9-11: Herndon Center-FAA HQ open line; a story continued


In a previous article, “9-11: FAA Tactical Net; a window into the FBI SIOC,” I discussed the open line at the FAA’s Herndon Center that provided a window into both FAA Headquarters and the FBI’s SIOC and ended the article, “to be continued.”

I now have the continuation audio file, “5 DCC 1923 Ops Phone #5128, pos 28, 1415-1515 UTC.”  We pick up the story with the following from my first article.

“There is one brief background conversation at about 10:15 at Operations Position 28 which suggests that erroneous information concerning UA 93 was being passed along from the FAA’s Washington Operations Center (WOC).

The background voice said, “OK, number one is 93, it’s 20 minutes outside of DC, go pass that.”  That brief transmission can be heard here. 101430 UA 93 20 minutes out.

Setting the stage

The FAA’s tactical and primary nets merged soon after the primary net was activated at 9:20.  None of the positions at the FAA’s Washington Operation Center (WOC) were recorded.  However, thanks to personnel at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center) the line at position 28 was left open thus providing the only known primary source information concerning actions taken at FAA Headquarters on September 11, 2001.

The person on position at the WOC received information from the Herndon Center and other sources and passed that information along to others to pass up the chain of command, most likely using the Secure Video Teleconference System (SVTS).

In another previous article I described the SVTS (pronounced “civ its”) as a closed system, a cold war relic that did not allow the input of information in real time.  Participants in a SVTS conference were limited to the information they brought with them to the table.  Additional information had to be passed using runners.

It is probable that the information received at the WOC was being passed to either Monty Belger or Jane Garvery who, in turn, passed that information to Norman Mineta.  No alternate explanation is plausible, given the chain of command in place that morning.

Picking up the story

There were three pieces of information that the WOC wanted passed as we pick up the tape continuation: United 93, 20 minutes out; all inbound international flights diverted to Canada; and the launch of Air Force One and a Secret Service request for fighter support from Andrews.  Here are the audio clips, in order, and we begin with the time stamp.

1415-1515 Pos 28 Time Stamp

101500 UA 93 20 minutes out pos 28

101545 Internationals diverted to Canada Pos 28

101654 AF One launched request fighter escort

The last clip contains an example of how confused and chaotic the situational awareness was at FAA Headquarters.  The person on position erroneously stated that Air Force One was going to take off from Andrews.  It was the fighter escort that was to launch from Andrews.

A brief explanation about the times

The audio recordings at all Herndon positions were forwarded to the Commission on reel-reel cassette tapes, one hour per side.  There is a few second overlap as the quality assurance specialist copying the tapes turned the cassette tape over.  This tape is typical of all FAA-provided cassette tapes; there is an introductory certification by the quality assurance specialist.  On the first tape in a series that certification lasts nearly a minute.  On the continuation tapes, such as this one, the certification is on the order of 30 seconds or less.  I have taken the certification into account as I adjusted tape time to actual time.  I have included the actual time in the title of each clip.

Source of information to the chain of command

As would be expected, the recipient of the information being passed from the WOC wanted a source he/she could pass along.  The WOC established the source to be the FAA TAC NET, T A C NET.”  101800 Source is TACNET

In the background a person is heard saying the people down there in the “big room” want to know the source of the information.

Another situational awareness bifurcation.

Immediately after the three items are detailed for passing and the identification of the source is established, New York TRACON came up on the net to report, erroneously, that they had determined that a Sikorsky helicopter from Poughkeepsie flew into the trade center at 1227 (0827 EDT).  The following audio clip documents an excellent example of disruptive feedback entering the system.  101826 Sikorsky helicopter

The Attorney General, a disruptive flight home

Another example of disruptive feedback into the system was the saga of the Attorney General who was attempting to return to the capital from the midwest. His attempt to return to Washington was elevated to the WOC at about 10:27.  This saga can be heard on multiple FAA audio files and the NEADS tapes.  The Attorney General was insistent that he be allowed to return and he wanted a fighter escort.  The episode was continuously disruptive to other ongoing actions.

More disruptive feedback and FAA inability to keep its phone bridges straight

About 10:30 a voice on the TACNET, possibly Rich Ducharme, Eastern Region, announced an unconfirmed report that a hijacked aircraft out of the Washington area was headed to New York, another example of the lack of situational awareness at the national level.

During this time and beginning with the Sikorsky helicopter report there is continuing evidence that the FAA bridges were interfering with each other.  Nevertheless, information concerning planes of interest, by this time just UA 93 and D 1989, was received and passed along.

Delta 1989 status

At about 10:33 the TACNET received a report, most likely from Herndon Center, that Delta 1989 was on the ground in Cleveland and that it landed with the flaps up.  Police were responding.

NORAD and NMCC not on the bridge

At about 1035 the Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC) at Herndon Center asked if NORAD was up on the bridge.  The answer was negative, neither NORAD or the NMCC was on.  The ATSC was given the task of bringing them up on the net.

This time is consistent with the findings of the Commission Staff concerning the efforts at Herndon Center to get FAA and the NMCC connected.  This effort most likely began shortly after 0930 at NEADS when the FAA representative asked to use the SOCC Director’s STU-III (secure phone).  Here is the audio file, as recorded at Herndon Center, confirming that the military was not on the FAA net as of 10:35.  103434 NORAD and NMCC not on bridge

Diversity of information under discussion, examples

Even though the military was not on or did not have access to the FAA TACNET and to FAA Heaquarters other entities did. In this next audio clip the New York Port Authority passed along information concerning the attack on the AA 11 cockpit.  103800 Port Authority AA11

In a clip shortly thereafter we hear in the background that UA 93 was down, the report concerning AA 11 was passed along, landing of all aircraft was discussed, and a question about ATC Zero was asked.  The context for the latter was a Boston Center decision to evacuate.  Herndon also reported that in Indianapolis Center a voice at Elkins flight service was warning planes that they would be shot down if they didn’t land.  103900 Herndon FAA Discussion

A third clip is notable because there is an indication that the line was still open all the way through to the FBI SIOC.  It is possible that some of the background chatter heard on this tape may have originated from that location.

In this clip we learn that the Attorney General has been cleared to land in Richmond (he will later reject that option) and that D 1989 was on the ground and authorities were responding.  The information about Indianapolis Center was passed along.  104700 More Discussion

Delta 1989 Status

Given that D 1989 was on the ground it became a matter of further interest as to how it was to be handled.  FAA HQ reached out to Great Lakes Region security for an update.  (Readers who have been following my articles on NEADS Vigilant Guardian will note the similarity to the exercise vignette of the defecting Aeroflot plane.) The issue was who notifies the FBI and other authorities.  In this real world example the answer was FAA.  104824 D 1989 Status

It’s Chaos out there

In this clip we learn that in California, Long Beach, Ontario, and LAX facilities were evacuated.  A background voice said “it’s chaos out there,” referring to the possibility that terrorists were on the ground as well.  105132 chaos out there

UA 93 Update

FAA HQ asked for and received an update on UA 93 from Herndon Center.  It was equated to the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  Note at the end of the clip a background voice says they are on the national net.  105405 UA 93 status

Delta 1989 updates and Attorney General updates intermixed

Concerning D 1989, Great Lakes security advised that no one had yet approached the aircraft.  105542 Further D1989 update

Concerning the Attorney General, the FBI SIOC confirmed that November 4 was the Attorney General’s plane and that he was allowed to land at DCA (Reagan National).  In other ATC tapes the Attorney General had rejected all other landing destinations, to include Richmond.  He was insistent that he be allowed to return to the capital.  This audio clip confirms the Attorney General’s persistence.  However, the Attorney General was not finished with his demands as we shall soon see.  111100 Attorney General confirmed for DCA

In the interim, FAA received an additional update on D 1989.  There was still no breach of the aircraft by law enforcement. Note the garbled exchange that led to D 1989 being tagged a hijack.  We know from Cleveland ATC tapes that D 1989 was under positive air traffic control and was not considered a hijack.  So how did that change?

Great Lakes security stated that according to the Cleveland Airport Commissioner, Cleveland Tower reported D 1989 “was under hijack conditions.”  The HQ FAA recipient of that information immediately made the leap in logic to state that “we have a report of hijacked 1989 on the ground, nothing further.” 111217 Additional D1989 update

Finally, in the last substantive conversation on this tape, we learn that the Attorney General now wanted a fighter escort.  111250 AG wants fighter escort


We learned that during the hour from 10:15 to 11:15 that FAA headquarters initially passed three issues up the chain of command–UA93, international flights, and fighter escort for Air Force One.

During the course of the hour just two commercial aircraft of continuing interest were discussed–UA 93 and D 1989.  AA 11 was briefly mentioned with information about how the cockpit was breached.  There were two erroneous reports, one from New York TRACON concerning a helicopter and another concerning a report of a potential hijack headed from Washington to New York.

We learned that the military–NMCC and NORAD–were not on the FAA’s “national net,” and that the tactical net was also the primary net.

A Final Comment

At some point, if I have time, I will tell the primary source story of the Attorney General.  It is a fascinating battle of wills between a senior official who was insistent he needed to get to DC and FAA air traffic control officials who were just as insistent that he land somewhere else.