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A Few More Minutes

As the momentum for reforming our intelligence system peters out , I think back a couple of months to when I went out and -- like millions of other Americans -- bought the 9-11 Commission Report. Yep, I read it, cover to cover, and it's true what they say about it; it does read like a techno-terrorist-thriller for much of the way. Near the end it kind of bogs down in, you know, hard questions and difficult choices, but then I think that was rather the point.

But this recent failure of Congress to actually get anything done about the dire state of our intelligence systems, and the concomitant discussion of the 9-11 Report, reminds me that no matter how good a read that report is, there's really only one passage in it that still sticks with me in any sort of emotional way. I knew it would, of course, the moment I read it. It was one of those moments I think of as a "text fricative" -- a moment when the breath of the story is stopped, briefly, by a crystallizing thought in the mind of the reader.

If you haven't read the report, you should at least read the first chapter ("We Have Some Planes") in which the stories of the four hijackings are told. In the section called "The Battle for United 93", we read:

The hijackers had planned to take flights scheduled to depart at 7:45 (American 11), 8:00 (United 175 and United 93), and 8:10 (American 77). Three of the flights had actually taken off within 10 to 15 minutes of their planned departure times. United 93 would ordinarily have taken off about 15 minutes after pulling away from the gate. When it left the ground at 8:42, the flight was running more than 25 minutes late.

Note the time: 8:42 a.m.

American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., four minutes after United 93 was wheels up out of Newark just across the harbor. Kind of makes you wish it was possible to put rearview mirrors on airliners. How different things might have gone for 93 if as they climbed out of Newark, heading west, First Officer Leroy Homer had glanced into his  mirror to see what was going on behind them. "Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear."

Around 9:00, the FAA, American, and United were facing the staggering realization of apparent multiple hijackings. At 9:03, they would see another aircraft strike the World Trade Center. Crisis managers at the FAA and the airlines did not yet act to warn other aircraft.
As news of the hijackings filtered through the FAA and the airlines, it does not seem to have occurred to their leadership that they needed to alert other aircraft in the air that they too might be at risk.

In the following, "Herndon Command Center" refers to the FAA's National Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, which oversees all air traffic in U.S. airspace and coordinates with the FAA's 22 regional Control Centers.

FAA controllers at Boston Center, which had tracked the first two hijackings, requested at 9:07 that Herndon Command Center "get messages to airborne aircraft to increase security for the cockpit." There is no evidence that Herndon took such action. Boston Center immediately began speculating about other aircraft that might be in danger, leading them to worry about a transcontinental flight-Delta 1989-that in fact was not hijacked. At 9:19, the FAA's New England regional office called Herndon and asked that Cleveland Center advise Delta 1989 to use extra cockpit security.

Several FAA air traffic control officials told us it was the air carriers' responsibility to notify their planes of security problems. One senior FAA air traffic control manager said that it was simply not the FAA's place to order the airlines what to tell their pilots.
United's first decisive action to notify its airborne aircraft to take defensive action did not come until 9:19, when a United flight dispatcher, Ed Ballinger, took the initiative to begin transmitting warnings to his 16 transcontinental flights: "Beware any cockpit intrusion- Two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center." One of the flights that received the warning was United 93. Because Ballinger was still responsible for his other flights as well as Flight 175, his warning message was not transmitted to Flight 93 until 9:23.

By all accounts, the first 46 minutes of Flight 93's cross-country trip proceeded routinely. Radio communications from the plane were normal. Heading, speed, and altitude ran according to plan. At 9:24, Ballinger's warning to United 93 was received in the cockpit. Within two minutes, at 9:26, the pilot, Jason Dahl, responded with a note of puzzlement: "Ed, confirm latest mssg plz-Jason."

The hijackers attacked at 9:28...

That moment, that last sentence there, is the one that still sticks with me.

Look at the timeline:

9:24: Ballinger sends his warning to United 93 to secure its cockpit.

9:26: Captain Jason Dahl comes back with a request for clarification which never comes.

9:28: The hijackers attack the cockpit

What a difference even ten more minutes might have made. A few more minutes for the clarification to come back to Captain Dahl. A few more minutes for the meaning of this bizarre message to sink in. A few more minutes for the Captain and First Officer to come to believe this impossible thing could actually happen to them. A few more minutes to take whatever steps they could take to try to secure their aircraft...

Here's the thing: unlike the passengers and crew of United 93, we have been warned in time. We don't need clarification and our flight crew, up there in front, knows the score as well as we do. We don't have to wait around for the consequences of failing to secure the aircraft to sink in. We don't have to end up like the poor desperate heroes of Flight 93 huddling in the back of the airplane, calling our loved ones to express our mutually forlorn hopes of ever seeing each other again, devising a brave but doomed plan for making our own assault on the cockpit.

We are in the air at 35,000 feet and Congress needs to stop kidding itself. The people who want to kill us are seated up there in We-Mean-Business Class. The time for securing the aircraft is now.


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