Ask the pilot

In search of the ever-elusive "truth," the pilot takes on the 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

Published May 19, 2006 12:25PM (EDT)

As I thought it might, last week's critique of "United 93" drew a fair share of e-mails from Sept. 11 conspiracy subscribers -- as well as several letters from those merely curious about the various allegations now saturating the Web.

If you haven't been paying attention, cyberspace is awash with claims that the 2001 attacks were an inside job. The specific assertions are too numerous and complicated to list here exhaustively. They vary site to site, overlapping, underscoring, complementing and contradicting one another to the point of madness. The Pentagon was struck with a missile, not a 757; the planes that hit the World Trade Center were remotely controlled military craft; the real Flights 11, 175, 77 and 93 never existed, or were diverted to secret bases; controlled demolitions felled the twin towers. And so on. This, the story goes, to make Americans more malleable and subservient to their leaders and the military-industrial establishment (as if we're not already subservient enough).

Conspiracy babble in general is nothing new -- least of all when it comes to airplane tragedies. Maybe you didn't know this, but Pan Am 103 was blown up by the CIA; TWA 800 was downed by an errant U.S. Navy missile; Swissair 111 was destroyed by a giant magnetic pulse; EgyptAir 990 was a practice run for Sept. 11; Paul Wellstone's turboprop was sabotaged by the Republicans; and the crash of American 587 was a terrorist bombing. What's different today is the manner and speed at which the Web allows these notions to propagate. Combine the efficiency of the Internet with the quasi-apocalyptic spectacle of 9/11, with a populace already suspicious of a corrupt, overly secretive administration, and it's no surprise that we're up to our armpits in paranoia and misinformation.

The same technological magic that makes the spread of wild conjecture so effortless should, you would think, make countering and dismissing it no less easy. Strictly speaking, indeed it does. But it all depends who's paying attention. The fact is, the human proclivity for believing in conspiracies is a lot stronger these days than our proclivity for analyzing and debating them. Maybe that's human nature, or maybe it's some perverse/inverse fallout of technology. Either way, there are lots more people around who are hungry to make us believe something than make us not believe something. With respect to Sept. 11, a pro-conspiracy Web site is certainly a lot more exciting, and will garner a lot more hits, than an anti-conspiracy Web site. Both kinds are out there, but it's the conspiracy traffickers, regardless of their credibility, who believe more passionately in their cause, and consequently garner more attention.

It's not beyond reason that some aspects of the 2001 attacks deserve more scrutiny than the 9/11 Commission lavished on them. But those who most urgently wish us to believe so have done themselves no favors by expanding the breadth of their contentions beyond all plausibility. Depending which version you listen to, the critiques of the official story range anywhere from compelling to dubious to totally lunatic. OK, I'm genuinely curious about why the surveillance tapes from the Sheraton Hotel near the Pentagon were confiscated, and why their contents were never made public. On the other hand, I'm told that the aircraft that struck the World Trade Center were actually artificial images projected by laser, and that the "real" flights never existed. At this point, virtually every minute of the 9/11 story is ensnared by one or more versions of a government plot.

The "truth," if such a thing exists beyond what already is known, isn't liable to be so fancy. Why would any hoax be so incredibly Byzantine, and thus prone to unravel? Disappearing planes, emulated phone calls from phantom passengers -- this is sci-fi. In the meantime, if any facets of the attacks were truly the work of some PSYOPS skulduggery -- whether the intentional murder of Americans or, as some maintain, a willingness to ignore intelligence and allow an al-Qaida plot to unfold -- the schemers have all the cover they need. Five minutes with a keyboard and mouse and you're privy to more feverish speculation than the old Grassy Knollers ever could have dreamed of.

How much of it is compelling and potentially useful? Don't ask me. There's so much flak out there, it's difficult to tell what's genuinely mysterious and worthy of a closer look, and what's nonsense. I propose a conspiracy theory that the conspiracy theories are themselves part of the conspiracy, intended by the conspirators to discredit the idea of there being a conspiracy -- and to divide and conquer those who might sleuth out the truth (see the link to Jim Hoffman's page at the end of this article).

Confusion aside, I can tackle a few of the more commonly heard myths that pertain to the airplanes and their pilots, point by point.

  • The terrorist pilots lacked the skill and training to fly jetliners into their targets.

    This is an extremely popular topic with respect to American 77. Skyjacker Hani Hanjour, a notoriously untalented flier who never piloted anything larger than a four-seater, seemed to pull off a remarkable series of aerobatic maneuvers before slamming into the Pentagon. The pilots of American 11 and United 175 also had spotty records. They should have had great difficulty navigating to New York City, and even greater difficulty hitting the twin towers squarely. To bolster their belief that the 19 skyjackers were Oswaldian pawns, the conspiracy-mongers invoke impressive-sounding jargon and fluffery about high-tech cockpits, occasionally trundling out testimony from pilots.

    Reality: As I've explained in at least one prior column, Hani Hanjour's flying was hardly the show-quality demonstration often described. It was exceptional only in its recklessness. If anything, his loops and turns and spirals above the nation's capital revealed him to be exactly the shitty pilot he by all accounts was. To hit the Pentagon squarely he needed only a bit of luck, and he got it, possibly with help from the 757's autopilot. Striking a stationary object -- even a large one like the Pentagon -- at high speed and from a steep angle is very difficult. To make the job easier, he came in obliquely, tearing down light poles as he roared across the Pentagon's lawn.

    It's true there's only a vestigial similarity between the cockpit of a light trainer and the flight deck of a Boeing. To put it mildly, the attackers, as private pilots, were completely out of their league. However, they were not setting out to perform single-engine missed approaches or Category 3 instrument landings with a failed hydraulic system. For good measure, at least two of the terrorist pilots had rented simulator time in jet aircraft, but striking the Pentagon, or navigating along the Hudson River to Manhattan on a cloudless morning, with the sole intention of steering head-on into a building, did not require a mastery of airmanship. The perpetrators had purchased manuals and videos describing the flight management systems of the 757/767, and as any desktop simulator enthusiast will tell you, elementary operation of the planes' navigational units and autopilots is chiefly an exercise in data programming. You can learn it at home. You won't be good, but you'll be good enough.

    "They'd done their homework and they had what they needed," says a United Airlines pilot (name withheld on request), who has flown every model of Boeing from the 737 up. "Rudimentary knowledge and fearlessness."

    "As everyone saw, their flying was sloppy and aggressive," says Michael (last name withheld), a pilot with several thousand hours in 757s and 767s. "Their skills and experience, or lack thereof, just weren't relevant."

    "The hijackers required only the shallow understanding of the aircraft," agrees Ken Hertz, an airline pilot rated on the 757/767. "In much the same way that a person needn't be an experienced physician in order to perform CPR or set a broken bone."

    That sentiment is echoed by Joe d'Eon, airline pilot and host of the "Fly With Me" podcast series. "It's the difference between a doctor and a butcher," says d'Eon.

  • The nonwreckage of Flight 77

    According to the would-be detectives, it wasn't a passenger jet that hit the Pentagon, but either a radio-controlled fighter or a missile. The conspicuous dearth of wreckage proves this. This is the "magic bullet" of Sept. 11. Almost no recognizable pieces of the supposed 80-ton 757 were found at the scene. Why weren't the wings sheared off, many bloggers have demanded to know. Where's the tail? "Airplane crashes leave wreckage," insists one Web site, complete with a slide show of past disasters showing the plainly visible remains of tails, wings and sections of fuselage.

    Reality: Airplane crashes do leave wreckage, though not always in the shapes and sizes you might expect. Flight 77's demise was an exceptionally high-speed, head-on, explosive collision with the reinforced masonry façade of an office building -- a type of impact rarely seen in air disasters and pretty much guaranteed to cause total destruction. The wings of an airplane, going 400 miles per hour into bricks and reinforced steel columns, do not, under any circumstances, bend or shear off. They shred into fragments, along with the rest of the plane.

    Many small parts of Flight 77 were found in semi-recognizable condition, most of them inside the building and hard to discern amid the rubble. A slice of aluminum skin from the upper fuselage, for instance, along which part of the American Airlines livery is still visible, was photographed on the Pentagon lawn.

    Earlier this week, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the public interest group Judicial Watch, the government officially released video footage, taken by a Pentagon security camera, showing blurry images of American 77. The quality of the footage is awful, and is destined to provoke, rather than staunch, further controversy.

  • The telltale turbine

    Other Pentagon pictures show mutilated landing gear rims, and what looks to be the shattered turbine or compressor disk from a jet engine. That disk, say the skeptics, is of too small a diameter to be from the engine of a 757, but is the proper diameter to be from a cruise missile or unmanned Global Hawk drone.

    Reality: Untrue on both counts. Experts say the disk is too large to have belonged to a cruise missile or Global Hawk. And in a modern turbofan engine, the turbine and compressor sections consist of multiple stages, using disks of varying diameter. Analysis by suggests the disk in the photo belonged to the intermediate compressor stage of the same model of Rolls-Royce engine that powered American 77.

  • The hole truth

    The impact pattern with the Pentagon façade, we are told, is inconsistent with the size and shape of a 757. The hole is too narrow. And there is no outline of where the wings or tail would have struck, as seen on the World Trade Center towers.

    Reality: The hole is not too narrow. The fuselage of a 757 is about 13 feet across, which roughly matches the entry wound into the Pentagon. Many conspiracy sites inflate a 757's fuselage height and diameter, citing values that include its landing gear or tail. In any event, we shouldn't expect an aluminum airframe colliding with heavy masonry to leave a silhouette. The damage will be greatly dispersed -- exactly as the Pentagon footage shows -- and points of impact will not necessarily be obvious.

    We saw ghostly, wingtip-to-wingtip outlines of the 767s that struck the World Trade Center because the exterior of those skyscrapers was a thin wall of glass and lightweight steel. The Pentagon was an immensely more formidable structure, and the damage, both to the plane and to the building, reflected this exactly as it should have.

  • Eyes and ears

    Numerous witnesses saw a small plane or missile-like object streaking toward the Pentagon.

    Reality: As professional investigators will attest, eye- and ear-witness accounts of airplane accidents are notoriously unreliable. But for the record, an even greater number of people spoke of seeing an American Airlines 757 streaking toward, and smashing into, the Pentagon. Their testimony is conveniently absent from the conspiracy sites.

    One of those people was Mike Walter, an anchor reporter for "USA Today Live." Walter was stuck in traffic near the Pentagon on Sept. 11. He watched the jet slam into the Pentagon and was interviewed widely. "Referring to the American Airlines jet metaphorically as a weapon," explains Walter, "I'd described it as being like 'a cruise missile with wings.'" This quote was taken out of context to support the conspiracy theories. It was even cited in Thierry Meyssan's "L'Effroyable Imposture," a book that became a No. 1 bestseller in France. Walter says, "It's tough being in journalism and seeing your own words being used to persuade people to believe something that simply isn't true. Anyone who has seen the full text of that interview knows that I was clearly talking about the American Airlines jet. Because that's what I saw.

    "I hear from the conspiracy people on occasion," adds Walter. "I had one track me down, call me, question me, and then call me a liar before hanging up on me. I've also read online that I'm a shill for the CIA."

  • Ground effect

    "Ground effect" is a phenomenon known to pilots whereby a plane, flying at extremely low altitudes, encounters a sudden increase in lift. It can be difficult to descend further until lift is reduced. According to the official record, Flight 77 approached the Pentagon at a very shallow angle, very low to the ground, and very fast -- too low, and too fast, for too long. The ground effect buffer would have forced the plane to stay higher, and the pilot could not have overcome this.

    Reality: The effects of ground effect can be mitigated by changing the plane's angle of attack -- in this case, that meant adjusting its nose-down pitch. This low-level finesse would have been a challenge for Hani Hanjour, but by no means impossible, especially if he'd coordinated his final descent with help from the autopilot, which can make the needed adjustments easily.

  • Radar ruse

    Watching on their screens, some air traffic controllers believed Flight 77's radar track was that of a military plane.

    Reality: Why wouldn't they have thought so? How many civilian jetliners zoom around a city, spiraling down to treetop level at 400 knots?

  • The wreckage of United Flight 93

    Much has been made of the 757's comparatively tiny impact crater in Shanksville, Pa. The hole was barely a few yards across, filled with nothing more than shredded debris. Reportedly, no bits of aircraft bigger than about two feet were recovered. Compare and contrast with the massive crater caused by the downing of Pam Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland. The bombed 747 destroyed 20 houses and plowed a crater 155 feet long that displaced more than 1,500 tons of earth. Large segments of fuselage and intact bodies were scattered in and around Lockerbie. This, some argue, proves that Flight 93 either never existed or had safely diverted elsewhere (the fate of its occupants is never made clear), and that the crash scene was put together as badly improvised theater.

    Reality: Another apples and oranges comparison. To begin with, a 747 clocks in at nearly quadruple the weight of a 757. Pan Am 103's fuel load alone (240,000 pounds) was heavier than United 93 in total. Flight 103 broke apart well prior to impact, but the wings and main wing-box structure -- a chunk of wreckage not much smaller than an entire 757 -- fell square in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

    The damage caused by Flight 93 in Shanksville was more extensive than many Web sites portray, and the lack of sizable pieces is fully consistent with an aircraft striking the ground at a tremendous rate of speed (over 500 miles per hour). According to the black boxes, the skyjackers put the 757 into a near vertical dive at maximum power. Similar to the case of American 77, this sets up a crash dynamic entirely different not only from that of Pan Am 103 but from that of the vast majority of airplane accidents. For the sake of comparison, have a look at the debris field from the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 near Roselawn, Ind., in 1994. This was a commuter plane that dived into soft earth at half the speed of American 77.

  • United 93 was shot down

    This is a separate, and somewhat less egregious, myth from those alleging the plane was never seized, or never existed, to begin with. Many remnants of the 757, including an engine, were discovered at considerable distances from the main impact zone, fueling speculation that the jet was fired on by one or more U.S. military fighters, causing it to burst apart in midair. Sections of the 9/11 Commission Report pertaining to the cockpit voice recorder are therefore misunderstood or bogus.

    Reality: High-energy impacts can eject fragments over startlingly long distances. It's also quite probable that the violent, high-speed maneuvers induced by the skyjackers caused one or both of the plane's engines to detach and/or partial breakup of the main structure. Comparatively benign plummets of aircraft in the past have resulted in the separation of engines, control surfaces and even entire wings. Debris can be carried aloft for many miles by the wind. And had Flight 93 been blown up with a missile, destruction of the airframe would not have been as complete, with portions falling to earth at a lower, less disintegrative velocity.

    Elsewhere in this rat's nest, I cannot speak for aspects that extend beyond the aviation side -- such as the purported demolition of the twin towers, etc. Simple extrapolation tells us to be wary.

    It's distressing that so many people become married to a preposterous idea based on little more than erroneous interpretations of some pictures and selective, manipulative use of evidence. But in debating this stuff now and again, you learn that it can be a bit like arguing religion. Evidence, or lack of it, has little to do with what motivates many believers. At the heart of their convictions is something utterly unprovable. It's faith.

    Having said all that, I don't wish to belittle the idea that perhaps some important truths have been concealed, and it is hardly my intention to give our fearless leaders undue credit. Considering the extent to which we've been chicaned, shystered and condescended to these past six years, why should we trust them? We shouldn't, frankly, but remember Carl Sagan's famous quip about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof.

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    Deeper reading: the debunkers. I recommend the analysis by and, even better, Jim Hoffman's careful vetting of the Pentagon "booby trap." Hoffman does not dismiss the possibility of a cabal, but considers the Flight 77 quarrel a red herring.

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    Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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