By Paul Thompson of History Commons.
Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport near Washington at 8:20, ten minutes after the scheduled departure time. [8:20, CNN, 9/17/01, Guardian, 10/17/01] Its last routine radio communication was made 51 seconds after 8:50, and then it failed to respond to a routine instruction. [New York Times, 10/16/01 (D)] According to a USA Today map, it likely had already turned about 90 degrees from its scheduled flight path by this time. According to the New York Times, “a few minutes” after 8:48, flight controllers learned that Flight 77 had been hijacked. [New York Times, 9/15/01 (C)] But, as with Flight 11, they clearly violated regulations and failed to immediately notify NORAD.
A few minutes later, Flight 77 began turning around over northeastern Kentucky, and eventually headed back toward Washington. [Washington Post, 9/12/01, Newsday, 9/23/01] At 8:56, Flight 77’s transponder signal was turned off. [Guardian, 10/17/01, Boston Globe, 11/23/01] The New York Times later pointed out that “by 8:56 a.m., it was evident that Flight 77 was lost.” Starting at 8:56, flight controllers repeatedly called for Flight 77 over the radio and received no reply. [New York Times, 10/16/01] Even though Flight 77 had already turned around before the transponder was turned off, flight controllers failed to notice that and continued to look for its signal further west, instead of east where it was headed. West Virginia flight controllers finally noticed it entering their airspace around 9:05. [Newsday, 9/23/01] But again, supposedly now both West Virginia and Washington flight control apparently failed to notify NORAD. In fact, if NORAD can be believed, the FAA didn’t notify NORAD until 9:24 or 9:25, and even then only suggested that it “may” have been hijacked! [NORAD, 9/18/01, AP, 8/19/02, Guardian, 10/17/01] That’s half an hour after the New York Times says the FAA decided Flight 77 had been hijacked!
This huge time gap was a contentious point in the May 2003 Independent Commission hearings. Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator on 9/11, claimed that the FAA notified NORAD well before 9:24. In a statement released after her testimony, the FAA claimed, “NORAD logs indicate that the FAA made formal notification about American Flight 77 at 9:24 a.m., but information about the flight was conveyed continuously during the phone bridges [between the FAA, NORAD, the Secret Service, and other agencies] before the formal notification.” [FAA, 5/22/03] A few days after 9/11, the New York Times reported, “During the hour or so that American Airlines Flight 77 was under the control of hijackers, up to the moment it struck the west side of the Pentagon, military officials in a command center on the east side of the building were urgently talking to law enforcement and air traffic control officials about what to do.” [New York Times, 9/15/01 (C)] This largely matches the FAA’s more recent claim that NORAD and other agencies knew about the hijacking of Flight 77 long before 9:24.
If this is true, NORAD is once again wildly incorrect with its estimates. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:38. So, if NORAD did in fact learn of Flight 77’s hijacking around 8:51 when the FAA concluded it had been hijacked, it would have had about 47 minutes to get a plane over Washington. Even traveling at 1100 mph—the speed NORAD commander Larry Arnold says fighters traveled in making the longer journey to New York City earlier in the day—the F-16 fighters from Langley Air Force Base 129 miles away could have reached Washington in only seven minutes.
NORAD officials present a different account. They claim that at 9:09 a.m. NORAD ordered the F-16s at Langley Air Force Base to battle stations alert. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02] However, a pilot, code-named “Honey,” who was actually in one of the first planes to take off from Langley, later said the battle stations alert wasn’t sounded until 9:24. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 64-65] 9:24 is also when NORAD was supposedly officially notified. NORAD claimed that three minutes later, three F-16s at Langley were scrambled to intercept Flight 77. Three minutes after that, at 9:30, these three fighters took off. [NORAD, 9/18/01] But once again, the recollection of “Honey” doesn’t jibe with NORAD’s timing. While he doesn’t give exact times, he describes a series of events lasting much longer than six minutes, including waiting from “five to ten minutes” between two of these events. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, pp. 64-65]
But again, even if we assume NORAD’s times are correct, the agency’s explanations don’t make sense. Even if the fighters left at 9:30, they should have been able to reach Washington one minute before Flight 77 crashed, if they traveled the same 1100 mph that the fighters traveling to New York City did. The maximum speed of an F-16 is a bit slower than that of the F-15s used near New York, but still a respectable 1500 mph. [AP, 6/16/00] One of the F-16 pilots, Major Dean Eckmann, said he was told before scrambling that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. [AP, 8/19/02 (C)] So, no doubt the pilots would have wanted to get to Washington quickly. But in their May 2003 testimony, NORAD officials said that afterburners were not used on these planes, even though the planes earlier in the day flew using their afterburners. They said these planes flew about 660 mph to Washington. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] But if NORAD’s earlier timeline is to be believed, these fighters were still 105 miles away when Flight 77 crashed. [Newsday, 9/23/01, NORAD, 9/18/01] If so, that means they must have flown north 24 miles in 8 minutes—an average of only about 180 mph, not 660 mph!
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