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Controllers' tale of Flight 11

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2001

An American Airlines pilot stayed at the helm of hijacked Flight 11 much of the way from Boston to New York, sending surreptitious radio transmissions to authorities on the ground as he flew.

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Because the pilot's voice was seldom heard in these covert transmissions, it was not clear to the listening air-traffic controllers which of the two pilots was flying the Boeing 767. What is clear is that the pilot was secretly trying to convey to authorities the flight's desperate situation, according to controllers familiar with the tense minutes after Flight 11 was hijacked.

The pilot was apparently triggering a "push-to-talk button" on the aircraft's yoke, or "wheel" - a feature that enables pilots to have their hands on the controls while communicating, the controllers say. By doing so, the pilot gave controllers a way to hear much of what was said and other noises in the cockpit. His ability to do so also indicates that he was in the driver's seat much of the way to the plane's fiery rendezvous with the World Trade Center.

"The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York," a controller told the Monitor. "He wanted us to know something was wrong. When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew. There was this voice that was theatening the pilot, and it was clearly threatening."

During these transmissions, the pilot's voice and the heavily accented voice of a hijacker were clearly audible. At other times, the transmission was clear, but exactly what was happening in the cockpit was confused.

All of it was recorded by a Federal Aviation Administration traffic-control center. Those tapes are now presumed to be in the hands of federal law-enforcement officials, who arrived at the flight-contol facility minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. The tapes presumably could provide clues about the hijackers - and may become even more important if the plane's "black boxes" are damaged or never found.

Even before those messages were received, though, and even before Flight 11 veered sharply toward New York City from its scheduled path, air-traffic controllers knew something was wrong. They just didn't know how wrong.

Flight 11 departed Boston's Logan International Airport about 7:59 a.m. Tuesday, destined for Los Angeles. A course for the aircraft had been charted and instructions given to its pilots, air-traffic controllers say.

The flight's handler was sitting in a windowless concrete bunker in Nashua, N.H., - one of 20 FAA centers that handle long-distance traffic once aircraft have left airport airspace, the controllers say. As he gave instructions to several aircraft, the controller was watching the 27-inch, high-resolution Sony TV consoles in the recently updated FAA facility. The screen displayed Flight 11's key information, including its altitude, direction, and identifying number. The controller had just given the plane, now about 15 to 20 minutes due west of Logan and cruising above western Massachusetts, permission to climb from 29,000 feet to 31,000 feet.

But nothing happened.

"He was cleared to continue his climb and he did not," a controller says. "He was given permission to turn to go around [other airplane] traffic at 29,000 [feet]. So he [the controller handling the plane] issued a further climb, and [the plane] does not respond. That was the first indication we had of a problem."

The controller handling the plane then repeatedly tried to contact Flight 11 on the regular frequency, according to two other controllers. Getting no response, the controller went to an emergency frequency.

'American 11, how do you read?'

"They were trying to raise the aircraft, trying to raise the aircraft, and they can't," says a colleague. "So they call them on the 121.5 emergency frequency."

"American 11, this is Boston Center, how do you read?" was repeated several times with no response, a controller says. But because aircraft sometimes lose radio contact with their controllers, he was not unduly concerned.

Just then, however, controllers noticed something more worrisome.

Flight 11's transponder had stopped working. It was no longer sending a radar pulse. The plane's altitude also became a matter of guesswork for controllers, though the Boeing 767 was still visible on radar. Still, the controllers hoped that the plane simply had an electrical problem.