The Day the FAA Stopped the World

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RALF-FINN HESTOFT/CORBIS SABA

An empty O'Hare airport in Chicago

Tuesday morning, September 11th began as a routine day for the nation's air traffic system. The delay-producing thunderstorms of the summer had begun to wane, the healthy passenger loads of June, July and August had dropped off with the start of the school year, and the economic slowdown had caused most major airlines to cut back on the number of flights, easing even more the usual airborne congestion.

It was also a Tuesday, statistically one of the two least busy travel days of the week. Even better for pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC), the weather broke clear and cooler in the northeast, the country's most crowded airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration also knew, though of course doesn't publicize, that Air Force One — whose comings and goings can ball up huge swaths of the nation's airspace — was way down in Florida and wouldn't be cruising back into Andrews Air Force Base until noon, comfortably after the morning rush hour had let up. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who is the agency's longest serving chief, had already begun a day heavy with meetings. This, the FAA, the flyboys and radar jocks thought, would be an easy day.

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At Boston's Logan Airport, American Airlines Flight 11 lined up for its scheduled 7:59 am takeoff. The plane is one of aviation's workhorses, a Boeing 767, a twin-engine, twin-aisle that many air carriers use to bear the burden of heavily traveled domestic and international routes. It is the third largest plane Boeing makes, after the enormous 747 and the 777. On this fateful morning, the 767, which can carry a maximum of 269 passengers in a combination of first and coach classes, was less than half full, with only 92 souls on board. But the aircraft, which was headed to Los Angeles, was loaded with fuel — as most transcontinental flights are.

The plane can hold almost 24,000 gallons of jet fuel. Within minutes, another Boeing 767, United Airlines Flight Number 175, but with only 65 people, on route to Los Angeles International Airport, also departed. The airlines' dispatchers, the men and women who orchestrate the intricate daily moves of the fleets of two of the world's largest airlines, merely noted the takeoffs — just four more flights among the three thousand flights on a normal day for the nation's two huge carriers.

In two other major airports, the day was likewise starting as usual: at Newark International Airport a United Boeing 757, tagged with the flight number 93, took off for San Francisco. The 'load' of passengers for this flight would have worried the airline's business office: only 38 passengers were on board, about a quarter of what the plane can typically hold. The Boeing 757 is smaller than its 767 sister; it has only one aisle and can carry up to 192 passengers in a two class configuration. It is also a twin engine plane, and would also be fully loaded with fuel for its cross country trip, carrying some 11,000 gallons of jet fuel. The 'seven-five' as aviation pros call the plane (Boeings are often referred to by a 7 and the next number, a 'seven-three' for a 737, a 'seven-four' or a 747, and so on) was also being used this morning by American on Flight 77, out of Washington's Dulles International Airport on the way to Los Angeles. 64 people were on board, including the crew. That United plane would have been sent on its way by some of the several thousand, incredibly diverse (over 40 nationalities) full and part-time employees who work for United at Dulles (the airline's fifth largest hub).

In what would become clear only hours later, there is an unprecedented connection between the Boeing 757 and the 767. It is the first example of two separate planes having a 'common type rating'. That is that a pilot licensed to fly one plane can automatically fly the other. Crew training is the second costliest expense for an airline after purchasing the plane, so airlines the world over have taken advantage of this money-saving feature: 26 carriers have both planes in their fleet. This was the first time that two planes of any manufacturer shared the same type rating, and as Boeing boasts on its website, it allows "for a common set of flight crew operating procedures."

Just after nine a.m. EST, a United flight in the Western United States started hearing some odd back and forth on the radio. The pilots heard the controllers say something about a hijacking. A pilot from another plane asked ATC, "What company?", meaning what airline was involved. "Standby" came the response from ATC. Then a few seconds of suspense — and fear. United is the only airline in the U.S. that pipes the cockpit's radio transmissions through to its inflight audio system via channel nine. The flight attendants on the United plane called through the inflight phone into the cockpit to tell the pilot that a passenger had been listening on channel 9 and wanted to know what was going on.

It became horrifyingly clear moments later: controller's voices crackling into airplane cockpits across the United States were calm but the message was disturbing and unprecedented. "Every airplane listening to this frequency needs to contact your company." With those eleven words, the world's most complex — and safe — air traffic system was brought to its knees.

Thousands of pilots rapidly began dialing up the operation centers of their airlines via the airborne communication systems that allow crew to contact the ground with e-mail or voice systems. Pilots were informed that there had been terrorist attacks, were instructed to deny all access to the cockpit and get the plane down as quickly as possible. In one cockpit, a pilot checked that the door was locked. Then he made sure that the 'crash axe' that is carried in all cockpits was in place.

Routine no more

Controllers all over the eastern United States might have already realized this day had turned into hell. The screens that glow in darkened rooms in hundreds of facilities around the country are the linchpin of an air traffic system that manages tens of thousands of flights a day. The system is almost dull in its routine. Controllers and pilots use regular routes, fly prescribed altitudes along decades-old highways in the sky, and most important, are in constant contact. Controllers are like flashlights in the dark for commercial airplanes: those FAA employees know what's going on in the air around a plane, and can 'see' exactly what each plane is doing. Each plane appears on a controllers radar screen as a so-called 'target' in controller-speak, and each blip representing a plane on that all-important radar is accompanied by a 'data block', which includes the abbreviated name of the airline (AA for American Airlines, UA for United Airlines, for example,) the flight number, the altitude of the plane, and a unique, 4-digit code each flight receives.

Only that day, Tuesday, September 11, was very, very different in these rooms from Cleveland to Washington to Boston. Instead of the normal 'data blocks', controllers were virtually blind in trying to track at least one of the planes, and perhaps as many as all four. One or more had 'lost' their transponders: the onboard cockpit device that sends the plane's critical information to the ATC system. Or more worrying, someone had known enough to turn them off. "Those planes were essentially invisible," says one veteran controller. "A controller tracking that plane would not be sure of where it actually was."

But 'lost' transponders — and even turned off ones — are not that unusual. All aircraft flying at over 10,000 feet (above the altitude of small general aviation planes) or those in 'restricted' airspace in high volume areas around major cities, must have their transponders on. Generally, ATC will radio the pilot and tell him if a plane's transponder is out. A controller will then ask the pilot to turn the transponder back on (which is done by simply turning what looks like a radio dial on the plane's 'dashboard'), or asking if the plane has a second unit. "Bum transponders are no big deal," says one controller. "I wouldn't have been alarmed." That might have lasted a few minutes, as the controllers likely tried repeatedly to raise the planes. When they got no response, the controllers would have flagged their supervisors, who are usually pacing just behind them, looking over their shoulders. Then, they would have examined the airspace around and in front of the planes: knowing for sure that there was a serious problem.

At the FAA's national command center in Herndon, Virginia, some 30 miles from Washington, the usually predictable patterns on the small, 21 inch screens, as well as the huge 10 foot screen that display the nation's air traffic control system in action would have started to go awry. By several minutes after nine, the two airline representatives that sit alongside their FAA colleagues at the Center would have heard about the terrible call that dispatchers at the American Airlines operation center near Dallas Ft Worth airport had fielded: a flight attendant on board flight 11 had called the center, via an emergency phone line, and said that a passenger was stabbing people on board. It is not clear how much information she transmitted to her shocked coworkers. Staffers in the AA op center, some veterans of the military, still others trained in disaster response, were stunned by news of the call.

With conflicting reports coming in, and controllers attempting to track 'invisible' airplanes, the news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center rocked the FAA headquarters. FAA Administrator Garvey, most likely in full consultation with Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta, decided to implement a 'ground stop' on New York City airports. Although the FAA doesn't technically close an individual airport, a ground stop prevents any plane, commercial or private, from taking off from that airport and can require incoming flights diverted. When reports that a plane or planes might be headed towards Washington, the FAA HQ on Independence Avenue was evacuated.

At 9:25, Garvey, in an historic and admirable step, and almost certainly after getting an okay from the White House, initiated a national ground stop, which forbids takeoffs and requires planes in the air to get down as soon as reasonable. The order, which has never been implemented since flying was invented in 1903, applied to virtually every single kind of machine that can takeoff — civilian, military, or law enforcement. The Herndon command center coordinated the phone call to all major FAA sites, the airline reps in the room contacted all airlines, and so-called NOTAMS —notices to airmen — were also sent out. The FAA had stopped the world.

Five minutes later, FAA's few staffers who had stayed to set up the emergency operations center accomplished their mission and the center was up and running by 9:30. FAA chief spokesman Scott Brenner gave immediate orders to his press corps: hit the vending machines on the floors below and bring back all the candy you could carry. Throughout the day, a hard-core group of public affairs staffers grabbed slices of pizza, scarfed chocolate donuts and swigged water and coffee. But cellphones were virtually unusable because of the overloads, and FAA staffers in the emergency op center couldn't reach their in-house experts only a few floors below on the sidewalk. Minutes later, the Pentagon was hit.

A former government aviation official says the authorities must have been scrambling. "Coordinating a response to one airplane accident is daunting enough, I can't imagine anything like this." At approximately 9:37 am, controllers in the tower at Washington's National Airport likely used their secure hotline phone that reaches the Secret Service contact in charge of protection of the White House and informed them that an unidentified plane was hurtling towards the area. Usually, the calls come the other direction — from irate Secret Service agents complaining that this or that commercial flight took off too close to the White House.

Across town, at the offices of the Air Transport Association, employees could see the billowing smoke erupting from the Pentagon and the phones were buzzing. Government sources warned the ATA to evacuate as well, that another plane might be headed to the nation's capital, and the airline industry's Washington eyes and ears ended up in nearby McPhearson Square, as temporarily disoriented as out of town tourists.

Back at the FAA, workers were filing into the building, and reports were flooding in. Contacting experienced aviation sources did nothing to clear up the chaos. And there were no explicit reports from the airplanes themselves that they had been hijacked. (The system has certain codes that are a simple roll of the dial in a cockpit — a pilot would merely enter a 4 digit emergency code; and there is a specific one for a hijacking). Things were moving rapidly, and at 10:21, Garvey ordered the diversion of all international flights to the U.S. The FAA called NavCanada, the semi-private organization that runs the Canadian air traffic system — and with whom the FAA is in almost constant contact every day because flights are often sent north of the border. Most flights that were close to US shores headed for Canada, while others turned back to their originating airports. Ten minutes later, at 10:31, the FAA allowed all military and law enforcement flights to resume (and some flights that the FAA can't reveal that were already airborne).

While confusing and conflicting information continued to pour into the FAA op center, news came that Canada had apparently shut down its own system. At 10:42, worse news: there was another crash — this of flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field. Confusion reached such a high level that the FAA admitted to the White House officials who wanted to bring the President back to Washington that the agency could not account for seven planes. In fact, four of those planes turned out to be the downed ones — but that would take a while to sort out. Even more worrying was that it took the FAA another hour and a half to account for three other aircraft.

Meanwhile, domestic flights were getting down — fast. Southwest Airlines planes descended on Denver, an airport the airline doesn't even fly to. JetBlue Airways, based at New York's John F Kennedy Airport, ended up with a plane at tiny Stewart Airport in upstate New York. United Parcel Service, which had 25 planes in the sky, had safely landed each of their aircraft at one of the company's eight hub airports. International flights, which were clearly getting low on fuel, apparently started dialing their transponders to indicate to Canadian controllers that there were emergencies on board. Some apparently even dialed in the 'hijack' code, and for a few frantic minutes the airspace near Alaska was peppered with "hijacked" planes. The FAA immediately called NavCanda and asked what was happening. The Canadians opened the system back up, but implemented rigid security procedures including keeping passengers on aircraft for hours.

As the tragic day creeped toward noon, and it seemed the attacks had slowed if not ceased, the FAA didn't pause. Garvey and her top deputies were on the phone constantly, gathering information from FAA facilities, fielding calls from members of Congress (who were probably merely meddling, not actually being helpful), and discussing possible options with aviation experts, as well as hosting a series of conference calls with the airlines. Although those calls, which also included officials from the Department of Transportation, began with just the major airlines of the ATA participating, as the afternoon wore on, Garvey started to bring in every US airline, and eventually every major foreign air carrier, including SwissAir, Lufthansa and Aeroflot.

These calls focused on when to get the system back up and what security measures needed to be changed how and when. According to a source familiar with the calls, Garvey was cool and in command. "She sounded good," said a source. As they concentrated on what was possible, each and every participant knew, said one, "This was a colossal event, and requires a colossal response." Of course, coordination wasn't perfect: Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta showed up on TV announcing that new measures would be established, including ending the practice of curbside check-in. He had not, however, told either the airlines or the FAA what he was going to say.

By 2 a.m. Wednesday, the government and the airlines had settled on a number of changes, and Secretary Mineta announced the new measures. The steps include: a high visibility display of law enforcement (possibly military police) at big airports, most notably in Washington and New York. All major airports will be swept by FAA and airport security before they are reopen. Knives, including the seemingly innocent Swiss Army knives, will no longer be allowed on aircraft or sold in airports. The FAA will consider expanding the use of 'sky marshals' who are armed law enforcement agents who regularly ride on US commercial aircraft. Random ID checks of airline employees and airport staffers will be increased, and more rigorous screening for metal objects will be implemented. No off-airport check in will be allowed. The most disruptive move will no doubt be the new procedure to bar anyone without a paper confirmation or a paper ticket from entering the 'sterile' area of a terminal. That is a passenger would no longer be able to pass through security with only the assurance that you have an e-ticket to be picked up at the gate.

As the system crawled back to life on Thursday, Americans knew getting on an airplane would never be the same again.