Ask the pilot

"The 9/11 Commission Report": A gripping tale that President Bush fought to squelch. Plus, when is shooting down a commercial airliner not a terrorist attack?

Published September 10, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

The most gripping portion of "The 9/11 Commission Report" is the opening chapter. In exhaustive detail, pages 1 through 46 cover the nitty-gritty of the four inflight takeovers, with cockpit voice recorder (CVR) excerpts and an impressive attention to accuracy. It's fairly standard, even in official documents and reports, for non-aviation authorities to flub the occasional acronym and misuse jargon. From what I've seen of it, "The Report" is close to flawless.

I know, you'll tell me that the Warren Commission had its ballistics arcana down pat. And where did that ever get us? But until there's reason not to, I'm giving the exhaustive work of Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton benefit of the doubt.

I also give them credit for resisting any blatant scapegoating of the FAA and other government bodies. As the commandeered aircraft began ambling toward their targets, the government's response was, from the top down, bumbling and disorganized -- from a dumbstruck president's storybook reading in Florida to the FAA's confused interpretations of what was happening. That does not, by itself, equate to blame or incompetence. The attack unfolded slyly and insidiously. We can debate the politics and intelligence failures leading up to the attack, but once it commenced, unless we expected an instant scramble of F-16s and an immediate shoot-down of the purloined jets, I fail to see any glaring examples of negligence.

Meanwhile, two of the often heard, plane-related myths about that morning are debunked rather speedily in Chapter 1.

First off, there's no evidence that anybody -- that is, a terrorist -- had been sitting in a cockpit jumpseat on any of the four planes. You'll typically find one, two, or even three auxiliary crewmember seats, known as "jumpseats" in cockpit colloquial, on the flight deck. With proper I.D. and paperwork (the rules are understandably tighter than they used to be), airline pilots, controllers and government officials can sit here. The layperson probably heard little of this, but circulating through industry ranks was a story that one or more of the 19 perpetrators, using phony credentials, had gained pre-departure access to a jumpseat, springing to action only inches from the captain and first officer.

Second, it's pretty obvious that United Airlines flight 93 was intentionally crashed by the skyjackers over Pennsylvania. To the dismay of many conspiracy hucksters, it was not fired on by the U.S. military. Neither was there a wrestling match between skyjackers and passengers. The passengers never made it into the cockpit. Judging from the CVR, they are ramming what sounds to be a galley cart against the door when the skyjackers choose to crash the plane. On the tape, only seconds from being overtaken, skyjacker pilot Ziad Jarrah and at least one henchman are heard discussing their predicament and what they intend to do about it: "...shall we put it down?" Jarrah then pushes the control wheel forward and snaps it to the right, rolling the 757 onto its back and into a deadly 580-mile-per-hour dive toward an empty field in Shanksville, Penn.

Yes, by the way, and if I may, this is the same commission report that our illustrious president fought tooth and nail to prevent from ever being assembled. On one hand the administration plays up 9/11 as the most definingly godawful thing to happen since Noah's flood, yet heaven forbid its causes and consequences be properly audited or the assorted rumors and hearsay squelched.

Nowadays every serious air crash is trailed by one conspiracy story or another, the events of 9/11 nourishing the mongers with an unprecedented opportunity. Four separate disasters; four alleged schemes. If you're at all familiar with the netherworld of whisperings on the Internet, you'll have learned, for example, about the mysterious bulge seen on the bottom of United 175, or the suggestion that American 77 never hit the Pentagon.

Please don't ask me if I believe that flight 175 was flown into the South Tower by remote control, or if the "real" wreckage of flight 77 rests at the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle. Tackling these myths has all the fun -- and is even less productive -- of calling my creationist friend in Colorado to argue the meaning of shark fossils.

Shameless self-promotion time: If you want to learn more about sundry Sept. 11 issues -- the legitimate ones -- pour some coffee and rake your way through the Ask the Pilot archives. Better still, order a copy of my book, where the same discussions are expanded and polished. How did the 19 men, trained only as private pilots, manage to fly Boeings? Can onboard software prevent planes from being guided into buildings? Etc. It's in there.

After giving Powell's your 14 dollars, head back this way. My recent
look back at the greatest hits of air terror seems to have ignited a whole new round of provocation...

Your Aug. 29 list of terrorist atrocities neglects to mention the Iranian passenger jet shot down by the United States of America!

I smell the slow, sulfuric burn of leftist anger.

The incident in question is the July 1988 downing of an Iran Air jetliner over the Straits of Hormuz. The crew of the U.S. Navy destroyer Vincennes, distracted by an ongoing gun battle, mistakes the A300 for a hostile aircraft and destroys it with two missiles. None of the 290 occupants survive.

Sadly, the annals of aviation include numerous shoot-downs of civilian airliners by various militaries, both accidental and otherwise. I left these out of the article because they're tough to qualify as acts of terrorism. The T-word is a slippery one these days, perhaps harmfully devalued, and is best avoided in this context.

Eerily reminiscent of the Iran Air incident was the 2001 downing of a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 (same company and make involved in the recent double bombing over Russia). The plane blew up over the Black Sea during a flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, Siberia, after being struck by an errant surface-to-air missile fired from a Ukrainian gunnery during a live-fire exercise.

Perhaps the most infamous assault of all occurred in 1983, when Korean Air Lines flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying 269 people from New York to Seoul, was shot from the sky by a Soviet fighter plane after drifting off course -- and into Soviet airspace -- over the North Pacific. Investigators blamed the deviation to "a considerable lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the flight crew." (Their conclusion did little to stifle the conspiracy fables spawned from this tragedy, which rival or exceed those of any other event in aviation history.)

Five years earlier, another KAL flight, this time a 707 heading from Paris to Seoul, strayed over Soviet territory and was fired upon. Two passengers were killed and the airplane crash-landed on a frozen lake.

Some others...

1993. A Transair (Georgian airlines) Tupolev Tu-134 was hit by a missile on approach to the Georgian city of Sukhumi.

1980. An Itavia Airlines DC-9 crashed mysteriously off the Italian coast, killing 81 people. The accident went unsolved, though it was widely believed that a Libyan fighter jet had intentionally destroyed the plane. Then, nearly a decade later, evidence surfaced blaming a rogue air-to-air missile fired at a target drone during NATO maneuvers.

1973. A Cairo-bound 727 operated by Libyan Arab Airlines was fired on over the Sinai by the Israeli Air Force. During approach, the plane had wandered slightly off course, a diversion deemed potentially hostile by the Israelis, and two F-4 Phantoms were scrambled to intercept. After misunderstanding the fighter crews' commands to land, the Libyan airliner turned back toward Cairo, at which point the Phantoms attacked. More than a hundred people died when the burning jet belly-landed in the desert near the Suez Canal.

And others as well, including several events over Africa. (Skimping on the specifics isn't to belittle these events, and I happen to despise people's habitual and dismissive reference to "Africa" as if it were a single culture and country. But in researching the history of African air disasters, one discovers a continent heavy with armed conflicts and light on particulars. The details of shoot-downs -- in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, are murky at best.

Both Iran Air and KAL 007 make the list of top 10 air crashes of all time, by the way, at numbers 7 and 10 respectively. You can see that list in my book or view it here.

You wrote: "Some of the ideas bandied about in the wake of September 11th would be humorous, if only people weren't taking them so seriously." Your list includes, "sealing off cockpits from the rest of the airplane." I don't understand why the idea of an isolated cockpit is so crazy. Military pilots will sometimes fly for many hours without the benefit of even a restroom.

Permanently separating the passenger compartment from the flight deck would, for all intents and purposes, eliminate the chance of a cockpit intrusion. But as we've hashed and rehashed here over the months, how likely a threat is this to begin with, now that the skyjack template is shattered? Such a measure does little or nothing to preclude suicide bombings or other scenarios of in-cabin destruction. Flight decks are presently fortified to the extent they need to be. The threat has been met and the door to another 9/11 is, in more ways than one, closed. The shock-and-awe theatrics put to use on 9/11 were dastardly and effective, for sure. It worked for about an hour. Even the passengers on flight 93 caught on pretty quickly.

On the practical side, quarantining the flight crew would be a hugely expensive endeavor snarled in a host of logistical complications: toilet visits, access to food, emergency egress, crew swap and rest during long hauls. Pilots peeing into tubes or chemical toilets is something I hope we never see. While I'm proud that our servicemen and women are willing to forgo the luxuries of a lavatory, the less similar a civil airliner is to a military plane, the better.

In "The 9/11 Commission Report" and elsewhere, much has been made of the skyjackers' having turned off the cockpit transponder -- the device that relays a plane's position and height to air traffic control. Why can a transponder be turned off? Shouldn't there be an emergency function that assures this equipment is always on?

Transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device -- switching it off, then on -- or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can't run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit "off" might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or "modes" -- for example, mode C, mode S -- responsible for different data.

Very few of a plane's components are hot-wired to be, as you say, "always on." In the interest of safety -- namely, fire and electrical system protection -- it's important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker.

In any case, killing the transponder will not necessarily make a flight invisible. Coverage will lapse and vary, but ATC radar can often portray a transponder-less plane as what's called a "primary target" -- a blip that provides the aircraft's position and speed, though not its altitude. The 9/11 aircraft were tracked this way during portions of their wayward journeys.

Indeed it seems probable that the near-simultaneous crashes of those two Russian airliners in late August was the work of suicide bombers. But I have to ask: excluding acts of terror, have there ever been two major accidents on the same day?

Not that I know of. Give me a two-day window, however, and I have a story. It's not my usual practice to sensationalize crashes, particularly those whose only claim to notoriety is a burst of coincidence, but what happened in Tokyo in 1966 is so enthrallingly peculiar that I can't resist...

On March 5 of that year, a Canadian Pacific (CP Air) DC-8 crashed on landing at Tokyo's Haneda airport. Arriving in heavy fog, the plane went low, struck a sea wall and burst into flames. Sixty-four of the 72 people on the jet were killed.

The next afternoon, a BOAC (precursor to British Airways) 707 carrying 124 people took off from the very same airport, bound for Hong Kong as part of a round-the-world service originating in London. Apparently to give passengers a nice view, the 707's captain, Bernard Dobsen, chose to make an unusual visual climb-out away from the published departure path and toward the summit of Mt. Fuji -- directly into an area of extreme turbulence and 70-knot winds. Approaching the peak, the plane hit a severe gust -- a so-called mountain wave -- and broke apart in midair, throwing wreckage over a 10-mile swath.

One of the most gruesomely ironic things I've ever seen is a newspaper photograph of the crashed CP Air DC-8. Behind the wreckage, the BOAC 707 is clearly visible, taxiing for takeoff on its own doomed flight.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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