right. At the end of the turn, the aircraft was at about 2,000 feet altitude and four miles southwest of the Pentagon. Over the next 30 seconds, power was increased to near maximum and the nose was pitched down in response to control column movements.” The aircraft accelerates to about 530 miles per hour as it closes in on the Pentagon. [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ]
Controllers Watch on Radar - Air Traffic Controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport follow Flight 77 on their radar screens as it performs this maneuver. Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “John, our supervisor, relayed verbatim, ‘OK, he’s 12 miles west, he’s moving very fast eastbound.… Eleven miles west.’ And it was just a countdown. Ten miles west, nine miles west.… And it went six, five, four, and I had it in my mouth to say three, and all of a sudden the plane turned away. In the room it was almost a sense of relief.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001] Todd Lewis will recall that the aircraft “was heading right towards a prohibited area in downtown Washington.… Then it turned south and away from the prohibited area, which seemed like a momentary sigh of relief, and it disappeared. But it was going away from Washington, which seemed to be the right thing.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002] However, O’Brien will continue: “[T]he plane turned back. He continued in the right-hand turn, made a 360-degree maneuver.… We lost radar contact with that aircraft. And we waited. And we waited.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001]
Maneuver Indicates Advanced Flying Skills - According to CBS News, “The steep turn” made by Flight 77 “was so smooth… sources say, it’s clear there was no fight for control going on.” The “complex maneuver suggests the hijackers had better flying skills than many investigators first believed.” [CBS News, 9/21/2001] Aviation experts will conclude that this maneuver was the work of “a great talent… virtually a textbook turn and landing.” [Washington Post, 9/10/2002] Due to the aircraft’s high speed and the way it is being flown, Dulles Airport controllers mistake it for a military fighter jet (see (9:25 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; MSNBC, 9/11/2002] Yet the hijacker allegedly at the controls, Hani Hanjour, was considered to be a very poor pilot at numerous flight schools he attended (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, January-February 2001, February 8-March 12, 2001, (April-July 2001), and Mid-August 2001). [Washington Post, 9/10/2002]
After seeing the explosion from the attack on the Pentagon, air traffic controllers at Washington’s Reagan National Airport promptly alert others to the crash, with a supervisor reporting that the crashed aircraft was an American Airlines 757. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/18/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Reagan Airport is less than a mile from the Pentagon. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/19/2001] In its control tower, supervisor Chris Stephenson had looked out the window and seen Flight 77 approaching (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). He watched it flying a full circle and disappearing behind a building in nearby Crystal City, before crashing into the Pentagon. Stephenson sees the resulting fireball and a mass of paper debris that fills the air. He calls the airport’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and reports: “It was an American 757! It hit the Pentagon. It was a 757 and it hit the Pentagon. American!” [USA Today, 8/11/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Other controllers see the fireball from the crash. One of them, David Walsh, activates the crash phone, which instantly connects the control tower to airport operations, as well as fire and police departments. He yells down the line: “Aircraft down at the Pentagon! Aircraft down at the Pentagon!” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/18/2001; McDonnell, 2004, pp. 19-20 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 158-159] Reagan Airport controllers contact controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport, who hear over the speakers in their room: “Dulles, hold all of our inbound traffic. The Pentagon’s been hit.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001]
One page of a torn up 757 cockpit poster used by the hijackers. It was found in a trash compactor at the Days Inn, near the Newark Airport. [Source: FBI]Investigators find a remarkable number of possessions left behind by the hijackers:
Two of Mohamed Atta’s bags are found on 9/11. They contain a handheld electronic flight computer, a simulator procedures manual for Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft, two videotapes relating to “air tours” of the Boeing 757 and 747 aircraft, a slide-rule flight calculator, a copy of the Koran, Atta’s passport, his will, his international driver’s license, a religious cassette tape, airline uniforms, a letter of recommendation, “education related documentation” and a note (see September 28, 2001) to other hijackers on how to mentally prepare for the hijacking. [Sydney Morning Herald, 9/15/2001; Boston Globe, 9/18/2001; Independent, 9/29/2001; Associated Press, 10/5/2001] Author Terry McDermott will later comment, “Atta’s bag contained nearly every important document in his life… If you wanted to leave a roadmap for investigators to follow, the suitcase was a pretty good place to start.” [McDermott, 2005, pp. 306]
Marwan Alshehhi’s rental car is discovered at Boston’s Logan Airport containing an Arabic language flight manual, a pass giving access to restricted areas at the airport, documents containing a name on the passenger list of one of the flights, and the names of other suspects. The name of the flight school where Atta and Alshehhi studied, Huffman Aviation, is also found in the car. [Los Angeles Times, 9/13/2001]
A car registered to Nawaf Alhazmi is found at Washington’s Dulles Airport on September 12. This is the same car he bought in San Diego in early 2000 (see March 25, 2000). Inside is a copy of Atta’s letter to the other hijackers, a cashier’s check made out to a flight school in Phoenix, four drawings of the cockpit of a 757 jet, a box cutter-type knife, maps of Washington and New York, and a page with notes and phone numbers. [Arizona Daily Star, 9/28/2001; Cox News Service, 10/21/2001; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] The name and phone number of Osama Awadallah, a friend of Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in San Diego, is also found on a scrap of paper in the car (see September 12, 2001 and After). [CNN, 2/1/2002]
A rental car is found in an airport parking lot in Portland, Maine. Investigators are able to collect fingerprints and hair samples for DNA analysis. [Portland Press Herald, 10/14/2001]
A Boston hotel room contains airplane and train schedules. [Sydney Morning Herald, 9/15/2001]
FBI agents carry out numerous garbage bags of evidence from a Florida apartment where Saeed Alghamdi lived. [CNN, 9/17/2001]
Two days before 9/11, a hotel owner in Deerfield Beach, Florida, finds a box cutter left in a hotel room used by Marwan Alshehhi and two unidentified men. The owner checks the nearby trash and finds a duffel bag containing Boeing 757 manuals, three illustrated martial arts books, an 8-inch stack of East Coast flight maps, a three-ring binder full of handwritten notes, an English-German dictionary, an airplane fuel tester, and a protractor. The FBI seizes all the items when they are notified on September 12 (except the binder of notes, which the owner apparently threw away). [Miami Herald, 9/16/2001; Associated Press, 9/16/2001]
In an apartment rented by Ziad Jarrah and Ahmed Alhaznawi, the FBI finds a notebook, videotape, and photocopies of their passports. [Miami Herald, 9/15/2001]
In a bar the night before 9/11, after making predictions of a attack on America the next day, the hijackers leave a business card and a copy of the Koran at the bar. The FBI also recovers the credit card receipts from when they paid for their drinks and lap dances. [Associated Press, 9/14/2001]
A September 13 security sweep of Boston airport’s parking garage uncovers items left behind by the hijackers: a box cutter, a pamphlet written in Arabic, and a credit card. [Washington Post, 9/16/2001]
A few hours after the attacks, suicide notes that some of the hijackers wrote to their parents are found in New York. Credit card receipts showing that some of the hijackers paid for flight training in the US are also found. [Los Angeles Times, 9/13/2001]
A FedEx bill is found in a trash can at the Comfort Inn in Portland, Maine, where Atta stayed the night before 9/11. The bill leads to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, allowing investigators to determine much of the funding for 9/11. [Newsweek, 11/11/2001; London Times, 12/1/2001]
A bag hijackers Alhazmi and Almihdhar left at a mosque in Laurel, Maryland, is found on September 12. The bag contains flight logs and even receipts from flight schools from San Diego the year before (see September 9, 2001).
On 9/11, in a Days Inn hotel room in Newark, New Jersey, investigators find used plane tickets for Saeed Alghamdi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ziad Jarrah, and Ahmed Alnami. The tickets are all from a Spirit Continental Airlines flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Newark on September 7. Also, flight manuals for Boeing 757 and 767 airplanes are found in English and Arabic. [Investigative Services Division, FBI Headquarters, 4/19/2002]
The hijackers past whereabouts can even be tracked by their pizza purchases. An expert points out: “Most people pay cash for pizza. These [hijackers] paid with a credit card. That was an odd thing.” [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/3/2002] “In the end, they left a curiously obvious trail—from martial arts manuals, maps, a Koran, Internet and credit card fingerprints. Maybe they were sloppy, maybe they did not care, maybe it was a gesture of contempt of a culture they considered weak and corrupt.” [Miami Herald, 9/22/2001] The New Yorker quotes a former high-level intelligence official as saying: “Whatever trail was left was left deliberately—for the FBI to chase” (see Late September 2001). [New Yorker, 10/8/2001]
Entity Tags: Huffman Aviation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington Dulles International Airport, Marwan Alshehhi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alnami, Mohamed Atta, Saeed Alghamdi, Osama Awadallah, Nawaf Alhazmi, Terry McDermott, Ziad Jarrah
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
Mohamed Abdi, a 44-year-old Somali immigrant whose phone number was found in a car belonging to one the 9/11 hijackers, is detained without bail in Alexandria, Va. On September 12, 2001, FBI investigators discovered a car registered to 9/11 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi at Dulles Airport (see September 11-13, 2001). In the car, they found a Washington-area map with the name “Mohumad” and a Virginia phone number belonging to Mohamed Abdi. At the court hearing, an FBI investigator says that Abdi has not explained the finding and is suspected of being linked to the hijackers. FBI Special Agent Kevin W. Ashby also testifies that an article on Ahmed Ressam was found in Abdi’s clothing. Ressam was convicted of trying to bomb Los Angeles Airport in 2000 (see December 14, 1999). According to press reports, Abdi is not cooperating with police. He came to the United States in 1993 as a refugee. He later brought his wife and four children to the US and obtained US citizenship. Shortly after his arrival, Abdi worked for Caterair, a food service company at Reagan National Airport. At the time of his arrest, Abdi had been working as a low-paid security guard for Burns Security for seven years. Burns does not provide airport security services, however, a Burns subsidiary called Globe Aviation Services provides screening services at several US airports, including the American Airlines concourse at Boston’s Logan Airport, from which one of the hijacked flights took off (see October 10, 2001). Abdi, who has had financial difficulties for some time, is charged with check forgery. He is accused of forging his landlord’s signature to obtain a government housing subsidy. No terrorism charges are filed. [US District Court Eastern District of Virginia, 9/23/2001 ; Washington Post, 9/27/2001 ; Human Events, 10/15/2001; Human Events, 10/15/2001] In January 2002, Abdi will receive a four-month sentence for forgery. Any link he may have had with the hijackers will remain unclear. [Washington Post, 1/12/2002]
The Asian Law Caucus (ALC) receives over twenty complaints from Northern California residents reporting excessive and repeated screenings by US Customs and Border Protection agents upon their entering the country. The residents say they have been interrogated about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, and political associations when they returned from traveling abroad, regardless of their First Amendment rights. The residents say their books, business cards, handwritten notes, personal photos, laptop computer files, and cell phone directories were examined and sometimes copied. When they complained, some of them were told, according to the ALC, “This is the border, and you have no rights.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008; Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008]
Interrogation at the Border - Nabila Mango, a US citizen from San Francisco, returns from a trip to Jordan in December 2007. She will say she is told by customs officials at San Francisco International Airport to list every person she met and every place she slept. Her Arabic music books, business cards, and cell phone are examined, and she believes some of her documents are copied. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008] Her daughter tries repeatedly to call her on her cell phone during the interrogation, but Mango finds that customs officials erased the records of her calls. [Washington Post, 2/7/2008] “In my 40 years in this country, I have never felt as vulnerable as I did during that interrogation,” Mango will say. “I want to find out whether my government is keeping files on me and other Americans based on our associations and ideas.” A California citizen, Amir Khan, will also say he is stopped and interrogated every time he returns to the country. He has his laptop, cell phone, and personal notebooks searched. He is never told why he is being singled out. “One customs officer even told me that no matter what I do, nothing would improve,” he will say. “Why do I have to part with my civil liberties each time I return home?” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008] Software engineer Kamran Habib, a permanent US resident, has his laptop and cell phone searched three times in 2007. Now, Habib says, “every time I travel, I basically clean out my phone. It’s better for me to keep my colleagues and friends safe than to get them on the list as well.”
Search and Seizure - Maria Udy, a marketing executive in Bethesda, Maryland, will say her company laptop is seized by a federal agent as she attempts to fly from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to London. Udy, a British citizen, is told by the agent that he has “a security concern” with her. “I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight,” she will recall. Udy is told that it is standard procedure to keep the computer for 10 to 15 days; over a year later, her laptop will not have been returned, and she will not be given any explanation. A tech engineer who wishes to remain anonymous will say he has a similar experience in the same airport months earlier. The engineer, a US citizen, says a federal agent requires him to open up his laptop and type in his password. “This laptop doesn’t belong to me,” he protests. “It belongs to my company.” He has little choice; he logs on, and the agent copies down every Web site he had visited on the laptop. The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE)‘s Susan Gurley will say her organization has filed its own FOIA request to find out what happened to seized laptops and other electronic devices. “Is it destroyed right then and there if the person is in fact just a regular business traveler?” she asks. “People are quite concerned. They don’t want proprietary business information floating, not knowing where it has landed or where it is going. It increases the anxiety level.” The ALC’s Shiran Sinnar says that by examining the websites people visit and the phone numbers they store, “the government is going well beyond its traditional role of looking for contraband and really is looking into the content of people’s thoughts and ideas and their lawful political activities.” Legal experts say that if conducted inside the country, such searches would require a warrant and probable cause. The government insists that a laptop is legally the same as a suitcase, and can be opened and examined essentially at will. Law professor David Cole disagrees: “It’s one thing to say it’s reasonable for government agents to open your luggage. It’s another thing to say it’s reasonable for them to read your mind and everything you have thought over the last year. What a laptop records is as personal as a diary but much more extensive. It records every website you have searched. Every email you have sent. It’s as if you’re crossing the border with your home in your suitcase.” [Washington Post, 2/7/2008]
Entity Tags: Nabila Mango, US Customs and Border Protection, Association of Corporate Travel Executives, Asian Law Caucus, Amir Khan, David D. Cole, Maria Udy, Washington Dulles International Airport, Shirin Sinnar, Susan Gurley, Kamran Habib, San Francisco International Airport
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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