Article 10 of 28

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
Page A4
(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 Force spokesperson.

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 Center.

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.


Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.