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Context of 'September 14, 2001: Conflicting Accounts about Planes Near Flight 93’s Crash'

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A typical C-130.A typical C-130. [Source: US Air Force Reserve Command]Washington’s Reagan National Airport air traffic control instructs a military C-130 cargo plane that has just departed Andrews Air Force Base to intercept Flight 77 and identify it. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; Guardian, 10/17/2001] Remarkably, this C-130 is the same C-130 that will be 17 miles from Flight 93 when it later crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside (see 10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001; Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/11/2002] The pilot, Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien, will claim that he took off around 9:30 a.m., planning to return to Minnesota after dropping supplies off in the Caribbean. He will describe his close encounter: “When air traffic control asked me if we had him [Flight 77] in sight, I told him that was an understatement—by then, he had pretty much filled our windscreen. Then he made a pretty aggressive turn so he was moving right in front of us, a mile and a half, two miles away. I said we had him in sight, then the controller asked me what kind of plane it was. That caught us up, because normally they have all that information. The controller didn’t seem to know anything.” O’Brien reports that the plane is either a 757 or 767 and its silver fuselage means it is probably an American Airlines plane. “They told us to turn and follow that aircraft—in 20 plus years of flying, I’ve never been asked to do something like that.” [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/11/2002] O’Brien and his crew, Maj. Robert Schumacher and flight engineer Master Sgt. Jeffrey Rosenthal, are unaware of the attacks in New York. Schumacher will say that, after being directed to follow Flight 77, he first thought that the plane was having technical difficulties, “that the pilots were really just trying to fly the airplane, and get it on the ground safely.” After the impact, O’Brien tunes in to a news broadcast, but is surprised to hear about a second crash in New York, not at the Pentagon. He will recall: “The first thing we heard on there was ‘We’re now hearing about a second airplane hitting the World Trade Center.’ That was not what we were expecting to hear. We were expecting to hear about an airplane impacting the Pentagon… and the light goes on, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, the nation’s under attack!’” [Minnesota Public Radio, 5/31/2004] The 9/11 Commission will report that O’Brien specifically identifies the hijacked plane as a Boeing 757. Seconds after impact, he reports to the Washington tower, “Looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Robert Schumacher, Pentagon, Steve O’Brien, Jeffrey Rosenthal

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A C-130 transport plane that has been sent to follow Flight 77 (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001) is trailing only a short distance behind the plane as it crashes. This curious C-130, originally bound for Minnesota, is the same C-130 that will be 17 miles from Flight 93 when it later crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside (see 10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001; Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/11/2002] A number of people see this plane fly remarkably close to Flight 77:
bullet Kelly Knowles says that seconds after seeing Flight 77 pass, she sees a “second plane that seemed to be chasing the first [pass] over at a slightly different angle.” [Daily Press (Newport News), 9/15/2001]
bullet Keith Wheelhouse says the second plane is a C-130; two other witnesses are not certain. [Daily Press (Newport News), 9/15/2001] Wheelhouse “believes it flew directly above the American Airlines jet, as if to prevent two planes from appearing on radar, while at the same time guiding the jet toward the Pentagon.” As Flight 77 descends toward the Pentagon, the second plane veers off west. [Daily Press (Newport News), 9/14/2001]
bullet USA Today reporter Vin Narayanan, who sees the Pentagon explosion, later says, “I hopped out of my car after the jet exploded, nearly oblivious to a second jet hovering in the skies.” [USA Today, 9/17/2001]
bullet USA Today Editor Joel Sucherman sees a second plane but gives few details. [eWeek, 9/13/2001]
bullet Brian Kennedy, press secretary for a Congressman, and others also see a second plane. [Sacramento Bee, 9/15/2001]
bullet An unnamed worker at Arlington National Cemetery, which is about a mile from the Pentagon, will recall that “a mysterious second plane was circling the area when the first one attacked the Pentagon.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/20/2001]
bullet An interment foreman at Arlington Cemetery also sees a second plane. He will recall: “There was a second plane behind it.… It appeared to be a cargo plane… mostly white.… I think it was somebody who observed him [Flight 77] and was following him and saw where he was going or what was going on… he was probably behind that far and when he saw [the explosion], he banked it back hard and went back the other way.” [Army Center for Military History, 12/13/2001 pdf file]
bullet John O’Keefe is driving in his car when he sees the Pentagon crash. He will recall: “The first thing I did was pull over onto the shoulder, and when I got out of the car I saw another plane flying over my head.… Then the plane—it looked like a C-130 cargo plane—started turning away from the Pentagon, it did a complete turnaround.” [New York Law Journal, 9/12/2001]
bullet Phillip Thompson, a former Marine, is sitting in traffic when he witnesses the crash of Flight 77 and then sees a cargo plane overhead. He will recall that, following the Flight 77 crash, “a gray C-130 flew overhead, setting off a new round of panic. I tried to reassure people that the plane was not a threat.” [Militarycity (.com), 9/22/2001]
The pilot of the C-130, Lieutenant Colonel Steve O’Brien, will later be interviewed, but his account differs from the on-the-ground eyewitnesses. He will claim that just before the explosion, “With all of the East Coast haze, I had a hard time picking him out,” implying he is not nearby. He also says that just after the explosion, “I could see the outline of the Pentagon,” again implying he is not nearby. He then asks “the controller whether [I] should set up a low orbit around the building,” but he is told “to get out of the area as quickly as possible.” He will add, “I took the plane once through the plume of smoke and thought if this was a terrorist attack, it probably wasn’t a good idea to be flying through that plume.” [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/11/2002]

Entity Tags: John O’Keefe, Vin Narayanan, Keith Wheelhouse, Kelly Knowles, Phillip Thompson, Brian Kennedy, Pentagon, Joel Sucherman, Steve O’Brien

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

John Fleegle, a manager at the Indian Lake Marina about 1.5 miles from where Flight 93 crashes, is indoors with some colleagues, watching the televised coverage of the World Trade Center attack. Then, as he later describes, “All of a sudden the lights flickered and we joked that maybe they were coming for us. Then we heard engines screaming close overhead. The building shook. We ran out, heard the explosion and saw a fireball mushroom,” following the crash. When he later describes this incident while on a training course in Atlanta, Fleegle will be told that what happened means Flight 93 “was shot down.” A man there who says he is a retired Air Force officer will tell Fleegle, “[W]hen your lights flickered, [it was because] they zap the radar frequency on everything before they shoot. Your lights didn’t flicker from the impact—your lights flickered because they zapped the radar system before they shot it.” However, William “Buck” Kernan, a retired four-star Army general, will dispute this claim, saying, “[R]egarding an aircraft engaging an airborne target having an electrical disruption on the ground, no, this would not be a result of lock on or any electromagnetic pulsing.” He will suggest it is “possible that overpressure from explosions could momentarily disrupt microwave connections or cause sensations on ground relays, wiring, etc.” that might result in the lights having flickered. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/14/2001; Lappe and Marshall, 2004, pp. 35-36] But, consistent with Fleegle’s allegation, a number of local residents—including military veterans—say they heard the sound of a missile overhead just before the time of the crash (see Just Before 10:06 a.m. September 11, 2001). Another local resident, Val McClatchey, will report her lights and phone going out around the time of the crash. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/11/2002] According to Barry Lichty, the mayor of Indian Lake Borough, the town’s electricity goes out around this time. He later learns that the plane crash had disrupted service to the borough. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/12/2001] Interestingly, one alternative theory later suggested is that Flight 93 could have been brought down using “electromagnetic interference” (see August 13, 2002). The US Air Force and Pentagon have in fact “conducted extensive research on ‘electronic warfare applications’ with the possible capacity intentionally to disrupt the mechanisms of an airplane in such a way as to provoke, for example, an uncontrollable dive.” [Independent, 8/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Barry Lichty, Val McClatchey, John Fleegle, William Kernan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Looking straight down onto the Flight 93 crash site. North is to the top. Note the impact point north of the road, and the burned trees to the south of it.Looking straight down onto the Flight 93 crash site. North is to the top. Note the impact point north of the road, and the burned trees to the south of it. [Source: FBI]A second plane, described “as a small, white jet with rear engines and no discernible markings,” is seen by at least ten witnesses flying low and in erratic patterns, not much above treetop level, over the crash site within minutes of United Flight 93 crashing. [Independent, 8/13/2002]
bullet Lee Purbaugh: “I didn’t get a good look but it was white and it circled the area about twice and then it flew off over the horizon.” [Mirror, 9/12/2002]
bullet Susan Mcelwain: Less than a minute before the Flight 93 crash rocked the countryside, she sees a small white jet with rear engines and no discernible markings swoop low over her minivan near an intersection and disappear over a hilltop, nearly clipping the tops of trees lining the ridge. [Bergen Record, 9/14/2001] She later adds, “There’s no way I imagined this plane—it was so low it was virtually on top of me. It was white with no markings but it was definitely military, it just had that look. It had two rear engines, a big fin on the back like a spoiler on the back of a car and with two upright fins at the side. I haven’t found one like it on the Internet. It definitely wasn’t one of those executive jets. The FBI came and talked to me and said there was no plane around.… But I saw it and it was there before the crash and it was 40 feet above my head. They did not want my story—nobody here did.” [Mirror, 9/12/2002]
bullet John Fleegle and two work colleagues arrive at the crash site “before any fireman or paramedics or anybody.” According to Fleegle, “When we got there, there was a plane flying up above and he was smart, he flew straight for the sun so you couldn’t look at it and see exactly what type of plane, if it was a fighter or what it was.” However, Fleegle claims the plane “was decent sized. It wasn’t just a little private jet or something like that, from what we could see.” [Lappe and Marshall, 2004, pp. 35-36]
bullet Dennis Decker and/or Rick Chaney, say: “As soon as we looked up [after hearing the Flight 93 crash], we saw a midsized jet flying low and fast. It appeared to make a loop or part of a circle, and then it turned fast and headed out.” Decker and Chaney described the plane as a Learjet type, with engines mounted near the tail and painted white with no identifying markings. “It was a jet plane, and it had to be flying real close when that 757 went down. If I was the FBI, I’d find out who was driving that plane.” [Bergen Record, 9/14/2001]
bullet Kathy Blades, who is staying about quarter of a mile from the impact site, runs outside after the crash and sees a jet, “with sleek back wings and an angled cockpit,” race overhead. [Philadelphia Daily News, 11/18/2001]
bullet Anna Ruth Fisher says, “After the crash, another jet went near over to look.” Her mother, Anna B. Fisher, adds, “We were looking at the smoke cloud when we saw the jets circling up there.” [Kashurba, 2002, pp. 27]
bullet Jim Brandt sees a small plane with no markings stay about one or two minutes over the crash site before leaving. [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/12/2001]
bullet Bob Page sees a large plane circling the crash site for about two or three minutes, before climbing almost vertically into the sky. He cannot see what kind of plane it is or if there are any markings on it, but says, “It sure wasn’t no puddle jumper.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/12/2001]
bullet Tom Spinelli: “I saw the white plane. It was flying around all over the place like it was looking for something. I saw it before and after the crash.” [Mirror, 9/12/2002]
The FBI later claims this was a Fairchild Falcon 20 business jet, directed after the crash to fly from 37,000 feet to 5,000 feet and obtain the coordinates for the crash site to help rescuers (see 10:07 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/16/2001] The FBI also says there was a C-130 military cargo aircraft flying at 24,000 feet about 17 miles away (see 10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001), but that plane wasn’t armed and had no role in the crash. [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/16/2001] Note that this is the same C-130 that flies very close to Flight 77 right as that planes crashes into the Pentagon (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Anna B Fisher, Dennis Decker, Anna Ruth Fisher, Bob Page, Susan Mcelwain, Kathy Blades, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Fleegle, Tom Spinelli, Lee Purbaugh, Jim Brandt, Rick Chaney

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien standing in front of a C-130.Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien standing in front of a C-130. [Source: CBC]Cleveland Center air traffic controller Stacey Taylor has asked a nearby C-130 pilot to look at Flight 93’s last position and see if he can find anything. Remarkably, this C-130 pilot, Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien, is the same pilot who was asked by air traffic control to observe Flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon earlier on (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001). O’Brien tells Taylor that he saw smoke from the crash shortly after the hijacked plane went down. [Guardian, 10/17/2001; MSNBC, 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] An article in the London Independent will later suggest that Flight 93 might have been brought down by the US military using “electronic warfare applications” that can disrupt the mechanisms of an airplane (See August 13, 2002); it will refer to this C-130, since “in 1995 the Air Force installed ‘electronic suites’ in at least 28 of its C-130s—capable, among other things, of emitting lethal jamming signals.” [Independent, 8/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Stacey Taylor, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center, Steve O’Brien

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FAA allows “military and law enforcement flights to resume (and some flights that the FAA can’t reveal that were already airborne).” All civilian, military, and law enforcement flights were ordered at 9:26 a.m. to land as soon as reasonably possible. [Time, 9/14/2001] Civilian flights remain banned until September 13. Note that the C-130 cargo plane that witnessed the Flight 77 crash (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001) and which came upon the Flight 93 crash site (see 10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001) right after it had crashed was apparently not subject to the grounding order issued about an hour earlier.

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Officials admit that two planes were near Flight 93 when it crashed, which matches numerous eyewitness accounts. For example, local man Dennis Decker says that immediately after hearing an explosion, “We looked up, we saw a midsized jet flying low and fast. It appeared to make a loop or part of a circle, and then it turned fast and headed out. If you were here to see it, you’d have no doubt. It was a jet plane, and it had to be flying real close when that 757 went down… If I was the FBI, I’d find out who was driving that plane.” [Bergen Record, 9/14/2001] Later the same day, the military says it can “neither confirm nor deny” the nearby planes. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/14/2001] Two days later, they claim there were two planes near, but that they were a military cargo plane and business jet, and neither had anything to do with the crash. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/16/2001] Supposedly, the business jet was requested to fly low over the crash site to help rescuers find the crash site, 25 minutes after all aircraft in the US had been ordered to land. However, the story appears physically impossible since the FBI says this jet was at 37,000 feet and asked to descend to 5,000 feet. [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001] That would have taken many minutes for that kind of plane, and witnesses report seeing the plane flying very low even before the crash. [Bergen Record, 9/14/2001] Another explanation of a farmer’s plane 45 minutes later is put forth, but that also does not fit the time at all. [Pittsburgh Channel, 9/15/2001] Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz states: “We responded awfully quickly, I might say, on Tuesday [9/11], and, in fact, we were already tracking in on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I think it was the heroism of the passengers on board that brought it down. But the Air Force was in a position to do so if we had had to.” [NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, 9/14/2001] The next day, Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, the director of the Air National Guard denies that any plane was scrambled after Flight 93. [Seattle Times, 9/16/2001] That in turn contradicts what Vice President Cheney will say later. [Washington Post, 1/27/2002]

Entity Tags: Dennis Decker, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Paul Weaver

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Independent carries a story entitled, “Unanswered Questions: The Mystery of Flight 93,” a rare critique of the official version of events around that plane’s crash. Most of the information is a summation of what was reported before. However, there is one interesting new theory. Theorizing why witnesses did not see smoke from the faltering plane, the article points to the 1996 research of Harvard academic Elaine Scarry, “showing that the Air Force and the Pentagon have conducted extensive research on ‘electronic warfare applications’ with the possible capacity to intentionally disrupt the mechanisms of an aeroplane in such a way as to provoke, for example, an uncontrollable dive. Scarry also reports that US Customs aircraft are already equipped with such weaponry; as are some C-130 Air Force transport planes. The FBI has stated that, apart from the enigmatic Falcon business jet, there was a C-130 military cargo plane within 25 miles of the passenger jet when it crashed (see September 14, 2001). According to the Scarry findings, in 1995 the Air Force installed ‘electronic suites’ in at least 28 of its C-130s—capable, among other things, of emitting lethal jamming signals.” [New York Times Magazine, 11/19/2000; Independent, 8/13/2002]

Entity Tags: Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, Elaine Scarry

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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