Air Travel System Grounded for First Time
Travelers and Carriers Face Day of Chaos, Future Questions

By Glenn Kessler and Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The complex air system that links families and commerce across the United States shut down yesterday for the first time as federal authorities ordered thousands of jets to land and canceled all other flights until at least noon today.

The sudden grounding reverberated across the nation. It disrupted the travel plans of nearly 2 million passengers, halted overnight mail delivery, turned 460 normally busy airports into ghost towns and in some cases spawned chaos and panic. Officials urged Americans to consider other modes of transportation.

The hijackings of four planes flying out of three airports, and the apparent ease with which the terrorists eluded detection, raised new questions about the safety and security of air travel in the United States. The grounding could also dampen enthusiasm for air travel, hurting an already ailing industry that accounts for 3 percent of the economy.

Government officials said that when flights are permitted to resume, extraordinarily tight security will be imposed on airlines and airports, including elimination of curbside luggage check-in and imposition of earlier passenger check-in times. Uniformed officials, some borrowed from local police offices, will be highly visible in airports. The "sky marshal" program -- gun-carrying officials on planes -- will also be revived; it had been largely moribund after a rash of hijackings three decades ago.

After authorities ordered the grounding, air traffic controllers worked for hours to safely land the flights in the air while at the same time scanning their radar scopes for other possible hijackings. All four jets commandeered yesterday by terrorists had their transponders turned off in flight and did not respond to radio calls before they crashed, sources said, meaning controllers saw them only as unidentified blips on their radars -- and had no access to routine information about the flight number, speed and altitude of the jets.

Controllers at Dulles International Airport, for instance, spotted an unidentified aircraft on radar that was flying at unusually high speed directly toward the White House yesterday morning. They warned authorities minutes before the Boeing 757 jet turned tightly to the right and circled around to slam into the Pentagon, according to federal aviation sources.

Rumors and unverified reports added to the anxiety throughout the day. Federal and state courthouses in Anchorage were evacuated after reports that a plane hijacked in Korea was headed toward the city. Marten Vermaat, a lawyer who flew F-18s in the Persian Gulf War, reported seeing an F-15 leave Elmendorf Air Force Base, near Anchorage, heading southward. But the reports turned out to be a false alarm.

The FAA held a continuous telephone news conference with reporters -- though officials could provide few answers -- and the questions reflected the level of concern throughout the nation. Several Chicago reporters called to ask about reports that a commercial plane was circling the city. Another reporter from Detroit asked about two flights in Detroit airspace and another that, after it landed in Canada, was surrounded by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In Boston, passengers crammed into phone booths and restaurants to contact family, friends and business associates. A center for victims' families, with grief counselors, was set up in the Hilton hotel near the airport.

"We were ready to take off and they said there was a call to take the plane back to the gate," said Gregory Stephanopoulos, 50, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor from Boston. "We thought it was something with our own plane, but then I saw a flight attendant crying and knew something serious was afoot. It's an awful thing."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet sent warships to bolster the air defenses of Washington and New York City. It also sent medical personnel and U.S. Marines to both cities to lend humanitarian and medical support.

The ships include aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, guided missile cruisers and guided missile destroyers, said Barry Higginbotham, a spokesman for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, also home of the world's largest naval base. He declined to say how many ships were involved.

The FAA was warned of the first hijacking shortly before the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center in New York. Aviation sources said that an American Airlines employee aboard American Flight 11 managed to call the carrier's operations center at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport before the plane crashed into one of the two World Trade Center buildings.

The decision to shut down the air system was made shortly after the plane struck the World Trade Center -- and before another plane crashed into the Pentagon. The Federal Aviation Administration issued the order at 9:25 a.m, effectively canceling the rest of the day's flights. Planes already in the air were permitted to continue to their destination. At least one carrier, Continental Airlines, told its pilots to land at the nearest airport.

Officials said that on a normal day, there are about 4,000 to 5,000 flights in the air at a given time; there are 35,000 to 40,000 commercial flights a day in the United States. At 2:07 p.m., the agency announced that all domestic flights had been accounted for. Many international flights were also diverted.

American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, departed Dulles International Airport for Los Angeles with its transponder on. But at some point, the transponder information disappeared from controller radar screens. The aircraft later appeared on radar scopes as an unidentified blip headed toward the White House, aviation sources said. Such a blip is called a "primary target" -- something commonly seen by controllers when an aircraft does not have a transponder or is a military aircraft flying with its transponder turned off.

But the airspace around Dulles, Reagan National Airport and much of Washington is designated Class B airspace, meaning no one is supposed to fly there without a working transponder and permission from a controller.

The skill with which the plane was flown, including the knowledge of how to turn off the transponder, raised the probability that a trained pilot was at the controls, possibly a hijacker.

The sources said Dulles controllers saw the plane was moving fast, directly toward the restricted airspace around the White House. They called controllers at National Airport to tell them that an unidentified unauthorized aircraft was headed their way.

As they watched, however, the plane began turning away from the White House, circling a full 270 degrees to the right and approaching the Pentagon from the southwest. It then dropped below radar level shortly before hitting the Defense Department headquarters.

Federal aviation rules limit the speeds of commercial aircraft flying below 10,000 feet. The sources said it appeared this plane was at full throttle.

Controllers then saw that a Boeing 757 identified as United Airlines Flight 93, headed from Newark to San Francisco, had turned toward Washington over Pennsylvania. But the United plane crashed about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Officials have said they do not know why the plane crashed. But sources said officials have recovered the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

While the jets that destroyed the World Trade Center were 767s, Boeing said that there are few differences between the 767 and 757 flight decks. That means pilots trained on one aircraft could easily fly the other.

After viewing video of one of the 767s that crashed into the World Trade Center, an instructor who trains airline pilots to fly both models, said: "Whoever flew it into that tower knew how to fly that airplane. At that kind of speed, to pick out that one tower and hit it dead center -- it took some skill and experience to make that maneuver."

The pilot-instructor, who asked not to be identified, also noted that the jets' flight computers could have been programmed to fly the planes to precise map coordinates. Programming a Boeing flight computer to do that would take about a minute, he said.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company