Q&A With 9/11 Boston Center Air Traffic Controller


 

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This is a Q&A with a Boston Center Air Traffic Controller, who was on duty on the day of 9/11. This story highlights the experiences, the emotions, the frustration and the courage of a man, who all of a sudden found himself in the midst of the biggest terrorist attack in US history. In this story we refer to him as "Cheap Shot", but I have verified his real identity. These are his views, and do not represent the views of any group or organization.

Final release date: October 28, 2007 

Q:  First of all, could you briefly introduce yourself and tell about your work experience.

 

Cheap Shot:  I am a controller at Boston Center, have been since 1982.  In 1989 I did two years in the Airspace and Procedures office at Boston Center.  In 1991 I returned to the Airspace Office on a permanent basis.  In 1995 we restructured at the Center and I also assumed the Military Liaison or Military Specialist Position along with my Airspace Duties.

 

As the military specialist I am responsible for all military procedures between Boston Center and the military units in my airspace, and any visiting military units that participate in any of our Special Use Airspace (SUA).  Through the years I have developed a pretty good working relationship with those units.  One of the main units I deal with is the Northeastern Air Defense Sector (NEADS).  They schedule the majority of SUA in Boston Center Airspace.

 

 

 

The Day of 9/11:

 

 

Q:  What was your role at Boston Center on 9/11?

 

Cheap Shot:  On the day of 9-11 I was supposed to come into work at the Airspace & Procedures office 7:30.  I don’t remember why but I didn’t come in until 8:25.  Our office was on a very flexible schedule, so whenever you basically come in, you work your 8 ½ hours and go home.  (Don’t think that I haven’t second-guessed myself a million times, what would have happened if I came in at 7:30 that morning. I could have been on the operational floor 10 to 15 minutes earlier.)

 

Q:  You called Jeremy Powell of NEADS at 08:37 and asked them to scramble some F16's, because you had a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York. Can you talk about the preceding moments that lead for you to make that call? When did you come to work and how did you learn it was a hijack?

 

Cheap Shot:  When I walked through the door that morning 8:25 someone approached me and said they had a hijack on the floor, and I might want to go there and check it out.  The last time we had one I believe was a Lufthansa back in 1995.  It was very non-eventful, and a lot of controllers mainly management types tried to get involved in the Hijack, which was basically an escort mission.  I didn’t want to be one of those types who went down just to get involved without providing any help what so ever other than to just get in the way. I went up stairs to my office, and the Credit Union was on the way so I stopped in for a minute to just say hi to the girls, and I mentioned to them that there was a hijack.  They asked what we do and I told them we basically send fighters up to escort them just in case they try to do something they shouldn’t, like crash their plane into a building.  (This is no lie, and you are the first person other than controllers that I’ve ever said this to.)

 

I went to my office, where one of the other Airspace Specialist told me Dan Bueno had just called and asked me to go to TMU and see if I could help at all. It was about 8:33, and I got to TMU at about 8:34 or 8:35. As soon as I got there Bueno filled me in that he had called Otis Tower first instead of NEADS, and that he had just had Joe Cooper call NEADS.  He also emphasized that this was not a normal hijack (if there is such a thing). The hijackers had turned off the transponder.  I asked Joe Cooper, if he had passed all of the information on AAL11, such as location and heading, and he said he didn’t.  That is when I called Jeremy Powell, I didn’t know who I would reach, but I knew the numbers I needed to call.  Everyone on the floor uses the Hotline to NEADS; I knew all of the DSN numbers so that is why I used the DSN (this created a lot of CT issues later.)

 

My reason for calling NEADS was two fold, first I wanted to get the fighters up ASAP, and the other was I wanted to get the aircraft identified so we could possibly get an altitude readout on the Primary Target (Primary in FAA terms is a target without a transponder return, the word primary has a different meaning from the military side.)

 

Though the military and the FAA share a majority of the Long Range Radar Sites, the FAA is tied off from receiving the altitude triangulation feed that the military get.  I knew the aircraft was heading south, the last known altitude was FL290, and the controller had issued FL350.  We didn’t know the altitude, and the aircraft was heading into probably the busiest corridor in the world.  If I could get an altitude from NEADS it would have been additional information we could have used.

 

Q:  What was the standard operational protocol prior to 9/11 in case there was a hijacking?

 

Cheap Shot:  The protocol was that the controller would tell his supervisor; his supervisor would call the Operational manager in Charge (OMIC).  The OMIC would call the Regional Operational Center (ROC), the ROC would call the Hijack Coordinator in Washington, the Hijack Coordinator would call the military.  As far as controllers are concerned they probably only knew the first two or three steps, they didn’t need to know any further. 

 

In June 2001 a new order or instruction had come out from the Joint Chiefs, the CJCSI 3610.01A. Some skeptics think that controllers or lower level management people should have been aware of this instruction. The FAA will take an instruction like this and eventually incorporate this into the document. I didn’t know about this instruction until I was actually interviewed by the Justice Department. 

 

The Hijack coordinator was supposed to notify the National Military Command Center (NMCC), I believe they are located at the Pentagon.  The NMCC would notify NORAD, NORAD would notify one of three Air Defense Control Facilities (ADCF’s), in our case Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADs). The ADCF would call the alert site, in our case Otis ANGB (FMH).

 

What I knew on 9-11 was that I could call NEADS and get them to launch fighters right away.  The ADCF’s had authority to launch interceptors, with coordination to or from NORAD.  They didn’t necessarily have to wait for a clearance from NORAD.  They could launch on their own and then tell NORAD hey we are launching fighters for an escort mission of a hijacked aircraft.  Why they waited for the okay from NORAD I don’t know it could have been a change on their end.  But on 9-11 I believe they could have been launched without NORADS blessing.  Of course that’s my interpretation of FAAO 7610.4J. Appendix 16.

 

The Justice department questioned me pretty thoroughly on this as well.  They asked me why the protocol wasn’t followed.  I said it had from our facilities standpoint.  The controller told the Sup., the sup. Told the OMIC, the OMIC told the ROC, and as far as I was concerned we had done our job. Anything else we did that day was gravy. I found out later that the Hijack Coordinator position at FAA HQ wasn’t always staffed, the main guy was on leave that day, I don’t know if they had someone assigned to that position or not, but that is where the breakdown occurred.  They were lucky we circumvented the protocol or the military would have never known anything was going on.      

 

Q:  How many military bases had fighters ready for scramble on 9/11? How many alert fighter units did these bases have?

Cheap Shot:  As far as I know on the east coast it was two at Otis ANGB, and two at Langley AFB.

 

Q:  How many fighters were eventually scrambled and after what targets?

 

Cheap Shot:  It’s hard to say because some got up right after UAL93 crashed.  I personally prodded NEADS to launch from Atlantic City, D.C., Toledo, Burlington, Syracuse, and Selfridge, maybe one more.  Two from Otis, I believe three from Langley, two from D.C., and two from either Selfridge or Toledo.  Of course after we shut down the airspace within two hours the skies were filled with fighters.

 

 

Q:  What was the division of tasks between FAA and the military. Who gave the fighters the coordinates where to fly, and which targets to pursue?

 

Cheap Shot:  I gave the military the Lat/Longs on AAL11, I don’t believe anyone else ever gave them lat/longs on any other aircraft.  I did give a mileage on the aircraft near the Whitehouse that came from me as well, but that call from me was based on a Telcon I was on, I had no radar identification on that aircraft.

 

Q:  Flight 11 was the first hijacked aircraft. It hit the North Tower of World Trade Center at 08:46 am. Shortly after that moment flight 11 was still believed to be flying towards Washington DC, this being the so called 'Phantom flight 11'. Could you talk about your experiences related to flight 11? The calls you made, the tracking of the flight, what lead to the assumption it was still in the air.

 

Cheap Shot:  I wouldn’t say shortly, that to me means a couple of minutes on that day.  I am not sure of the timeline reference my call about Phantom AAL11, but it was probably 12 to 18 minutes later when I made that call.  My first call on AAL11 was when the aircraft was about 20 South of Albany (ALB),  I told the radar tech at NEADS of the location and the presumed altitude, and advised them that the aircraft was primary only (indicating no transponder).  Primary in the FAA world means something different in the military world.  Just as Secondary to the FAA, means the aircraft does have a transponder squawking, where in the military world it basically means secondary to primary. 

 

The tech at NEADS asked what the aircraft was squawking, I again stated that the aircraft was primary only no transponder, and tried to explain to the tech where the aircraft was by mileage from ALB.  By now the aircraft is further south. They couldn’t find it amongst all of their ground clutter.  The military and the FAA share the same radar sources in most places.  The FAA takes this radar and filters out most of the ground clutter. The military has to do the opposite, they increase this amount of ground clutter, they have to be able to see everything.  They normally wouldn’t have much difficulty in finding targets because the perceived threat on 9-11 was from over water. There isn’t much ground clutter over water so they have a high chance of success on picking up a threat. On 9-11 this evidently backfired because they could never find the targets. I am not an expert on their equipment, so I don’t know if they can manually filter out ground clutter, my guess is they couldn’t or they probably could have found AAL11. I called them numerous times. The first few calls were regarding AAL11 location by common reference points, such as VORs or TACANs. About 8 years prior to 9-11 the military had begun dropping some of the common reference points so there were not as many. By 9-11 they were not using common reference points any longer but they were using Latitude/Longitudes.  We didn’t know this on 9-11. Realizing this after about 5 minutes a fruitlessness, I had Joe Cooper sit directly at the radar and slew over AAL11 exactly when I asked for it to give them and exact lat/long. This was when the aircraft was about 30 Nm north of JFK. Joe gave me the Lat/Longs and I read them directly to NEADS. They still couldn’t find the aircraft. This was very frustrating on our part. The fighters wouldn’t launch without an identified target. On the FAA side of the house in order to get a lat/long, is a three step process, so what method worked best for the military didn’t work well for us. This is still a common problem today and has not been rectified. Though the military has new equipment we sometimes still speak apples and oranges.

 

I made several more calls regarding AAL11 to NEADS when we lost radar when the aircraft was about 8 NM northwest of JFK. We assumed in Boston Center TMU that the aircraft was landing JFK. About 4 minutes later we heard a call that a small business type jet had hit the WTC. It probably took another 2 minutes before we realized hey that could have been AAL11. 

 

I had also been calling Otis ANGB to see when the fighters were going to break ground.  They had been delayed. Probably due to the fact they never saw the target of AAL11. They did get off but were then sent to Warning Area 105 (W-105). I didn’t know anything about UAL175 being hijacked until after it had hit the WTC. We knew almost instantly that it hit, over in the System Engineer Desk (SE) they had CNN on, and they saw it hit live. We really began scrambling then.  We had tried to make several calls to New York Center about AAL11, the last few minutes of its flight, but when ever we called they said they were to busy working a hijack. They were actually talking about UAL175, but never said the call sign to us.  We thought they were talking about AAL11. If I had only known about UAL175 right away, I know we would have got those fighters off.  A couple of our controllers knew at some point that UAL175 was hijacked on some hotline calls from New York Center, but had never forwarded that info up to us, because the plane was already out of our airspace. We were a day late and a dollar short all day.

 

We need to confirm who hit the WTC, because we are now hearing about all other kinds of aircraft being hijacked.  Dan Bueno the STMCIC, Joe Cooper, and Bo Dean start attempting to call the airlines to verify if those aircraft are really down, or to confirm that some of these other aircraft are hijacked.  UAL Airlines confirms within minutes that UAL175 is down and had hit the WTC.  We can never get a confirmation from AAL Airlines that AAL11 is down. I some how get involved on a security Telcon from Washington HQ, where information is being passed fairly quickly.  I don’t know who is on it, but I assume FAA HQ, sounds like Washington National (DCA), Regional personnel, and other FAA facilities.  I here a call about an AAL11 still being in the air.  Once I heard this, I immediately made a call to NEADS to advise them that AAL11 is still in the air heading for what I assume is DC.  They ask whom hit the other Tower then and all I can say is I don’t know, but it wasn’t AAL11.  I immediately call FACSFAC VACAPES a navy installation at Oceana, VA.  They have radar sites all up and down the east coast for controlling aircraft in the Warning Areas. I asked them to keep an eye open for a fast moving low altitude aircraft skimming along the coast.  I called NEADS back up, I had already asked them to launch fighters from Atlantic City (ACY).  Though it was no longer an alert base, most of the ANG Bases fly AM missions, they are up by 8:30 to 9:00 AM.  I figured that ACY had some up in W-107 by now or just ready to go.  These aircraft would normally be unarmed but their presence may been enough to cause the hijackers to crash or persuade them to try and land.  I called NEADS to call the DC Guard as well out of Andrews AFB (ADW), to get them up.  I assumed that same thing as well down there.  They were not an alert base either, but if they already had planes up W-386, they could have diverted over.

 

As it turned out AAL11 was only a ghost aircraft and never did exist. It did get the military up quicker than they would have.  To this day no one supposedly knows who made that statement on that Telcon  about AAL11 being in the air.  I now know where the call came from what office, but I am not sure whom in that office made the call or why that statement was made. There are a couple scenarios why that statement could have falsely been made.  None of them I believe should cause the skepticism that has been associated with AAL11 Phantom Flight.  First it could have been a dropped call sign.  If someone had made a mention on any phone call about another AAL flight such as radar lost on AAL77 or any other AAL flight about it being in the air.  If someone didn’t mention the Call Numbers “11” then someone could have mistakenly thought they were talking about AAL11.  This is what I believe happened.  Second, with several Telcons going on at once some people believe that the information was delayed and became old news, and was somehow repeated later by someone who had just heard about it on another telcon. So they think they have new information and say that AAL11 is still in the air.  The third theory is that some people had overheard or repeated what we were trying to find out at TMU was that AAL airlines would never confirm the aircraft down so therefore it must be still in the air.

 

 

Q:  Could you give a similar account of your experiences regarding flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 09:03 am?

 

Cheap Shot:  Well we never really got that involved with UAL175.  We work in a building where we have five control areas. They are like aisles when you walk down the main corridor.  On 9-11 when you first walked down the corridor off to your right was Flight Data; they take in Flight plans which process pretty much automatically.  To the left was the weather position.  Next down on the right hand side was the System Engineer desk.  To the left is the squared area called TMU.  Then on the right was Area B; this is the sector that owns the high altitude airspace around Albany, NY.  To the left is Area D, they own over MA, NH, and ME, plus the North Atlantic.  They are the first sector to work the fighters off of Otis, and they are normally the Area that works aircraft into and out of W-105.  Across from them on the right is Area C, they own he departure sectors out of Boston, JFK arrivals, and Boston Arrivals.  This is the Area that Peter Zyleski the controller who was first informed of the AAL11 hijack.  The last two Areas on the left is Area A, they work traffic west of Albany, and over Syracuse, and provide spacing for Cleveland Center for Chicago O’Hara Arrivals, and also provide spacing for Boston Arrivals.  On the right is Area E; they work traffic into New York City, Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK.

 

They were the last Area to work UAL175.  Though we never knew that UAL175 had been hijacked, I believe a couple of our controllers in Area E knew, and possibly a Supervisor. The aircraft was hijacked after we handed off the aircraft to New York Center.  I am not sure when they found out my guess is several minutes later when they talked over the hotline.  This information was never passed forward to the OMIC desk up at TMU.  We were on the phone with New York trying to talk to them about AAL11 several times and they responded with that they “were too busy because they were working a hijack”, I assume here this is when UAL175 almost hit the Delta at FL280.  Talking to the New York controllers on the set of (the movie) UAL93 they said it was so close, they honestly thought they were going to hit.

 

We quit trying to bother New York about AAL11; we thought maybe they might have actually got radio communications with them.  But we were never notified that UAL175 was hijacked.  By the time he hit the SE desk had CNN up and they saw it hit live.  We heard a lot of “Holy Shit” “What the F_ _ _” over there at the SE Desk and yelled over what had happened, they said it was another one, I can’t explain the feeling, I mean your stomach just dropped, it’s a feeling I have never felt before.  One of the scariest feelings a controller has is when he actually feels like he has lost control of a situation. Most controllers are very good at what they do, the process years ago was very good at weeding at people who couldn’t handle the stress.  We were in a situation where we started to feel like we no longer had control.  Everything went crazy after that.  I can’t give a time line on anything. I know the F-15s were up, but they were in W-105, when I called to Area D to make sure they were heading for the city, they were almost there.  They had been watching the City and the smoke from AAL11, and were waiting for clearance to go there.  They were about 70 Nm away.  I don’t remember if I called NEADS about UAL175, I think I assumed that New York called NEADS, and I don’t believe they ever did. 

 

If the guys in Area E had let us known, but I’m not sure how much they had to tell us.  If we were a little more persistent with New York, maybe they would have told us it was UAL175 instead, and we could have pushed the fighters earlier.  It probably wouldn’t have mattered; there were no rules of engagement at the time.  The only thing I think is that the sight of fighters may have been enough for the Hijackers to ditch early, or lose control.

 

One more thing I heard from the N90 Approach Controllers (New York TRACON), was that one had talked to a couple of the Newark Tower guys, and they saw the rolling turn that UAL175 made.  He rolled out of about 20,000 ft estimated and put the aircraft in about a 90-degree bank.  They said they thought the plane was going to “auger in”, and then he rolled out of the dive, and the aircraft was like shot out of a gun at the WTC, he was full bore, they said they have never seen an aircraft move that fast.

  

 

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