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Context of 'August 30, 2001: United Airlines Holds a Surprise Exercise in Which Employees Are Led to Believe a Plane Has Crashed'

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Personnel at United Airlines’ headquarters, near Chicago, are subjected to a surprise training exercise in which they are led to believe that one of their planes has crashed, and their experience with this exercise allegedly means they will be better able to respond to the 9/11 attacks. [USA Today, 8/13/2002; 9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; Studdert, 5/26/2015 pdf file; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015]
Manager Is Concerned that the Airline Is Unprepared for an Accident - Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, has been concerned that, since it hasn’t suffered a real accident in over 15 years, United Airlines is unprepared to respond properly should one occur now. “I was worried we’d become cocky,” he will later comment. “We thought it couldn’t happen to us.” Around March this year, therefore, he told the airline’s other managers, “One of these days, I’m gonna come in here and I’m gonna do a no-notice drill.” [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/26/2012] A “no-notice” drill is an exercise that is conducted without its participants being given any formal advance notice of when it will occur. [US Department of Justice, 5/21/2000; Inglesby, Grossman, and O'Toole, 2/1/2001; Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 10/15/2011]
Pilot Is Told to Pretend His Plane Is Experiencing an Emergency - Today, Studdert holds this no-notice exercise. Only a few people know about it in advance. Studdert tells a United Airlines employee who he will refer to as his “safety guy” to contact the pilot of a flight to Australia and give them some instructions. The pilot is therefore told he needs to call in during his flight and report an emergency. He should say there is an “uncontained number three engine failure, rapid descent, decompression,” but stop talking halfway through the word “decompression” and then go silent. He should also turn off the plane’s transponder. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015] (A transponder is a device that sends an aircraft’s identifying information, speed, and altitude to air traffic controllers’ radar screens. [Washington Post, 9/16/2001] )
Airline Personnel Think One of Their Planes Has Crashed - The simulated emergency takes places this afternoon. At around 2 o’clock, Studdert is interrupted by his secretary, Maryann Irving, who rushes into his office and tells him a Boeing 747 has lost contact while flying over the Pacific Ocean. In response, he runs to the airline’s operations center. [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012] Airline employees believe the apparently troubled aircraft has crashed. Some of them are upset and some become physically ill. [Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015] “There are people throwing up in the hall; there are people crying; there are people just staring out the windows,” Studdert will describe.
Personnel Think the Crisis Is Real for 30 Minutes - Since no one in the operations center is able to contact the apparently troubled aircraft, Studdert opens the airline’s crisis center. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012] The crisis center, according to journalist and author Jere Longman, is “a terraced, theater-like room that resembled NASA’s Mission Control.” [Longman, 2002, pp. 77] Opening it, according to Studdert, is a significant course of action. When this happens, everyone working for the airline becomes responsible either for running the airline or acting to support the management of the emergency. This means that “3,000 people are put on an immediate activation.” [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] United Airlines employees believe one of their planes has crashed for about 30 minutes and then Studdert reveals that the apparent catastrophe is just an exercise scenario. [USA Today, 8/13/2002] He gets on the crisis center’s communications link, which, he will say, “has got 170 stations and people all over the country, all over the world,” and announces, “This has been a no-notice drill; there is no event; everything’s fine.”
Employees Are Furious about the Exercise - The reaction to the exercise in the days after it takes place will be particularly bitter and Studdert will face severe criticism for running it. “I had the board members calling; I had the unions demanding I be fired; I had people telling me I’m the most evil person in the world,” he will recall. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/26/2012] Some employees “wanted to kill me,” he will say.
Exercise Has Similarities to the Situation Experienced on September 11 - It is unclear whether Studdert’s exercise has a beneficial or a detrimental effect on the ability of United Airlines to respond to the hijackings 12 days later, on September 11. Studdert will claim that it prepares employees to manage the events of September 11 and reveals weaknesses, such as outdated phone numbers, which are quickly corrected. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/26/2012; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015] “It’s amazing, after 9/11… how many people came up to me and thanked me [for running the exercise], because we were ready,” he will say. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 3/15/2012] It is possible, however, that it will cause some United Airlines employees to initially think the reports about the terrorist attacks on September 11 are part of another exercise, although accounts are contradictory (see (8:50 a.m.-9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/13/2002; Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003] The scenario of Studdert’s exercise in fact has some similarities with the situation that operations center personnel have to deal with on September 11. On that day, communication with Flight 175—the first of the two United Airlines planes that are hijacked—will be lost (see 8:51 a.m.-8:53 a.m. September 11, 2001) and the plane will have its transponder code changed, although the transponder will not be turned off (see 8:46 a.m.-8:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 20-21] Communication will subsequently be lost with Flight 93—the second United Airlines plane to be hijacked (see 9:27 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001)—and that plane’s transponder will be turned off (see (9:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 38-39, 43]
Crisis Center Holds Quarterly Exercises - The United Airlines crisis center usually runs exercises four times a year. Most of these deal with safety issues, but security scenarios are also rehearsed, according to Ed Soliday, the airline’s vice president of safety and security. Typically, the 9/11 Commission will be told, these exercises “are scripted” and based around an act of bioterrorism or an international incident. United Airlines has also practiced hijacking scenarios, according to Soliday, although none of these dealt with the threat of an aircraft being used as a weapon. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 11/21/2003 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Andrew P. Studdert, Maryann Irving, United Airlines, Ed Soliday

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 175 stops transmitting its transponder signal. It is currently flying near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. [Guardian, 10/17/2001; Newsday, 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] However, the transponder is turned off for only about 30 seconds, and then comes back on as a signal that is not designated for any plane on this day. Then, within the space of a minute, it is changed to another new code. But New York Center air traffic computers do not correlate either of these new transponder codes with Flight 175. Consequently, according to an early FAA report, “the secondary radar return (transponder) indicating aircraft speed, altitude, and flight information began to coast and was no longer associated with the primary radar return.” Therefore, while controllers are able “to track the intruder easily… they couldn’t identify it.” However, Dave Bottiglia, the New York Center air traffic controller responsible for Flight 175, is currently trying to locate the already-crashed Flight 11, and therefore supposedly does not notice the transponder code changes on Flight 175 until 8:51 a.m. (see 8:51 a.m.-8:53 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; Washington Post, 9/17/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 21] According to a “Flight Path Study” by the National Transportation Safety Board, the change of Flight 175’s transponder code is the “first indication of deviation from normal routine.” [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file]

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The United Airlines System Operations Control center.The United Airlines System Operations Control center. [Source: United Airlines]Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, learns that an American Airlines plane has crashed into the World Trade Center and goes to his airline’s operations center to help respond to the incident, but when he gets there he is told that one of his airline’s planes, Flight 175, is missing. Studdert is in a meeting at United Airlines’ headquarters, near Chicago, with Jim Goodwin, the airline’s chairman and CEO; Rono Dutta, the airline’s president; and three or four other individuals. [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003; 9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file] The meeting, in Goodwin’s office, is about union negotiations. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] Meanwhile, personnel in the airline’s System Operations Control (SOC) center have seen the television coverage of the burning North Tower and been informed that the WTC was hit by an American Airlines plane (see (Shortly After 8:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Bill Roy, the SOC director, called the adjacent headquarters building and passed on the news to Studdert’s secretary, Maryann Irving.
Managers Are Baffled at the News of the Crash - Irving now runs to Goodwin’s office and, once there, tells Studdert: “Andy, call the SOC. An American plane just went into the World Trade Center.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file] The men in the office, Studdert will later recall, say to each other: “That’s nuts. That can’t happen. There’s no way, under any circumstances, that an airline pilot is gonna hit the World Trade Center.” [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] Studdert thinks the plane that hit the WTC “couldn’t have been American Airlines, because that wasn’t an ordinary flight route.” [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file] The men in Goodwin’s office switch on a TV and see the coverage of the WTC on fire.
Manager Learns that a United Airlines Flight Is Missing - Studdert immediately goes to respond to the incident. Although the plane that reportedly hit the WTC doesn’t belong to United Airlines, according to Studdert, “there’s a fraternity… of the airlines, so we would help each other during a crisis.” He heads across the complex to the SOC—the operations center. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] The operations center is a room about the size of a football field in which around 300 people are working, tracking planes and pulling up information relating to the airline’s flights. [Longman, 2002, pp. 77] When Studdert arrives there, he says aloud, “Confirm American into the World Trade Center.” [Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] However, someone in the operations center informs him that contact has now been lost with a United Airlines plane, Flight 175. A few minutes later, Studdert is told that a supervisor at the airline’s maintenance office in San Francisco called and said Flight 175 has been reported as hijacked (see Shortly Before 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003; 9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 22]
Manager Tells Employees, 'This Is Not a Drill' - Studdert is concerned that personnel in the operations center might think the apparent crisis is a scenario in a training exercise. [Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003] This is because 12 days ago he held a surprise exercise in which contact was lost with a United Airlines plane flying over the Pacific Ocean and airline personnel were led to believe the aircraft had crashed (see August 30, 2001). [USA Today, 8/13/2002; Studdert, 5/26/2015 pdf file; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015] It is possible that personnel in the operations center are indeed confused over whether the current crisis is simulated, as part of another exercise. According to the Chicago Tribune, Studdert senses “disbelief among his employees” and so he tells them, “This is not a drill.” [Chicago Tribune, 7/16/2003] But according to USA Today, “the staff already knows” this is not another exercise. [USA Today, 8/13/2002]
Airline Employees See Second Crash on TV - At 9:03 a.m., Studdert and his colleagues see Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the WTC live on television (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001] Studdert, however, is unsure whether this second plane to hit the WTC was a United Airlines flight, because the clarity of the image on television is too poor to tell. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file] Studdert will be involved in activating his airline’s crisis center in response to the attacks (see (9:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 11/21/2003 pdf file; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012]

Entity Tags: Andrew P. Studdert, Bill Roy, Jim Goodwin, Rono Dutta, United Airlines, Maryann Irving

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to the 9/11 Commission, Dave Bottiglia, the air traffic controller handling Flight 175, only notices now that this flight’s transponder signal has changed (see 8:46 a.m.-8:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). Bottiglia asks Flight 175 to return to its proper transponder code. There is no response. Beginning at 8:52 a.m., he makes repeated attempts to contact it, but there is still no response. Bottiglia contacts another controller at 8:53 a.m., and says: “We may have a hijack. We have some problems over here right now.… I can’t get a hold of UAL 175 at all right now and I don’t know where he went to.” [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 48] This account apparently conflicts with earlier accounts that claim NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) was notified at 8:43 a.m. that Flight 175 had been hijacked (see 8:43 a.m. September 11, 2001). [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/18/2001]

Entity Tags: Dave Bottiglia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

United Airlines activates its crisis center, from where it will respond to the terrorist attacks. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 22] Personnel at United Airlines’ System Operations Control (SOC) center, near Chicago, learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center when they saw the television coverage of the incident. Minutes later, they were informed that the WTC was hit by a hijacked American Airlines plane (see (Shortly After 8:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Shortly before 9:00 a.m., a supervisor at the airline’s maintenance office in San Francisco, California, called the SOC—the operations center—and said a United Airlines plane, Flight 175, had been reported as hijacked (see Shortly Before 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 21-22] United Airlines’ usual procedure when there is a crisis involving one of its aircraft is to isolate that aircraft and move the handling of it to the crisis center, so as not to disrupt operations in the rest of the system.
Crisis Center Is Activated in about 30 Minutes - The crisis center, which is located just off the operations center, is apparently activated sometime around 9:00 a.m. It takes about 30 minutes for staffers to assemble and fully activate it. When the center is activated, a representative from every division of the airline’s corporate structure has to report to it, and once they arrive they have predetermined duties they are required to carry out. Clipboards are therefore distributed to operations center staffers, which show a list of people who are needed in the crisis center that they have to call. A phone bridge is set up with the airline’s other crisis centers, which are activated around this time in San Francisco and Denver, Colorado. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 11/21/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 22] Patti Carson, United Airlines’ vice president of human resources, will later recall that after they see the live television coverage of Flight 175 crashing into the WTC at 9:03 a.m. on a screen in the operations center (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), “Without exchanging a word, every crisis team member in the room walked the 10 or 15 steps to the airline’s crisis center and took their positions.” [HR (.com), 7/1/2005]
Opening the Center Is 'the Single Most Significant Thing You Do' - The crisis center is “a terraced, theater-like room that resembled NASA’s Mission Control,” according to journalist and author Jere Longman. On one wall is a large screen on which United Airlines’ flights are displayed. [Longman, 2002, pp. 77; USA Today, 8/13/2002] Other screens in the center show CNN and other TV news channels. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file] Opening the crisis center, according to Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, “is the single most significant thing you do [at an airline], because once that happens… everybody in an airline has a second job and that second job is to either run the airline… or act to support the crisis.” Once the center has been opened, “3,000 people are put on an immediate activation,” Studdert will say. [Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012]
Different People Later Claim to Have Activated the Center - It is unclear when exactly the crisis center is activated and who activates it. Bill Roy, the SOC director, will say he is responsible for activating the center and he does this shortly after he learned a plane had crashed into the WTC. This is presumably sometime around 8:50 a.m. or shortly after. Roy will say that by around 9:00 a.m., he and his colleagues are in the process of activating the center. [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] But Rich Miles, the SOC manager, will indicate that he activates the center and he does this apparently at around 9:00 a.m. He will say that after they saw the television coverage of the burning WTC and then learned that the North Tower was hit by an American Airlines plane, staffers in the operations center discussed what to do and considered whether to open the crisis center. One member of staff went into the center, and started turning on computers and other equipment. Miles will recall that after the supervisor at the airline’s maintenance office in San Francisco called, shortly before 9:00 a.m., with the news that Flight 175 had been reported as hijacked, he begins activating the center. [9/11 Commission, 11/21/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 21-22]
COO Is Authorized to Activate the Crisis Center - Other accounts will suggest that Studdert is responsible for activating the crisis center. Studdert will recall that sometime after 9:00 a.m., when he arrived at the operations center (see (8:50 a.m.-9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001), he realizes that the airline is “in a crisis, and we immediately activate the crisis center.” [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/23/2012] Furthermore, Ed Soliday, United Airlines’ vice president of safety and security, will indicate that Studdert is one of only a few people with authority to activate the crisis center. He will say that although the airline’s usual protocol is to obtain a “vote of three” before opening the center, both Studdert and he are empowered to order it activated on their own say-so. Since Soliday will arrive at United Airlines’ headquarters at around 9:35 a.m., this would suggest that only Studdert could order that the crisis center be activated on his own at the current time. [9/11 Commission, 11/21/2003 pdf file]
Center Remains Operational for Three Weeks - The crisis center will remain in operation around the clock every day for the next three weeks. It will provide United Airlines personnel around the country with instant access to resource providers and key decision makers. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] The center was previously activated just 12 days ago, when Studdert ran a surprise “no-notice” exercise in which United Airlines personnel were led to believe that one of their planes had crashed (see August 30, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 11/20/2003 pdf file; Center for Values-Driven Leadership, 4/26/2012; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 11/12/2015]

Entity Tags: Ed Soliday, Andrew P. Studdert, Patti Carson, Bill Roy, United Airlines, Rich Miles

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 93 makes its last normal communication with air traffic control before being hijacked, acknowledging a routine radio transmission from the FAA’s Cleveland Center. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 28] Flight 93 checked in with the Cleveland Center a couple of minutes earlier (see 9:24 a.m.-9:25 a.m. September 11, 2001). At 9:27, the Cleveland controller, John Werth, alerts it to another aircraft 12 miles away and to its right, at 37,000 feet: “United 93, that traffic for you is one o’clock, 12 miles east, bound three-seven-zero.” Seconds later, Flight 93 responds, “Negative contact, we’re looking, United 93.” Less than a minute after this, the hijackers appear to enter Flight 93’s cockpit (see (9:28 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Gregor, 12/21/2001 pdf file; Longman, 2002, pp. 69; CBS News, 9/10/2006]

Entity Tags: John Werth, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

John Werth.John Werth. [Source: CBS]Shortly after hearing strange noises from the cockpit of Flight 93, Cleveland air traffic controllers notice the plane has descended about 700 feet. John Werth, the controller who is handling the plane, tells the supervisor nearest to him, “I think we have another one [i.e., another hijacking].” He will repeatedly radio the cockpit over the next four minutes, asking the pilot to confirm the hijacking, but receive no response. At 9:30 a.m., Werth begins asking other nearby flights on his frequency if they’ve heard screaming; several say that they have. [Gregor, 12/21/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 28; CBS News, 9/10/2006] The Cleveland Center immediately notifies United Airlines’ headquarters of the loss of communication with Flight 93 (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). However, the FAA chain of command is apparently not also immediately informed. And the Cleveland Center will not contact NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) about Flight 93 until 10:07 a.m. (see 10:05 a.m.-10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 28 and 30]

Entity Tags: John Werth, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The transponder signal from Flight 93 ceases. [CNN, 9/17/2001; MSNBC, 9/3/2002; MSNBC, 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] However, the plane can be—and is—tracked using primary radar by Cleveland flight controllers and at United headquarters. Altitude can no longer be determined, except by visual sightings from other aircraft. The plane’s speed begins to vary wildly, fluctuating between 600 and 400 mph before eventually settling around 400 mph. [Longman, 2002, pp. 77, 214; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]

Entity Tags: United Airlines, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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