Aftermath of Terror:
Some Question Jets' Unchallenged Flights
Erratic Flight-Path Activity
Could Have Indicated
Need for Air Force Action
By Susan Carey
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Two years ago, after pro golfer Payne
Stewart 's chartered Lear jet failed to respond to air-traffic
controllers and deviated from its flight plan, the Federal Aviation
Administration asked the Air Force to "scramble." Military
pilots shadowed the silent plane for three hours as it flew north
from Florida and eventually crashed after running out of fuel.
Tuesday, when terrorists hijacked four
commercial jetliners and crashed them in suicide attacks, did the Air
Force send up planes to follow the errant aircraft? The Air Force
won't say specifically. Later that day, large numbers of fighters
were dispatched to guard major U.S. cities, the Air Force said.
It isn't known whether air-traffic
controllers asked for military assistance once the planes diverted
from their flight plans and started their approaches toward their
targets, the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The content
of any radio transmissions or controller tapes related to the
terrorist attack hasn't been revealed and the FBI is conducting a
massive criminal investigation. An FAA spokesman said the agency had
no comment on Tuesday's events.
High-altitude sentries aren't unusual.
The Air Force says it keeps about 20 F-15 and F-16 fighters on duty
with Air National Guards along the nation's coastline, ready to
inspect unknown aircraft entering U.S. airspace. It also responds to
requests from other agencies, including the Coast Guard, and FAA,
which runs the nation's air-traffic control system. "We can
scramble and be airborne in a matter of minutes," said an Air
Some airline pilots, deeply shaken by
the kamikaze crashes and subsequent carnage, are wondering whether
the FAA did enough to try to prevent the crashes. The American
Airlines plane hijacked out of Boston "got two-thirds across
Massachusetts and suddenly made a beeline for New York," said
one pilot. "Why didn't air-traffic control respond [and call the
Air Force]?" That plane was first to strike the World Trade
After a United Airlines plane also hit
the building 20 minutes later, "there should have been no
doubt" that the third hijacked plane, an American jet that did a
U-turn and headed toward Washington, had ill intent, said another
pilot. Between the first strike in New York and the crash into the
Pentagon, about an hour later, "that was a lot of time not to do
any response," he said.
The fourth plane, a United jet bound
for San Francisco from Newark, N.J., was in the air longer and made
it all the way to Ohio before abruptly turning around. The plane
crashed south of Pittsburgh after some passengers may have tried to
subdue the hijackers. It isn't known whether the crash was caused by
a struggle in the cockpit, was intentional or if the plane was indeed
shot down by military aircraft that may have been sent to the scene.
The FBI late yesterday said there is no
evidence of a military role in the crash, revising its comments from
earlier in the day that it couldn't rule out the possibility. Without
question, the decision to shoot down a hijacked commercial airliner
bearing innocent passengers would be very difficult to make. A former
Transportation Department air-traffic-control expert said there is a
defined series of steps controllers take when a plane doesn't respond
to radio messages and diverts from course.
At a certain point, "it's declared
an emergency and a supervisor dispatches the military," he said.
Such calls normally are routine, he said.
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