The Center for Grassroots Oversight

This page can be viewed at

Context of '8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001: Last Radio Contact with Flight 77'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event 8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001: Last Radio Contact with Flight 77. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

The last radio contact with Flight 77 is made when a pilot asks for clearance to fly higher. However, six minutes later, the plane fails to respond to a routine instruction. Presumably, it is hijacked during that time. Indianapolis flight control center is handling the plane by this time. (Wald and Sack 10/16/2001; Ellison 10/17/2001; Johnson 11/23/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8)

Flight 77 from Washington begins to go off course over southern Ohio, turning to the southwest. (Washington Post 9/12/2001; Adcock, Donovan, and Gordon 9/23/2001; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004)

An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs it that contact has been lost with Flight 77. The controller is a sector radar associate, whose job is to help with hand-offs and to coordinate with other sectors and facilities. He speaks to American Airlines dispatcher Jim McDonnell. (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 30; Spencer 2008, pp. 63) The controller begins, “This is Indianapolis Center trying to get a hold of American 77.” McDonnell asks for clarification, “Who you trying to get a hold of?” and the controller replies: “American 77.… On frequency 120.27.… We were talking to him and all of a sudden it just, uh…” McDonnell interjects: “Okay, all right. We’ll get a hold of him for you.” The call comes to an abrupt end and the controller then continues trying to contact Flight 77. (New York Times 10/16/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 63-64) Soon after this call, American Airlines’ executive vice president of operations, Gerard Arpey, will give an order to stop all American flight takeoffs in the Northeast US (see Between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. September 11, 2001). By 8:59 a.m., American Airlines begins attempts to contact Flight 77 using ACARS (a digital communications system used primarily for aircraft-to-airline messages). Within minutes, some time between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., American will get word that United Airlines also has lost contact with a missing airliner (presumably Flight 175). When reports of the second WTC crash come through after 9:03 a.m., one manager will mistakenly shout, “How did 77 get to New York and we didn’t know it?” (Mccartney and Carey 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 454; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 31) The sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center will call American Airlines again about Flight 77 at 9:02, and again speak with McDonnell (see 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001). (New York Times 10/16/2001)

An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs dispatcher Jim McDonnell that the center is unable to make contact with Flight 77 and does not know the location of this aircraft. The same controller called American Airlines and spoke with McDonnell four minutes earlier, reporting that radio contact had been lost with Flight 77 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001). McDonnell now says he has tried contacting Flight 77 but did not get a reply back. The controller then tells him: “We, uh, we lost track control of the guy. He’s in coast track but we haven’t, we don’t [know] where his target is and we can’t get a hold of him. Um, you guys tried him and no response?” McDonnell confirms, “No response.” The controller continues: “Yeah, we have no radar contact and, uh, no communications with him. So if you guys could try again.” McDonnell replies, “We’re doing it.” (New York Times 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 30) Flight 77 made its last radio communication with controllers at 8:51 (see 8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001), and deviated from its assigned course at 8:54 (see (8:54 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8-9)

Flight 175 hits the WTC South Tower. The picture was taken from a traffic helicopter.Flight 175 hits the WTC South Tower. The picture was taken from a traffic helicopter. [Source: WABC 7/ Salient Stills]Flight 175 hits the South Tower of the World Trade Center (Tower Two). Seismic records pinpoint the time at six seconds before 9:03 a.m. (rounded to 9:03 a.m.). Hijackers Marwan Alshehhi, Fayez Ahmed Banihammad, Mohand Alshehri, Hamza Alghamdi, and Ahmed Alghamdi presumably are killed instantly, and many more in the tower will die over the next few hours. (New York Times 9/12/2001; CNN 9/12/2001; CNN 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; Cauchon 12/20/2001; Federal Emergency Management Agency 5/1/2002, pp. 1-10; Dwyer et al. 5/26/2002; Associated Press 8/21/2002; Moore and Cauchon 9/2/2002) According to the NIST report, the crash time is 9:02:59. (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 38) According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the crash time is 9:03:11. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8) Millions watch the crash live on television. The plane strikes the 77th through 85th floors in the 110-story building. Approximately 100 people are killed or injured in the initial impact; 600 people in the tower eventually die. The death toll is far lower than in the North Tower because about two-thirds of the South Tower’s occupants have evacuated the building in the 17 minutes since the first tower was struck. (Cauchon 12/20/2001; National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 5-9, 41) The combined death toll from the two towers is estimated at 2,819, not including the hijackers. (Associated Press 8/21/2002) The impact severs some columns on the south side of the South Tower. Each of the Twin Towers is designed as a “tube-in-tube” structure and the steel columns which support its weight are arranged around the perimeter and in the core. The plane, which is traveling at an estimated speed of around 500 mph (see October 2002-October 2005), severs 33 of the building’s 236 perimeter columns and damages another one. (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 39) The perimeter columns bear about half of the tower’s weight, so the damage to them reduces the tower’s ability to bear gravity loads by about 7.1 percent. (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 6) The actual damage to the 47 core columns is not known, as there are no photographs or videos of it, but there will be much speculation about this after 9/11. It will be suggested that some parts of the aircraft may be able to damage the core even after crashing through the exterior wall (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 107) According to NIST’s base case model, five of the core columns are severed and another five suffer some damage. (National Institute of Standards & Technology 9/2005, pp. 235 pdf file) This may reduce the tower’s ability to bear loads by a further approximately 8 percent, meaning that the aircraft impact accounted for a loss of about 15 percent of the building’s strength. This damage will be cited as an event contributing to the building’s collapse after 9/11 (see October 23, 2002 and October 19, 2004). NIST’s base case estimate of damage to the North Tower’s core will be similar, even though the aircraft impact there was dissimilar (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). Flight 11 hit the North Tower’s core head on, whereas Flight 175 only hits the corner of the South Tower’s core. (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 20-23, 38-41) In addition, some of the fireproofing on the steel columns and trusses may be dislodged (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). (National Institute of Standards & Technology 9/2005, pp. xxxvi, 83 pdf file) Photographs and videos of the towers will not show the state of fireproofing inside the buildings, but the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will try to estimate the damage to fireproofing using a series of computer models. Its severe case model (see (October 2002-October 2005)) will predict that 39 of the 47 core columns are stripped of their fireproofing on one or more floors and that fireproofing is stripped from trusses covering 80,000 ft2 of floor area, the equivalent of about two floors. NIST will say that the loss of fireproofing is a major cause of the collapse (see April 5, 2005), but only performs 15 tests on fireproofing samples (see October 26, 2005). (National Institute of Standards and Technology 9/2005, pp. 41) According to NIST, less fireproofing is stripped from the North Tower (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001).

American Airlines and the FAA Command Center discuss the hijacking of Flight 77 again, apparently at some point between when Flight 175 hits the World Trade Center at 9:03 (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001) and Flight 77 hits the Pentagon at 9:37 (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). Although American Airlines was initially informed of the hijacking by the FAA (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001 and 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001), at this point an American Airlines employee calls an FAA employee and tells him that Flight 77 has been hijacked. The FAA employee appears to be unaware of this hijacking, as, when he is told that American Airlines is missing a second plane (in addition to Flight 11, which has hit the World Trade Center) he asks for the flight number and inquires when the company last knew something about the flight. The American Airlines employee responds by saying, “we were talking to them according to Indianapolis Center about 45 minutes ago.” As the last recorded communication with Flight 77 was as at 8:51 (see 8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001), this would put this conversation at around 9:36. However, this conversation is part of a transcript of discussions by FAA employees and others, and in the transcript it appears shortly after the first mention of Flight 175’s crash at 9:03, indicating it may have occurred earlier than 9:36. (Federal Aviation Administration 10/14/2003, pp. 19-21 pdf file)

American Airlines initiates the “lockout” procedure to protect information about Flight 77. This standard procedure acknowledges an emergency on the flight and isolates information about it, so the airline’s top leadership can manage the case. A lockout safeguards information against being altered or released, and protects the identities of the plane’s passengers and crew. FAA air traffic controllers first alerted American Airlines about their loss of contact with Flight 77 at 8:58 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001), and called the airline again about the flight at 9:02 (see 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 12-13 and 30)

The Pentagon explodes. 
The Pentagon explodes. [Source: Donley/ Sipa]Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon. All 64 people on the plane are killed. A hundred-and-twenty-four people working in the building are killed, and a further victim will die in hospital several days later. Hijackers Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi presumably are killed instantly. (Typically, they are not included in the death counts.) (CNN 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command 9/18/2001; Ellison 10/17/2001; Vogel 11/21/2001; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Associated Press 8/21/2002; MSNBC 9/3/2002; ABC News 9/11/2002; CBS 9/11/2002) Flight 77 hits the first floor of the Pentagon’s west wall. The impact and the resulting explosion heavily damage the building’s three outer rings. The path of destruction cuts through Army accounting offices on the outer E Ring, the Navy Command Center on the D Ring, and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s comptroller’s office on the C Ring. (Vogel 2007, pp. 431 and 449) Flight 77 strikes the only side of the Pentagon that had recently been renovated—it was “within days of being totally [renovated].” (US Department of Defense 9/15/2001) “It was the only area of the Pentagon with a sprinkler system, and it had been reconstructed with a web of steel columns and bars to withstand bomb blasts. The area struck by the plane also had blast-resistant windows—two inches thick and 2,500 pounds each—that stayed intact during the crash and fire. While perhaps, 4,500 people normally would have been working in the hardest-hit areas, because of the renovation work only about 800 were there.” More than 25,000 people work at the Pentagon. (Schrader 9/16/2001) Furthermore, the plane hits an area that has no basement. As journalist Steve Vogel later points out, “If there had been one under the first floor, its occupants could easily have been trapped by fire and killed when the upper floors collapsed.” (Vogel 2007, pp. 450)

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike