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Context of '(Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001: FAA Learns of Korean Airlines Flight Mistakenly Believed Hijacked'

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The FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, is informed that a Korean Airlines plane is a possible hijacking, although the aircraft is in fact fine. [CNN, 8/14/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 256-257] Korean Airlines Flight 85, a Boeing 747 with 215 people on board, is on its way from Seoul, South Korea, to New York. It is heading for a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, and is currently several hundred miles west of Alaska, over the North Pacific.
Pilots Sent Message Signifying Hijacking - The alarm has been raised by ARINC, a Maryland company that airlines pay to transmit text messages to and from their planes. In response to the morning’s terrorist attacks, the company had begun scanning every communication it had transmitted on this day, in a search for other hijacked aircraft. It found a message sent by the pilots of Flight 85 to the Korean Airlines headquarters at 11:08 a.m. that included the letters “HJK,” which is the code signaling a hijacking. ARINC officials are concerned the message was a coded plea for help, and so alert the FAA to it. In response to this notification, the FAA informs air traffic controllers in Anchorage of the suspicious flight, and alerts NORAD to it (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257]
Reason for Message Unclear - The reason the Flight 85 pilots used the code for a hijacking in their ARINC message when their plane is not hijacked is unclear. Korean Airlines administrator Michael Lim will suggest the “HJK” code was intended as a question rather than a warning, but this was unclear in the message because pilots are unable to type question marks into ARINC messages. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] David Greenberg, the Korean Airlines operations chief, will say the pilots’ message was “innocent, part of a routine discussion on where to divert the flight after airspace in the United States had been closed.” He will add that the pilots used the hijack code “to refer to the hijackings that day.” [USA Today, 8/12/2002] Author Lynn Spencer will similarly suggest that the crew of Flight 85 had “simply been trying to relay to controllers their awareness of the hijackings on the East Coast.” She will add: “It was an odd idea for the pilots to have, and contrary to their training. But for whatever reason—perhaps because of some language or communication barrier, or some training failure—they made a very dangerous bad call.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 279]
Flight 85 Redirected to Canada - At 1:24 p.m., the pilots of Flight 85 will set their plane’s transponder to indicate that the flight has been hijacked (see 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). The plane will be directed away from Anchorage (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001) and escorted by fighter jets to Whitehorse Airport in Canada, where it lands at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). Only then will officials be able to confirm that the aircraft has not been hijacked (see September 12, 2001). [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/12/2001; Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 16, 18 pdf file; USA Today, 8/12/2002]

Entity Tags: ARINC, Federal Aviation Administration, David Greenberg, Michael Lim, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Norton Schwartz.Norton Schwartz. [Source: US Department of Defense]The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) launches fighter jets in response to a Korean Airlines passenger jet that is mistakenly suspected of being hijacked. [CNN, 8/14/2002; Air Force Magazine, 7/2009] Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 bound from Seoul, South Korea, to New York, and currently heading for a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. For reasons that are unclear, its pilots entered the code signaling a hijacking into a text message they sent to their airline at 11:08 a.m. The FAA was alerted to this, and it in turn alerted NORAD (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002]
Fighters Launched from Alaska Base - Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, the commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region, will later recall: “Given what had happened on the East Coast, it was entirely plausible to me this was an analog on the West Coast. So naturally, we took this seriously.” Schwartz orders Elmendorf Air Force Base, near Anchorage, to launch two F-15 fighter jets armed with missiles to intercept and shadow Flight 85. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257] The jets belong to the 3rd Wing. [Commemorative Air Force, Inc., 4/2/2008 pdf file] Schwartz’s instructions for the fighter pilots are: “Tail the aircraft.… Follow Flight 85 at a position out of sight of passengers. Follow so the four-man flight crew—and anyone in the cockpit with them—couldn’t see them either.” [Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] The two jets will fly about a mile behind Flight 85, shadowing it so its crew and passengers do not realize there are fighters in close proximity. [Alaska Legislature. Joint Senate and House Armed Services Committee, 2/5/2002]
Canadian Fighters Launched - Two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter jets are also launched in response to Flight 85, although whether they take off before or after the 3rd Wing F-15s is unstated. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001] After Flight 85’s pilots refuse to confirm that their plane is not hijacked, Schwartz will threaten to have the plane shot down (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 278] The NORAD jets will escort Flight 85 until it lands at Whitehorse Airport in Canada at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/12/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002]

Entity Tags: 3rd Wing, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Norton Schwartz, Elmendorf Air Force Base

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center.Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center. [Source: FAA]The pilots of a Korean Airlines passenger jet that is due to land in the US and is considered a possible hijacking, switch their plane’s transponder to transmit the code signaling a hijacking, even though the plane has not been hijacked. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 277-278] Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 bound from Seoul, South Korea, to New York, and which is currently heading for a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. For reasons that are unclear, the plane’s pilots included the code signaling a hijacking in a text message they sent to their airline at 11:08 a.m. The FAA was notified of this and alerted controllers at its Anchorage Center to the suspicious flight (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). The FAA also alerted NORAD, which launched fighter jets to follow the aircraft (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257]
Pilots Send Signal Indicating a Hijacking - Flight 85 entered the Anchorage Center’s airspace at around 1:00 p.m. The air traffic controller there who is handling the flight queried the pilots to determine whether their plane had been hijacked. He used a code word when speaking to them, as a way of covertly asking if the plane was hijacked, in case the crew was unable to speak openly over the radio. However the pilots offered no reassurance that their plane was secure. Instead, at 1:24 p.m., they switch the plane’s transponder (a device that sends information about an aircraft to controllers’ radar screens) to “7500”: the universal code that means a plane has been hijacked. This action sets off “a frenzy of activity,” according to USA Today. Within minutes, Alaska’s governor orders the evacuation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, as well as the evacuation of federal buildings and all large hotels in Anchorage.
FAA Wants Flight to Remain on Current Course - However, officials at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, are unconvinced that Flight 85 has been hijacked, and advise the Anchorage Center controllers not to redirect it. The Command Center is in contact with Korean Airlines headquarters, which is emphatically stating it has received no indication that Flight 85 is in trouble. Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the Command Center, urges the Anchorage Center controllers to keep seeking clarification from Flight 85’s pilots about the status of their aircraft. [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 277-278] But NORAD will instruct the controllers to direct the plane away from Anchorage (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 278] Flight 85 will continue transmitting the hijack code from its transponder until it lands in Canada at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). Only then will officials be able to confirm that the flight has not been hijacked (see September 12, 2001).
Reason for False Alarm Unclear - No clear explanation will be given as to why the pilots of Flight 85 switch their transponder to the hijacking code. In August 2002, USA Today will state: “To this day, no one is certain why the pilots issued the alert.… The Korean pilots may have misinterpreted the controller’s comments as an order to reset the transponder.” [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 278-279] Korean Airlines officials will say the pilot of Flight 85 believed that controllers at the Anchorage Center were directing him to send out the hijack signal. Administrator Michael Lim will say: “Our captain was following their instruction. They even told the captain to transmit code 7500, hijack code. Our captain, who realized how serious it is, they were just following instructions.” However, the airline will refuse to make available a tape recording of conversations between the pilot and its officials on the ground in Anchorage. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001]

Entity Tags: Ben Sliney, Federal Aviation Administration, Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center, Korean Airlines, Michael Lim

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region (ANR) orders air traffic controllers to redirect a Korean Airlines passenger jet that is mistakenly suspected of being hijacked, and warns that he will have the aircraft shot down if it refuses to change course. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 278]
Korean Jet Indicating Hijacking - Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 heading to New York, and which is currently due to land in Anchorage, Alaska, for a refueling stop. Although Flight 85 has not been hijacked, its pilots have given indications that the plane has been hijacked (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001 and 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002] NORAD has been alerted, and Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, the ANR commander, has ordered fighter jets to take off and follow the aircraft (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257]
Commander Threatens Shootdown - While the FAA wants Flight 85 to remain on its current course, ANR wants it redirected. Controllers at the FAA’s Anchorage Center repeatedly query the pilots, yet they give no reassurance that their plane has not been hijacked. Therefore, Schwartz decides he has had enough. He orders the Anchorage Center controllers to turn the aircraft, and says that if it refuses to divert and remains on its current course, he will have it shot down. [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 278] At some point, presumably around this time, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is contacted and gives his authorization for Flight 85 to be shot down if necessary (see (Shortly After 1:30 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Globe and Mail, 9/12/2002]
Plane Redirected to Remote Airport - Following Schwartz’s order, a controller instructs Flight 85 to head about 100 miles north of Anchorage, fly east, and then turn southeast for Yakutat, a fairly remote airport with a runway long enough to land the 747. As requested, the plane changes course, which shows those on the ground that its pilot is still in control.
NORAD Decides to Land Plane in Canada - However, weather conditions in Yakutat are deteriorating, and it is unclear whether that airport’s navigational aids and on-board maps are adequate to guide the plane over the risky mountainous terrain. Furthermore, FAA controllers discover that Flight 85 has less than an hour’s worth of fuel remaining. ANR personnel brainstorm over what to do, and decide to have the plane land at Whitehorse Airport in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Schwartz contacts the Canadian authorities and they agree to this. [Alaska Legislature. Joint Senate and House Armed Services Committee, 2/5/2002; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] Escorted by the fighter jets, Flight 85 will head to Whitehorse Airport and land there at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 278]

Entity Tags: Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center, Federal Aviation Administration, Alaskan NORAD Region, Norton Schwartz

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Jean Chrétien.Jean Chrétien. [Source: University of Alberta]Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gives his authorization for US fighter jets to shoot down a passenger jet that is suspected of being hijacked, if necessary. [Globe and Mail, 9/12/2002] Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 heading to New York, but due to land in Anchorage, Alaska, for a refueling stop. Although the plane has not been hijacked, its pilots have given indications that it is hijacked (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001 and 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). NORAD has therefore scrambled fighter jets to follow it (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002] Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, the commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region, has ordered air traffic controllers to turn Flight 85 away from Anchorage, and said he would have it shot down if it refused to divert (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 278] According to the Globe and Mail, the command of the Canadian NORAD Region, in Winnipeg, agreed that “the airliner could enter Canadian airspace accompanied by the US fighters, but insisted the decision to shoot it down must be the Canadian government’s.” Now, Chrétien receives a phone call from a Canadian NORAD commander. He is told Flight 85 might have to be shot down. Chrétien replies, “Yes, if you think they are terrorists, you call me again, but be ready to shoot them down.” Chrétien will later state, “I authorized [the shootdown] in principle.” Reflecting on the difficult decision he makes, he will say: “It’s kind of scary that… [there is] this plane with hundreds of people and you have to call a decision like that.… But you prepare yourself for that. I thought about it—you know that you will have to make decisions at times that will [be] upsetting you for the rest of your life.” [Globe and Mail, 9/12/2002; National Post, 9/12/2002] Flight 85 is redirected to Whitehorse Airport in Canada, and will land there safely at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 278]

Entity Tags: Canadian NORAD Region, Jean Chretien

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A Korean Airlines 747 at Whitehorse Airport.A Korean Airlines 747 at Whitehorse Airport. [Source: Government of Yukon]A Korean Airlines passenger jet that is mistakenly considered hijacked and is low on fuel lands without incident at Whitehorse Airport, in Canada’s Yukon Territory. [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002]
Plane Still Transmitting Hijack Signal - Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 with 215 people on board, and was on its way from Seoul, South Korea, to New York. Although it has not been hijacked, for reasons that are unclear, its pilots have given indications that the plane has been hijacked (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001 and 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). Flight 85 was due to land in Anchorage, Alaska, for a refueling stop, but has been diverted to Whitehorse (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001). The aircraft is still transmitting a beacon code indicating it is hijacked, 90 minutes after its pilots switched the transponder to that code. [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257, 277-278] Fighter jets that launched to follow Flight 85 (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001) have escorted the plane all the way from Alaska to Whitehorse. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/12/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002]
Schools and Government Buildings Evacuated - Because hijacking is a criminal activity, the Whitehorse Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has taken charge of the local response to Flight 85. The RCMP removed children from schools and evacuated buildings that are considered probable targets for terrorist attacks, including the Yukon government’s main administration building and Whitehorse City Hall. All non-essential members of staff have been evacuated from the Whitehorse Airport terminal building; a security perimeter has been established around the airport; and part of the Alaska Highway has been closed. [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 14-15 pdf file] Police suggested that downtown businesses and residents evacuate, but most have not done so.
Co-Pilot Escorted off Plane at Gunpoint - Flight 85 now lands at Whitehorse Airport safely and without incident, and is directed to a secluded area on the tarmac. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; USA Today, 8/12/2002; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] Heavily armed members of the RCMP surround it. [Canadian Press, 9/12/2001; United Press International, 9/12/2001] A single RCMP officer then walks up the plane’s steps and asks to speak with a member of the flight crew. The co-pilot subsequently emerges and is escorted off the plane at gunpoint. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001] One witness to the incident will later recount, “He had everyone drawing down on him and he had to take some clothes off, wave his shirt in the air and all that.” [Canadian Press, 9/12/2001] The rest of the crew and the passengers will be escorted off the plane later on, around 5:10 p.m. The passengers will be instructed to leave all their personal items, including their carry-on luggage, on the aircraft. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 17 pdf file; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] The fighters that escorted Flight 85 to Whitehorse will circle above the airport while the plane is being inspected. [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/12/2001] The RCMP will finally confirm that Flight 85 had not been hijacked early the following morning (see September 12, 2001). [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 18 pdf file]
Reasons for Landing at Whitehouse Unclear - Although it was reportedly because of the plane’s lack of fuel that it was decided to land Flight 85 at Whitehorse Airport, a report published by the government of Yukon in November 2001 will state: “The question of why this potentially dangerous aircraft was directed to Whitehorse rather than another airport remains unanswered by senior national agencies, the [FAA], NORAD, and Transport Canada.… [Q]uestions about the decision-making process to re-direct [Flight 85] to Whitehorse have not been answered in any significant detail.” The report will add, “It is expected that greater detail on this will not be forthcoming from these agencies in the short-term.” [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 5 pdf file; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002]

Entity Tags: Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport, Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, finally confirms that a suspicious passenger jet that landed at Whitehorse Airport the previous afternoon was never hijacked. [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 18 pdf file; Alaska Legislature. Joint Senate and House Armed Services Committee, 2/5/2002]
Plane Showed Five Indicators of a Hijacking - Korean Airlines Flight 85 is a Boeing 747 that was heading from Seoul, South Korea, to New York on September 11, but was diverted to Whitehorse (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001). Although the plane was not hijacked, its pilots had been giving indications that it was hijacked (see (Shortly Before 12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001 and 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 277-278] According to a report published by the government of Yukon, “There were five separate and ongoing indicators of a hijacking situation,” although the report will not specify what those indicators were. [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 17 pdf file]
Pilots and Crew Questioned - Flight 85 landed at Whitehorse Airport without incident at 2:54 p.m. the previous afternoon (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 8/12/2002; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002] Investigators then interviewed its pilots and crew. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 278-279] One of the pilots cited miscommunication as the reason for the false hijack reports. [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 17, 36 pdf file]
Spokeswoman Announced No Hijacking - Several hours after Flight 85 landed, airport spokeswoman Brenda Wale had announced: “It’s not a hijacking situation. There was a communications problem aboard the plane so they were unable to communicate and respond properly to the tower anywhere they went. It raised alarm bells.” [Canadian Press, 9/12/2001] At 5:10 p.m. that afternoon, following a discussion between the RCMP and other responding agencies, Whitehorse Airport and part of the Alaska Highway that had been closed earlier on were reopened.
Police Confirms No Hijacking of Flight 85 - Because hijacking is a criminal activity, the Whitehorse RCMP has been in charge of the local response to Flight 85. Very early this morning, it brings a bomb-sniffing dog onto the plane to search it. The aircraft’s cargo is also searched. No threats are found. Finally, two hours later, the RCMP confirms that a hijacking situation did not exist on Flight 85. The aircraft is security cleared and approved to depart from Whitehouse once FAA and Transport Canada airspace restrictions have been lifted and scheduling requirements have been made. [Yukon Government, 11/13/2001, pp. 4, 14-18 pdf file] Flight 85 will leave Whitehorse on September 13, and fly on to New York. [Anchorage Daily News, 9/29/2001; Anchorage Daily News, 9/8/2002]

Entity Tags: Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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