Over a decade later, I am writing about the September 11 attacks for the first time. Initially it was just too raw and I couldn’t stand to try to analyse the situation when my own emotions were so close to the surface. Then, each anniversary, it seemed like everyone was writing about it and I couldn’t see the point of adding to the noise.
I have only just read the 9/11 Commission Report. Over the years, I’ve thought about individual events of that terrible morning but until now, I’ve not been able to think about the attacks as a whole. Reading the commission report, I found myself seeing the unfurling of the attacks.
There is nothing new in my analysis below, simply a change in viewpoint. Rather than look at each plane individually, I focused on the straight-forward timeline of that morning and how the information spread during the initial flights.
All references are from The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition). If you are interested in the full detail, you can read the report online as a Google Book at The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. It is also available in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon US and Amazon UK. All times are given in local time (Eastern Daylight Time).
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run.
06:45 Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omary arrive at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. Atta, Omary, as well as Satam al Suqami, Wail al Shehri and Waleed al Shehri check in for American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles with a scheduled departure of 07:45. In another terminal at Logan Airport, Marwan al Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al Shehri, Ahmed al Ghamdi and Hamza al Ghamdi check in for United Airlines Flight 175, bound for Los Angeles with a scheduled departure of 08:00.
07:03-07:39 At Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Saeed al Ghamdi, Ahmed al Nami, Ahmad al Haznawi and Ziad Jarra check in for United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco with a scheduled departure of 08:00.
07:15 At Washington Dulles International Airport, Khalid al Mihdar and Majed Moqed check in for American Airlines Flight 77, bound for Los Angeles with a scheduled departure of 08:10. They are joined by Hani Hanjour and the Hazmi brothers, Nawaf and Salem.
Several of the hijackers were flagged as a risk and, as a result, selected for extra screening of their checked bags. Two of them set off alarms with their carry-on bags but passed a second test. Two of the hijackers had their checked bags held until they boarded the aircraft. No other consequence followed the screening.
07:23-07:48 The five hijackers of United Airlines Flight 175 board the plane and take their seats in business class.
07:30 The five hijackers of American Flight 11 board the plane and take their seats in business class.
07:39-07:48 The four hijackers of United Flight 93 board the plane and take their seats in the first-class cabin.
07:40 American Airlines Flight 11 pushes back.
07:50 The five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 board the plane and take their seats, two in coach, three in first-class.
Nineteen men are now aboard four transcontinental flights and ready to initiate their attack. The security screening did not stop them. Although the hijackers later claim to have bombs, this was almost certainly a bluff.
07:58 United Airlines Flight 175 pushes back.
07:59 American Airlines Flight 111 departs Logan International Airport.
08:09 American Airlines Flight 77 pushes back
08:14 United Airlines Flight 175 departs Logan International Airport.
08:14 American Airlines Flight 11 acknowledges navigational instructions from Boston ATC.
16 seconds later, ATC instructs the flight crew to climb to 35,000 feet. No response is received from the pilots.
08:19 On American Airlines Flight 11, Flight Attendant Betty Ong uses an airphone to contact the American Airlines Southeastern Reservations Office and report an emergency aboard the flight. Flight Attendant Amy Sweeney also contacted American Airlines to report and relay updates.
08:20 American Airlines Flight 77 departs Washington Dulles airport.
08:21 American Airlines Flight 11 turns off its transponder.
A few minutes later, the microphone is keyed and air traffic controllers hear the hijackers’ transmissions meant for the cabin. The first transmission is not clearly understood by the controller. The second transmission is broadcast clearly and the controller realises that the plane has been hijacked: “Nobody move, Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”
The message of the first transmission is not understood until an hour later. The hijacker had said: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.”
08:26 Flight Attendant Betty Ong reports that American Airlines Flight 11 is flying erratically. The aircraft turns south.
08:33 United Airlines Flight 175 reaches cruising altitude of 31,000 feet.
08:34 Boston Center controller receives a third unintended transmission from American Airlines Flight 11. “Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.”
08:37 Northeast Air Defense Sector are contacted by Boston Center. This is the first notification received by the military that American 11 has been hijacked.
You can’t blame them for the initial response: “Is this real-world or exercise?” It’s swiftly clear that this is a real emergency and Northeast Air Defense Sector order two F-15s to battle station.
08:42 United Airlines Flight 175 flightcrew report a suspicious transmission overheard from another aircraft: “Ah, we heard a suspicious transmission on our departure out of Boston, ah, with someone, ah, it sounded like someone keyed the mikes and said ah everyone ah stay in your seats.”
This is the last communication from United Airlines Flight 175 flight crew.
08:42 United Flight 93 departs Newark Liberty International Airport.
08:44 Contact with Flight Attendant Betty Ong on American Airlines Flight 11 is lost. Flight Attendant Amy Sweeney reports that they are in a rapid descent and flying “way too low”.
08:46 Two F-15 fighters are scrambled but Northeast Air Defense Sector do not know where to send them.
08:46 American Airlines Flight 77 reaches cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
08:46:40 American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
08:47 United Airlines Flight 175 changes transponder codes twice within a minute.
The controller responsible for this flight is desperately trying to locate American Airlines Flight 11 and does not notice.
08:51 United Airlines Flight 175 deviates from its assigned altitude. The air traffic controller attempts to contact the aircraft and receives no response.
08:51 American Airlines Flight 77 transmits its last routine radio communication.
08:52 A passenger and a flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 175 make phone calls from the cabin to report the hijacking.
08:54 American Airlines Flight 77 deviates from its assigned course, turning south.
08:56 American Airlines Flight 77 transponder is turned off. Controllers attempt to to contact the aircraft but do not receive a response.
Indianapolis Center reports that the aircraft has had a serious electrical or mechanical failure and possible crash.
08:58 United Airlines Flight 175 changes heading towards New York City
09:00 American Airlines Executive Vice President Gerard Arpey learns that communications have been lost with American Airlines Flight 77 and grounds all American Airlines flights in the north east.
09:00 The passenger on United Airlines Flight 175 phones again, reports that the plane is making jerky movements and passengers are throwing up.
The call is cut off.
09:03:11 United Airlines Flight 175 strikes the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
09:03 Boston Center staff analysing the hijacker transmission from American Airlines Flight 11 realise that the initial message included the phrase “we have some planes” and the scale of the attack becomes clear.
Controllers at Boston Center request that Herndon Command Center “get messages to airborne aircraft to increase security for the cockpit”. There is no evidence of Herndon taking this action.
09:12 Passengers on American Airlines Flight 77 make a phone calls from the rear of the cabin to report the hijacking.
09:19 United flight dispatcher begins transmitting warnings to the 16 United transcontinental flights currently in the air.
09:20 Indianapolis Center become aware of the situation in New York and realise that American Airlines Flight 77 may also have been hijacked and reports the aircraft as lost.
09:23 United Flight 93 receives warning message from the United flight dispatcher. The pilot responds asking for confirmation.
09:38 United Flight 93 suddenly drops 700 feet. A Mayday message is broadcast with sounds of a physical struggle in the cockpit.
09:29 The autopilot on American Airlines Flight 77 is disengaged. The aircraft is at 7,000 feet and approximately 38 miles west of the Pentagon.
09:30 Northeast Air Defense Sector scramble fighters at Langley after a report of a hijacked aircraft heading for Washington DC.
However, they are told that it is American Airlines Flight 11 that is heading towards Washington, although it had already crashed into the South Tower.
The fighter jets are given an easterly heading to send them to the Baltimore area to position between a non-existent southbound American Flight 11 and Washington DC. Their flight plan did not include a distance nor the target’s location.
09:32 Controllers at Dulles Terminal Radar Approach report a primary radar return, tracking eastbound at high speed.
A National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft follows the track and identifies a Boeing 757. He’s found American Airlines Flight 77.
09:32 United Flight 93 announces “Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit.” The autopilot is used to turn the aircraft around and head east.
The passengers and flight crew begin phoning to report the incident and are told of the crashes into the World Trade Center.
09:34 American Airlines Flight 77 is 5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon. The aircraft begins a 330-degree turn and descends through 2,200 feet. The hijacker advances throttles to maximum power and dives toward the Pentagon.
09:36 Boston Center reports “Latest report. Aircraft VFR [visual flight rules] six miles southeast of the White House. . . . Six, southwest. Six, southwest of the White House, deviating away.”
The mission crew commander at Northeast Air Defense Sector takes control of the airspace to clear a flight path for the Langley fighters which are well out of range. “I don’t care how many windows you break,” he says.
09:37:46 American Airlines Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon at approximately 530 miles per hour.
09:38 The National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft which was attempting to follow American Airlines Flight 77 reports “it looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon Sir.” The Langley fighters are still about 150 miles away.
09:39 A further radio transmission is received from United Flight 93: “Uh, this is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands [unintelligible]. Please remain quiet.”
09:41 United Flight 93′s transponder is turned off.
The point of turning off the transponders is to make the planes “disappear” from a controller’s point of view. These attempts to hide the hijacked aircraft clearly added to the confusion of the morning.
09:57 The passengers of United Flight 93 assault the cockpit.
09:58 The hijacker flying United Flight 93 rolls the aircraft left and right in an attempt to knock the passengers off balance. He tells another hijacker to block the cockpit door and continues to roll the plane.
09:59 United Flight 93 is about 20 minutes flying time from Washington DC. The hijacker pitches the nose of the aircraft up and down to disrupt the assault.
10:00 The hijacker flying United Flight 93 stabilizes the aircraft and asks “Is that it? Shall we finish it off?” He receives a response from another hijacker, “No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off.” The pilot pitches the aircraft up and down again.
Another aircraft reports to controllers that he has seen the plane “waving his wings”.
10:01 United Flight 93 stabilizes again and the hijackers agree to “put it down”.
10:02:23 United Flight 93 plunges and the control wheel is turned hard to the right, rolling the aircraft onto its back. It crashes into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, travelling at approximately 580 miles per hour.
10:07 Northeast Air Defense Sector receive notification of United Flight 93′s hijack.
10:08 The National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft, which had resumed its planned flight to Minnesota, reports black smoke fifteen miles south of Johnstown. It is confirmed as corresponding to the last known position for United Flight 93.
All four aircraft were successfully hijacked and were crashed on purpose. Only three reached their targets.
Every person involved must have been so full of horror and fear as the events unravelled. I’m not ashamed to admit that after I finished putting together this timeline, I cried.