America’s Air Defense in Question


WASHINGTON, D.C., September 13—In the wake of the terrorist attacks, questions are mounting about America’s airline safety system and, beyond that, the military’s air-defense screen. American Flight 11 left Boston’s Logan Airport at 7:59 a.m. Tuesday morning for Los Angeles, The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday in a detailed account of the crash from the point of view of controllers in their underground windowless bunker in Nashua, New Hampshire. When the flight was 15 to 20 minutes out, the controller gave the pilot the OK to ascend from 29,000 to 31,000 feet. Nothing happened. The controller repeated his permission to go up. Still nothing. He tried to contact the pilot on the emergency frequency. No answer. Then the controllers noticed the plane’s transponders, which tells them the aircraft’s altitude, had stopped working, no longer sending a radar pulse.

At 8:28 the radar showed the jet veer south. The Monitor reports: “The plane turned [south toward New York], and then they heard the transmission with the terrorist in the background….The voice upset [the controller] because he knew right then that he was working a hijack. Several other people heard the voice, and they could tell by the sound of it, intuitively, that this was a bad situation.”

According to the Monitor, the Nashua controllers didn’t know when the military was contacted, but said it was routine to do so immediately when a hijacking is under way. The paper reports that two F-15 jet fighters were dispatched from Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. But just as the jets got off the ground, the controllers lost sight of Flight 11’s radar signal over Manhattan. A few minutes later, at approximately 9 a.m., they heard that a plane had hit a building.

If the FAA controllers and the Air Force knew they had a hijacked plane heading toward New York almost 30 minutes before the first crash, what were they doing? Did they tell the Pentagon? The White House? Where was the air-defense system?

Events quickly became more extraordinary. According to one passenger aboard a Continental Airlines plane on the Newark runway waiting to take off around 9 a.m., the pilot announced that the World Trade Center was on fire and to take a look. Then the plane took off. The pilot eventually announced the flight would land in Kentucky. Why even after the first crash—after the Air Force jets had been launched—were commercial flights still taking off?

In addition, The New York Times this morning reports the controllers at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center—who handled American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon—knew about the hijacking of American Flight 11 even before it crashed. But there apparently were no attempts at intercepting Flight 77.

Meanwhile, the White House yesterday claimed that Bush hopped from place to place Tuesday morning because it found out the White House itself and Air Force One were terrorist targets. “We had specific credible information that both were intended terrorist targets, and that the plane that hit the Pentagon may have been headed for the White House,” Sean McCormack, spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council told the AP. Air Force One was accompanied by military fighters.

If this is true, when did Bush know he was a target, and why weren’t all commercial flights grounded and the people in danger informed? Or, as is more likely, is this a story concocted by the White House press office to explain Bush’s peregrinations about the nation?