The Center for Grassroots Oversight

This page can be viewed at

Context of '(9:32 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001: In Middle of Crisis, FAA Group Wants Tour of Washington Airport’s Control Tower'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event (9:32 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001: In Middle of Crisis, FAA Group Wants Tour of Washington Airport’s Control Tower. 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.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. [Source: FAA]Time magazine later reports that Jane Garvey, head of the FAA, “almost certainly after getting an okay from the White House, initiate[s] a national ground stop, which forbids takeoffs and requires planes in the air to get down as soon as is reasonable. The order, which has never been implemented since flying was invented in 1903, applie[s] to virtually every single kind of machine that can takeoff—civilian, military, or law enforcement.” Military and law enforcement flights are allowed to resume at 10:31 a.m. (see 10:31 a.m. September 11, 2001) A limited number of military flights—the FAA will not reveal details—are allowed to fly during this ban. (Donnelly 9/14/2001) Garvey later calls it “a national ground stop… that prevented any aircraft from taking off.” (US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001) Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta later says he was the one to give the order: “As soon as I was aware of the nature and scale of the attack, I called from the White House to order the air traffic system to land all aircraft, immediately and without exception.” (US Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation 9/20/2001) According to Mineta, “At approximately 9:45… I gave the FAA the final order for all civil aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible.” (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) At the time, 4,452 planes are flying in the continental US. A later account states that Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, makes the decision without consulting his superiors, like Jane Garvey, first. It would be remarkable if Sliney was the one to make the decision, because 9/11 is Sliney’s first day on the job as National Operations Manager, “the chess master of the air traffic system.” (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) When he accepted the job a couple of months earlier, he had asked, “What is the limit of my authority?” The man who had promoted him replied, “Unlimited.” (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) Yet another account, by Linda Schuessler, manager of tactical operations at the FAA Command Center where Sliney was located, says, “… it was done collaboratively… All these decisions were corporate decisions. It wasn’t one person who said, ‘Yes, this has got to get done.’” (Bond 12/17/2001) About 500 planes land in the next 20 minutes, and then much more urgent orders to land are issued at 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Donnelly 9/14/2001; US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure 9/21/2001; Adcock, Donovan, and Gordon 9/23/2001; Scott 6/3/2002; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; Associated Press 8/21/2002; Adcock 9/10/2002)

Chris Stephenson, head flight controller at Washington’s Reagan National Airport tower, says that he is called by the Secret Service around this time. He is told an unidentified aircraft is speeding toward Washington. Stephenson looks at the radarscope and sees Flight 77 about five miles to the west. He looks out the tower window and sees the plane turning to the right and descending. He follows it until it disappears behind a building in nearby Crystal City, Virginia. (Levin 8/11/2002) However, according to another account, just before 9:30 a.m., a controller in the same tower has an unidentified plane on radar, “heading toward Washington and without a transponder signal to identify it. It’s flying fast, she says: almost 500 mph. And it’s heading straight for the heart of the city. Could it be American Flight 77? The FAA warns the Secret Service.” (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002) In short, it is unclear whether the Secret Service warns the FAA, or vice versa.

A group from FAA headquarters, who are apparently oblivious to the morning’s crisis, request and are given a tour of the air traffic control tower at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, until they are forced to leave there just before the time of the Pentagon attack. (Spencer 2008, pp. 157-158) Reagan Airport is located less than a mile from the Pentagon. (Adair and Garza 10/3/2001)
Tour Group Wants to See Tower - At 9:32, the tower supervisor, Chris Stephenson, receives a phone call from one of the airport’s maintenance workers. The maintenance worker says he has a group there from the FAA’s Washington headquarters that is visiting the airport to go over some maintenance issues, but they are also curious to see what goes on in the control tower. It appears the FAA personnel are unaware of the attacks in New York, and Stephenson is asked if it is okay to bring them up. Though he is busy dealing with the chaos resulting from the ground stop recently ordered by the FAA’s Command Center (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Stephenson reluctantly agrees. The group arrives moments later, but Stephenson tries to ignore them. According to author Lynn Spencer, Stephenson is as yet unaware that an errant aircraft has been spotted heading toward Washington (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 157) But according to USA Today, the Secret Service warned him about this aircraft at around 9:30 a.m. (see (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Levin 8/11/2002)
Group Ordered to Leave - Shortly after the group arrives, Stephenson is called by a controller at the TRACON and notified of the unidentified aircraft (presumably Flight 77), which is five miles west of the tower (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). When he looks out the window, he sees it, now less than a mile away and approaching fast. Stephenson yells at the tour group: “Out! Get out!” The FAA group heads off down the stairs, but the last in the line looks out the window at the descending aircraft and asks, “What’s that guy doing?” ”Get out!” Stephenson repeats, and pushes the man into the stairwell. Soon afterwards, the Pentagon is hit (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 158)

Reagan National Airport.Reagan National Airport. [Source: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority]Air traffic controllers at Washington’s Reagan National Airport are contacted by controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport, and informed of a fast-moving unidentified aircraft, later determined to be Flight 77, which is approaching the restricted airspace around the White House. (Phillips 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 6/4/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 33) Reagan Airport is less than a mile from the Pentagon and only a few miles from the White House. (Adair, Huettel, and Heller 9/19/2001) During a shift, it has 10 or 11 controllers working in its Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and seven or eight controllers working in its air traffic control tower. (9/11 Commission 7/28/2003 pdf file) Controllers at the Dulles TRACON have recently noticed the unidentified aircraft on their radar screens (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9)
TRACON Told of Aircraft - A Dulles Airport controller now calls the TRACON at Reagan Airport, and says: “Hey! Untracked target 15 [miles] west of you. Primary target eastbound! Heading toward P-56!” (Spencer 2008, pp. 145-146) (P-56, or Prohibited Area 56, is the restricted airspace above and near the White House. (Department of Transportation 8/4/2005) ) Reagan Airport controller Dan Creedon checks his radar screen and sees the aircraft’s target about 10 miles west of the White House. The radar track is untagged, so he attaches a data box to it with the word “LOOK” in it. This will allow other controllers to quickly spot the aircraft. It also causes its ground speed to appear on the screen. According to author Lynn Spencer, the aircraft is shown to be flying at 290 miles per hour. (Spencer 2008, pp. 146) But other accounts will claim it is flying at between 400 and 500 mph as it approaches Washington. (CBS News 9/21/2001; News 10/24/2001; Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/28/2003 pdf file) Creedon then calls out to Victor Padgett, the operations supervisor in the TRACON, and tells him about the aircraft heading their way. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/14/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 146)
Controllers Notify Others - After the Reagan Airport controllers learn of the approaching aircraft, they promptly contact other agencies about it. Padgett calls the Secret Service (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/14/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file) And another controller will issue traffic advisories on the aircraft to a C-130 military cargo plane that is flying in the area, and then instruct the C-130 to identify and follow the aircraft (see 9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 pdf file; Wald and Sack 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 33; Spencer 2008, pp. 146-147) A controller in the TRACON will also call the Reagan Airport control tower, and alert it to the approaching aircraft (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 158)

An air traffic controller in the tower at Reagan National Airport.An air traffic controller in the tower at Reagan National Airport. [Source: Rob Ballenger / NPR]An air traffic controller in the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington’s Reagan National Airport calls the airport’s control tower and alerts it to an unidentified aircraft that is approaching and heading in the direction of the White House. (Spencer 2008, pp. 145-146, 158) The TRACON was recently contacted by controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport and notified of this aircraft, which is later determined to be Flight 77 (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Phillips 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 33) TRACON controllers have watched it on radar as it traveled almost 10 miles south of the airport, and then turned back toward Washington.
TRACON Calls Tower - A controller in the TRACON now phones Chris Stephenson, the supervisor in the Reagan Airport control tower, and says to him, “See in the sky, five miles west of you?” Stephenson thinks he has identified the target the controller is referring to on his radar screen, but it is the wrong one. The controller clarifies: “No! The ‘LOOK’ tag! See the ‘LOOK’ tag? It’s a 757! Do you see anything out there?” Stephenson then looks out of the window and can see the plane, now less than a mile away, coming in fast. (Spencer 2008, pp. 158) He sees it turning to the right and descending. (Levin 8/11/2002) A tour group from FAA headquarters is currently looking around the tower, and Stephenson promptly orders its members to “get out” of there (see (9:32 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Time of First Notification Unclear - According to author Lynn Spencer, Stephenson was unaware of the approaching aircraft prior to this call from the TRACON. (Spencer 2008, pp. 157-158) But USA Today will claim he received a call at “[a]bout 9:30” from the Secret Service, telling him an unidentified aircraft was speeding toward Washington (9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Levin 8/11/2002) Furthermore, after the Reagan TRACON was alerted to the aircraft, departure controller Dan Creedon quickly attached a data box to its radar track with the word “LOOK” in it, which would allow other controllers—including those in the control tower—to quickly spot it and track it on their screens. Why Stephenson had not noticed this is unclear. (9/11 Commission 7/28/2003 pdf file; Spencer 2008, pp. 145-146)

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