9-11: Chaos Theory; 9:33 to 9:37, a most confused time


In an earlier article I stated that at one point Herndon Center became upset with the misinformation being passed on the FAA Tactical Net and broke into a conversation to set the record straight.  This article covers a nearly four minute conversation between FAA Headquarters and FBI Boston which conflated and confused information about AA 11, UA 175 and AA 77.

That conversation took place between 9:33 and 9:37.  At the same time, Dulles TRACON was alerting the air traffic control system and, by extension, the Secret Service that a primary-only target was bearing down on the nation’s capital. That report reached FAA HQ during this conversation on the Tactical Net, as you will hear.

Nothing in all of the primary source information available better portrays the confusion of the morning and the lack of situational awareness within FAA as a whole.

FBI Boston asks for an update

Both FBI Boston and the FBI’s SIOC (Strategic Information and Operations Center) were on the FAA’s Tactical Net at various times after it was activated at 8:50.  The FBI should have been on the Primary Net, but there is no evidence that net passed operational information after it was activated at 9:20.

The first portion of the FBI/FAA conversation can be heard in the following audio clip, the first of three.  (The complete conversation was too large to upload as a continuous file) 093300 FAA to FBI Boston, confused report

FAA HQ believed that the two planes that struck the World Trade Center were AA 11 and AA 77.  They also understood inaccurately that UA 175 was not involved and had dropped off radar.

FBI attempts to clarify

FBI Boston asked for a recapitulation to make sure it understood what FAA HQ was saying.  That conversation can be heard here. 093400 FBI recap

FBI Boston pursued the issue concerning UA 175.

Herdon Center had heard enough

Ricky Bell at the Herndon Center had been listening to all the misinformation.  His frustration is clearly evident as he broke into the conversation proudly announcing that the intruding voice was from the “Air Traffic System Command Center, Herndon, Virginia.”  Only because Bell decided earlier that morning to leave his line open do we have this window into the real-time information available to FAA HQ.

That segment of the conversation via the Tactical Net can be heard in this audio. 093500 Herndon Center had heard enough

FAA HQ attributed the information that UA 175 had dropped off radar over Indiana to FAA’s Eastern Region.  I have consistently held the position that the FAA’s Regions, administrative headquarters, did little to help Ben Sliney and Herndon Center fight the battle of 9-11.  There is no better example–in chaos terms–of disruptive feedback into the air traffic control system.

Supervisor provides accurate information, Eastern Region (AEA) reports fast moving “VFR”

Bell then stepped aside, and a supervisor provided a concise and accurate accounting of the four hijacked aircraft, to include UA 93.  As he concluded, Eastern Region broke back into the Tactical Net to report a fast moving VFR approaching the White House.  The time was 9:36:30, according to the tapes of Operations Positions 28, phone line 5128, and Operations Position 35, phone line 5135, Herndon Center.

Those conversations can be heard on this audio clip.  093600 Herndon clarifies and Eastern Region informs Tac Net about fast moving VFR

Eastern Region concluded by stating that the information came from air traffic control.  That was not, in context, a ringing endorsement by Eastern Region.  Nevertheless, they did report the information.  That is the first time FAA Headquarters was informed of the immediate threat to the nation’s capital.

Concurrently, the Administrator, Jane Garvey was on her way to Clarke’s SVTS conference.  FAA records show that she was present at 9:40.  Clarke’s account has Garvey reporting that AA 11 and UA 175 were “the two aircraft that went in,” accurate information.  His account mentions no other aircraft.  Clarke’s account also has Norman Mineta as missing.  “At first, FAA could not find him.”

To be continued

In a separate article I will address the impact of the report of a fast-moving aircraft approaching from the West as it played out in real time on the Tactical Net.  That article will put the information recalled during interview by Terry Van Steenburgen, FAA, and Nelson Garabito, Secret Service in perspective.