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The day the skies went silent

Air traffic controllers talk about 9/11

Green dots represent planes in the air in these air traffic control maps from 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. September 11.
Green dots represent planes in the air in these air traffic control maps from 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. September 11.  

(CNN) -- Shortly after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center's North Tower at approximately 8:46 a.m., air traffic controllers knew another plane was minutes away from the same deadly objective.

They knew because, as with Flight 11, they had lost communications with United Flight 175 and were watching their radar screens as the second jetliner turned toward New York City.

"Probably one of the most difficult moments of my life was the 11 minutes from the point I watched that aircraft when we first lost communications to the point that aircraft hit the World Trade Center," recalled Michael McCormick, air traffic manager at the Federal Aviation Administration's New York Center in Westbury.

The September 11 attacks -- carried out by members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network -- killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The FAA, responding to requests from journalists about air traffic controllers actions on that fateful day, held news conferences Monday in New York, Boston and Virginia.

Last fall, in dimly lit FAA radar rooms up and down the East Coast, controllers tracked the trails of terror across U.S. skies. But like all of us, they were in the dark at first about what was happening.

There was a strange voice on the radio, a panicked call from a flight attendant to an American Airlines operations center, and then Flight 11's transponder, which enhances radar signals, went silent.

CNN's Miles O'Brien examines some accounts from air traffic controllers who were on duty on the fateful day of September 11 (August 12)

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"When we had a loss of communication and transponder, we considered it, at that point and time, a possible hijacking," said Frank Hatfield, air traffic division manager at the FAA's New York Center.

Controllers at first assumed the plane would land and the hijackers would make demands. But they had had no training for the type of hijackings carried out on September 11.

Hatfield said controllers nationwide marshaled their forces to "engage the enemy."

"The air traffic controllers in the eastern region, out of 6,000 airplanes, were able to identify four aircraft whose sole mission in life was to avoid detection: flying low, flying fast, shutting off all electronic means of communication," said Hatfield.

"This is the equivalent to finding four needles in a haystack."

American Flight 11 was now losing altitude and heading south. Controllers did what they could to track it, asking if other pilots saw the plane. At one point they asked United 175, which answered with the plane's altitude.

But United 175 was soon hijacked and flying fast and low toward Manhattan.

McCormick looked at CNN and saw the flames and smoke pouring from the World Trade Center after Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. He knew United Flight 175 was headed the same way.

"I knew at that time this was in fact an attack. We knew that the World Trade Center was the target of a previous attack. And this was in fact another attack," said McCormick. "For those 11 minutes, I knew, we knew what was going to happen," he said.

Hatfield: "Equivalent to finding four needles in a haystack."  

Controllers inside the tower in Newark, New Jersey, could only watch their radar screens in horror as United Flight 175 turned north over New York harbor and aimed for the Trade Center's South Tower.

Minutes later at Washington's Reagan National Airport, controllers also watched as American Flight 77 aimed right at them, then made a 360 degree turn and smashed into the Pentagon. But despite the risk, no one left their post.

"I think we were all looking at each other in disbelief: Is this actually occurring in the national airspace system? This was unheard of before," said Linda Schuessler, manager of FAA air traffic investigations.

"But again, we had jobs to do, we were tackling our jobs, we were gathering information, making decisions."

Schuessler added that although she knew her husband was scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. flight out of Dulles International Airport that day, she was concentrating so hard on her work that she didn't even remember that until late that afternoon.

Just after 9 a.m., controllers nationwide started grounding all the nation's aircraft, a process that was completed 12:15 p.m. over the 48 contiguous states.

"History may tell, or we may never know, if their actions on that morning saved lives, or they prevented potential terrorist acts, but I can say absolutely without a doubt that their actions eliminated that possibility," McCormick said.

In the months since the attacks, communication between air traffic control and the North American Aerospace Defense Command has been greatly simplified and streamlined.

Controllers are now literally a button push away from scrambling fighter jets. What used to take several minutes and several calls now takes only a matter of seconds.

Military jets have taken to the air many times in the past year. Alarms have been raised because of unruly or suspicious passengers, such as the man accused of trying to ignite a bomb in his shoes, or because unauthorized aircraft has strayed into restricted air space.




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