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


 

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Q:  What can you tell about flight 77? The flight went missing from the radars for a long while, and was located only moments before it hit the Pentagon.

 

Cheap Shot:  These other flights even though I was involved in them it was more indirectly; I have only recently started to read more facts about them.  For instance I was dumfounded that controllers at Indy Center would let this aircraft disappear from the scopes and not go to their primary radar immediately once the transponder disappeared.  I knew they were on a high altitude sector so their primary radar would not be selected.  But as soon as you see the target disappear the first thing you do is select your primary.  Of course I am hearing now that they didn’t have primary at that sector.  Well my first thought then as a controller would have been it must have crashed.  I don’t know whether it was a place where primary radar ever existed or whether the primary was just down for maintenance or broken. Either way it still seems that some precious time was missing where they could have looked for this aircraft sooner.  It still appears to me that someone dropped the ball there or somewhere that this aircraft was missing.  We didn’t know about the call sign until right around when it crashed into the Pentagon. 

 

By the time this incident had occurred I believe we had already received information on three other aircraft that were possible hijacks.  An Iberian from over seas, and a Continental 56 from over seas, I’m not sure if the DAL1989 thing had started yet or not.  In addition to that we had a fast moving unidentified aircraft 70 Nm southeast of Nantucket at about 25,000 feet.  We had Martha’s Vineyard Tower calling us telling us they had a large unknown white aircraft. We also had a Phantom AAL11 that we were trying to find, and it was getting very hectic.  Locally there was a Tractor Trailer truck broken down outside on Rte 3 the highway, that our Facility Manager had called the state police to get it away from the building.  A bomb scare had been called into the Day Care Center located at the corner of the Boston Center property, (this is not confirmed).  The FBI was in the building.  Locally we had ground stopped everything, I do not believe at this time the national ground stop had not yet been issued, nor had we been issued evacuation from our building yet.  I had called Montreal and Moncton Centre, and advised them that we were not taking any more aircraft.  I was ready to go into a big spiel regarding why, but I was amazed that they were so willing to comply.  I had yet to comprehend the world implications of what was happening, and was just trying to focus on my job.  During all of this I was listening to a Security Telcon, it was different then the one Terry Biggio was on, he was on one with the Region and the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center.  I do not know who was on my Telcon, but some of the players were FAA HQ, along with who I believe was National Tower.  I don’t believe any military personnel were on this telcon.  I have found through some articles from other newspapers and I’m about 98% sure who was on that telcon, and who possibly made some key statements, but I really can’t say who they are at this time.

 

On this telcon I heard a report of an aircraft 6 NM from the White House.  I immediately called NEADS and advised, while I was talking to NEADS, I heard that the aircraft was deviating away from the White House.  They asked about transponder codes, who the aircraft was, and exact location, I told them that I didn’t have radar on the aircraft but that this was a direct report from FAA HQ.  I advised NEADS that the aircraft was deviating away, and I advised them to call Washington Center.

 

In January 2004 I had the privilege of listening to the NEADS tapes.  This portion of the tape I remember quite well.  NEADS did turn around and immediately called Washington Center, and advised them that “Boston Center reported and aircraft six miles from the White House”, the response from the Washington Center person who received this call was unbelievable, “How would Boston Center know if an aircraft is six miles from the White House” “CLICK” they hung up. 

 

Hard to believe, but true.  My first assumption was if this is AAL11, how the hell did he get their so quick.  I’m thinking back how fast he was moving when we lost radar, he had slowed down to about 340 knots ground speed, and AAL11 had been over 600 knots ground speed earlier when the aircraft was up at FL290.  I was thinking maybe the aircraft climbed back up to high altitude, but this really wasn’t making sense, the aircraft should have been around Delaware.

 

I also felt I may have been over stepping my bounds, by calling NEADS with information that should be coming from Washington Center.  I assumed they were getting calls from every center involved, and I didn’t want to be tying up their phone lines.  I found out later that no one was calling them, and that I was basically the only one feeding them information. 

 

Well we heard about four minutes later that the Pentagon was hit.  I don’t think this affected me as much of the impact of the second tower, maybe it was something similar to what soldiers feel in battle the very first person or two people they see killed, are overwhelming, but once they realize they need to survive they kind of just start doing what they were trained for, and they don’t have that much time to think about it.  Maybe this is an exaggeration, I don’t know, but I began to feel like I just needed to do my job.  I focused even more at the task at hand.  Then I also realized that my ex-wife sister worked at the Pentagon.  I felt another rush of emotions.  Should I call my ex wife or not.  Would she and how quickly would she know if she was there at the time or not. 

 

After the Pentagon was struck we started hearing more information about another AAL aircraft heading for DCA, and the report had been received by AAL airlines form over their ACARS, (that is a system on board most AAL aircraft.  They can send engine performance data, flight crew flying time, and all kinds of stuff from ACARS.)  Don’t know what it stands for.  Of course all of the information was old news.  We also began to hear that our facility was going to be evacuated due to an unidentified aircraft that was heading directly at Boston Center.  The National Ground stop had just come out.  Now all of our controllers were forcing all aircraft to land.  Amongst all of my regrets about 9-11, was I never got a chance to watch my colleagues do the impossible by landing all of these planes under the duress that an aircraft was heading our way, and it was believed to be a B-757.  I was so busy at the military position at TMU.  As each controller landed all of their aircraft they were told to evacuate the building.  There was no request for volunteers to stay; everyone just did, until they finished their task.  I don’t know how long it took them to clear the skies, but they were amazing.  It was one of the worst and best days in aviation history. 

 

We began hearing reports of DAL1989 being a possible hijack, I began working on this next, there is a question pertaining to this subject later, so I will go into more detail about this later, but basically DAL1989 missed a transmission acknowledgment to Boston Center when the aircraft was transferred to Cleveland Center.  We immediately suspected that DAL1989 was a hijack.

 

All of the controllers had evacuated the building along with everyone but Ed de Lacy, and Terry Biggio, I was the third to last to leave.  All of the aircraft were landed.  I made several last calls to Montreal and Moncton Centre’s advising that we were shutting down, and one last phone call to NEADS, advising them that were going ATC Zero, and shutting down the facility.  I remember being overcome by emotion a little here in that my voice began to tremble telling NEADS that we were shutting down.  The facility had opened in 1963, and from the moment until now, it had never been emptied, it had been staffed 24/7 for all of those years until this moment. I remember later that day being upset at myself, that I would let emotions drift into my job function, it wasn’t that I hadn’t done my job, but professionally I shouldn’t of ever let it happen.

 

Q:  You were involved with United Airlines flight 93 as well. Can you talk about your experiences and involvement with flight 93?

 

Cheap Shot:  We were involved up to the point we thought DAL1989 was hijacked in Cleveland Airspace, I advised NEADS that they needed to scramble aircraft for DAL1989.  I’ll get more into that on the question you have about DAL1989.  We evacuated around 9:40 to 9:45 I guess.  I came back in the building before 10:00 AM, probably by a couple of minutes.  I can’t quite remember, but we had heard that an aircraft was heading for Camp David, MD.  We heard this more than once, and I believe we heard that originally it was an AAL flight and not a UAL flight.  Then speculation grew that the aircraft was actually headed for Washington and then we heard again that it was Camp David. 

 

Also when I came back in I was the third or fourth person back in the building, everyone was told to leave their frequencies in the speaker mode before they left.  When we came in we could hear a military flight trying to contact Boston Center.  It turned out to be a flight of 6/F-16’s that had left an ALTRV (Altitude Reservation to hard to explain what that is).  They were near Westover AFB, near Springfield, MA.  They were in touch with the tower at Westover and I cleared them over to their frequency for approach.

 

I don’t think we heard the exact call sign UAL93 until about 10:10, when the aircraft had already been down for about 5 or 6 minutes.  I learned more about UAL93 when I was invited to England to act and provide ATC consult work on the movie UAL93.  I played myself in the movie, but was later edited out.  I did make the credits for the ATC consult work that I did on the movie.  I am in the documentary “Chasing Planes” that comes in the two-disk set. 

 

There were some articles right after 9-11 that said the fighters shot the aircraft down. The fighters never got anywhere near UAL93, they did get to DAL1989, of course that aircraft wasn’t hijacked.  A lot of the claims were made that the fighters were even seen by controllers on the radar near UAL93, none of that is true.  What they did possibly see was on the ASD (Air Traffic Situation Display) was old flight plan data of UAL93 which stayed into the system for probably 10 to 15 minutes after its crash.  Fighter data blocks may have got close to the data block of UAL93, but the plane was already down.  What people see on the ASD is history not present traffic radar returns.

 

Q:  You made the decision to call straight to NEADS that day. What was the official protocol on the day compared to your decision, and what ways of communication did you use? How many calls did you make that day?

 

Cheap Shot:  Though the 9-11commission stated that we didn’t follow protocol that day we actually did, and also went another way at the same time.  The official protocol I believe is as follows, the controller told the supervisor, the supervisor told the OMIC.  The OMIC called the ROC (Regional Operation Center), and the ROC called the hijack coordinator at FAA HQ.  There was no Hijack coordinator at FAA HQ, or at least there was no one in that office I believe.  I believe the ROC and the Boston Center OMIC both told the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC). 

 

On my end when I first got down to the floor, Dan Bueno the STMCIC had called Cape TRACON, which owned the airspace above Otis ANGB, and then he called Otis Tower and asked the aircraft to scramble so they could escort AAL11.  I am not sure whom he called first.  Otis Tower advised him that that clearance had to come form NEADS.  He then had Joe Cooper make the call to NEADS with a request for fighters.

 

This is when I arrived; Joe had just made the call.  I am a lot more familiar in dealing with NEADS then anyone else, and Bueno had called up to my office to have me come down ASAP and help out.  I arrived around 8:34 to 8:36 I guess.  I waited about 30 seconds and really wanted to call but didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes down there.  I had asked Joe Cooper if he gave all of the information regarding AAL11, like location and possible altitude, he said he couldn’t remember everything he told tem but he thought he had.  That’s when I called.

 

I ended up requesting NEADS to launch fighters from numerous bases on that day, two of them were alert bases, but the other bases all had fighters that would be used throughout the day for general training, and that is why I called them about those aircraft, that any aircraft was better than none.  The 9-11 commission stated that I called an old alert base at Atlantic City; I did, not because I though they were an alert base, but because I knew they would already be up or almost in W-107 that morning.

 

I called using the DSN (Defense Switching Network) line.  This line is not recorded at Boston Center but is supposed to be recorded at NEADS.  Turns out, I believe, that only if that line is used as a Classified Phone as well it is then recorded, if it is not then it is not.  I called basically 4 phone numbers that day; I believe two of them ended up being recorded. 

 

When interviewed by the Justice Department the second time I got to hear about 25 conversations that I made.  My guess is, I made about 40 total phone calls

 

Q:  Boston Center was briefly evacuated at around 9:40 am that morning. Can you tell about the evacuation, and how did it affect the performance of Boston Center?

 

Cheap Shot:  I talked about the evacuation earlier so I’ll just add a couple of things I didn’t go over.  First of all we thought everyone had actually left the building. But I believe four people did not.  Down in the bowels of the building we had a section for FSDPS people, not sure the exact definition of the acronym, but they were Flight Service Personnel, that monitored remote FAA equipment.  They have a locked door, and at the time, they did not have a loud speaker that worked in their office.  When evacuation was ordered they never knew about it, and no one went down and advised them.  At some point one of them came up stairs and when they didn’t see anybody, I mean nobody they kind of freaked. They didn’t know what to do, and they hadn’t known what had happened.

 

The other issue was that we found out three months later at a lessons learned meeting, that we were evacuated for the Coast Guard aircraft southeast of Nantucket that we had already identified, that someone at the ROC had drawn a line from 170 NM and determined that this aircraft could be heading for the center.  I was pissed, I remember speaking up at the Lessons Learned meeting, and stating something to the fact, that this was Bull Shit. We were forced to leave the building when we could have possibly spent another twenty minutes trying to help the situation, instead were outside of the building doing nothing.  As far as I was concerned I would have stayed in the building until that aircraft was 5 NM out, then I would haul ass. 

 

Q:  There was also the false call on Delta Airlines flight 1989. Can you talk about that event?

 

Cheap Shot:  I’m not sure what sparked this, but I believe that DAL1989 missed a frequency transfer to Cleveland Center.  Or the aircraft didn’t make a transmission back to us when we gave the aircraft the frequency transfer.  Of course after all of the previous events of that day, we had no choice but to believe that it was a hijack.  We treated it as such.  Somewhere in the confusion, I believe there is a recording of me calling DAL89 as well, but it was always the same aircraft.

 

This one we didn’t want to get away, this is when I asked for NEADS to scramble aircraft out of Selfridge, and Toledo.  At this time DAL1989 was off of our scopes, but we were trying to track the aircraft via the TSD (Traffic Situation Display)  this tracks only flight planned data or updated traffic locations, it is usually three minutes behind what the live traffic feed is. If the aircraft isn’t tracking it will just follow the predetermined flight track.

 

Well from what we saw this aircraft was intercepted by what I believe were the Selfridge Fighters.  They forced it to land at Cleveland.  But this was viewing the TSD with no confirmation from Cleveland Center what was going on.  I had made numerous calls to NEADS regarding this aircraft and that it must be a hijack.  Our OMIC felt the same way.  Of course we found out later that DAL1989 wasn’t hijacked.  To be honest I am not sure if the aircraft was actually intercepted as far as the fighters giving the aircraft signals to land. 

 

What was bad about this, was that the whole time we were pushing NEADS to intercept DAL1989, UAL93 was really hijacked.  I didn’t find out until the making of UAL93 the movie, that the controller working UAL93 was adamant that his aircraft was hijacked, and that his supervisors were constantly asking him if DAL1989 was being hijacked. He eventually yelled at everybody that DAL1989 is not the hijack UAL93 is the hijack. 

 

Of course we never heard about UAL93 until after it impacted.  We had heard that another aircraft was en route Camp David then we heard it was en route to DCA, but we never heard a call sign associated with until after the aircraft was down. 

 

There are articles out there that Boston Center observed fighters chasing UAL93 and that it was shot down, but it was physically impossible for us to track the fighters or UAL93 due to Sort Box limitations in HOST computer system.  We would have fairly good radar coverage out in those areas, but if the sort boxes are not adapted, you don’t see it, period.  Some controllers watched the TSD and assumed that they were watching UAL93, but the TSD was far from tracking UAL93 course.  It was never tracked by the TSD as far as I know.    

 

 

Q:  At 09:35 you made a call, you had spotted a low-flying airliner six miles southeast of the White House. What can you say about that plane?

 

Cheap Shot:  Somewhere around 9:05 or 9:10 I got onto a security telcon regarding the current events that were happening.  It sounded like the right people were on it.  I could tell that FAA HQ was on this telcon, along with whom I believe was National Tower and possibly there approach control.  From what I could tell there was no military on this phone bridge, there also could have been Dulles Tower and their approach control.  I believe  some regional people may have been on this, but I don’t think there was any command center people on it either.   

 

When ever information that was passed along on this line that I thought NEADS would need I would call them and pass the info along.  This is the same phone bridge where I had received the info on the Ghost AAL11 that was still flying.  I am 90 % certain who said this, but I am unable to pass this info on.  I only discovered this about a year ago, and it was from reading an old USA Today article that was written about 10 days after 9-11.  Some of the exact phrases that I heard that day, were covered in this article. 

 

One of them being that an aircraft was six miles southeast of the White House.  I had NEADS on the phone in a split second when I heard that call.  We didn’t have radar down there, and allot of publications and news outlets attributed that I actually saw this aircraft.  I didn’t have it on the TSD I definitely didn’t have it on radar due to the same reasons of the last question, radar sort boxes, and we didn’t have any radar from that area beamed up to Boston center anyway.  I made the call based on the fact of what I had just heard.  A matter of fact while I was talking to NEADS about that aircraft, I heard the next transmission on the phone bridge that the aircraft was deviating away.  I passed that along quickly as well, and then I advised NEADS that they should call Washington Center immediately and find out what is going on.

 

Fast forward three years later when I finally got to hear my tapes, and I got to hear the transmission from NEADS to Washington Center.  It goes somewhat like this:  “Washington Center”, “Yes this is NEADS, we just received a report from Boston Center, that there was an aircraft six miles form the White House, and it is now deviating away, can you confirm” (the Washington Center individual who answered the call) “How the hell would Boston Center know about an aircraft six miles from the White House” CLICK.   The bastard hung up. If I ever find out whom the hell that was I would ring his friggen neck.  

 

It was minutes later that I heard the Pentagon was hit.  My stomach dropped again. In a day when we were already frustrated it just seemed we were always a day late and a dollar short.  We just could never catch up.

 

 

Q:  How many more suspicious aircraft did you track that day?

 

Cheap Shot:  As far as tracking them, we really don’t track aircraft at TMU, I guess you could say only one, AAL11.  We didn’t know about UAL175 until the aircraft had already hit the tower.  We heard about several aircraft.  After UAL175 within five minutes we heard that a COA56 from overseas was hijacked, an Iberian Airlines, a no existing flight, and I believe an Air France we heard about being hijacked from over seas.  We had the Cost Guard aircraft which we were evacuated for, and we also searched to no avail about the large white aircraft near Martha’s Vineyard.  We had the Ghost AAL11, and we had heard about the AAL77 but I don’t think we knew the call sign was “77” until after it crashed.  We had DAL1989, and I don’t believe we had heard anything on UAL93 until after it crashed.  We overheard a UAL airlines being very difficult about having to land at Juneau Alaska, but wanted Fairbanks, this bickering went on for a little while, but basically they shut Fairbanks down.  I think that was about it. 

 

 

Q:  How would you comment the difficulty of the day from a controller's point of view?

 

Cheap Shot:  You know controllers are unique group of people.  It is hard to tell who can really do the job well, it is really an odd group.  If I had to say who makes a good controller it would be someone who has virtually no patience, wants things done immediately, someone very hard to please.  They are probably considered at times a pain in the ass to someone. They are control freaks to some extent, but not necessarily orderly.  Some are very structured and others have no structure at all.  Some are clean freaks, and others are complete slobs.  But most of all, they like being in control.  They wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

On 9-11 it became a day for controllers that they have never seen before. Losing control if you are a controller is frightening, it is like falling in your sleep, except here and on that day you never woke up, and it lasted for an eternity.  I am sure when it first began, and you hear Pete Zylewski questioning AAL11, he was getting very annoyed because this guy won’t answer him, he riddles off so many times “AAL11 do you read Boston Center”.  Pete is like allot of the controllers who had come in right after President Reagan fired all of the controllers back in 1981.  He had about 19 years on the job.  You expect things to be done a certain way, especially if you were in Area C where Pete was.  Those Area C controllers do the same thing everyday.  The Area is highly procedurelized, because they move allot of traffic.

 

Sectors like Boston High can’t afford to have one plane make a mistake, because it may impact the next 10 planes behind it. So here he has an AAL11 who took a vector and then a climb clearance that he never responds to. Now he doesn’t know if the guy is climbing to FL350 or his last assigned altitude FL290.  He is on a vector that he might not be able to get him off of, and he is trying to hand him off to probably the most difficult sector at Boston Center, Cambridge Sector. 

 

Of course things only got worse from here on.  I am sure before all Hell broke loose there a few whining controllers like why are we doing this, and why are we doing that, but when the shit hits the fan, there are reasons why they are paid well, and it showed.  Being asked to get everyone down in a minimum amount of time.  One controller was the first to mention to all aircraft on his frequency to practice cockpit security, once he started it controllers all over the center began telling pilots to secure their cockpits.  This isn’t written anywhere, these were precautions that controllers were thinking of on the fly. 

 

Well they did it, they got them all down, and who knows how many more planes were out there that day, maybe there was a second wave that never got off, maybe there were some sitting on the ground that got caught up in a ground stop. 

 

I do know one thing, I was so busy that one of my regrets that day was that I never got the chance to go down that aisle in the center of the control room to watch my fellow controllers perform like they did on that day.  Like I have said before the Worst Day in Aviation, just happened to also be the Best Day in aviation.

 

 

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