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Context of 'Shortly Before 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001: Army Airfield near Pentagon Ordered to Recall Its Aircraft'

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A helicopter and its crew that are always on standby for “contingency” missions in the Washington area are away from base early this morning conducting a traffic survey, but apparently return at some point before the Pentagon is hit. The crew belongs to the 12th Aviation Battalion. [US Army Center for Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file; Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] The 12th Aviation Battalion is stationed at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, located 12 miles south of the Pentagon. It is the aviation support unit for the Military District of Washington, and operates UH-1 “Huey” and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. [Military District of Washington, 8/2000] According to a chief warrant officer with the unit, the 12th Aviation Battalion has “two crews that are always on standby for any kind of contingency mission.” It is one of these crews that is “out flying around doing a traffic survey.” [Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] The exact time period during which the crew and their helicopter are away from base is unstated, but they apparently return to Davison Airfield before 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon is hit (see Shortly Before 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [US Army Center for Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] They will be the first crew with the battalion to take off in support of the rescue operations at the Pentagon once the unit’s aircraft are permitted to launch again following the attack. Others members of the 12th Aviation Battalion are also away from base this morning, for weapons training (see 8:46 a.m.-9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: 12th Aviation Battalion, Davison Army Airfield

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Fort AP Hill.Fort AP Hill. [Source: United States Army]At the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center, members of the Army’s aviation support unit for the Washington, DC, area are away for weapons training, and do not set out to return to their base until after the time the Pentagon is hit. [Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file; Pentagram, 11/16/2001; Fort Belvoir News, 1/18/2002] The 12th Aviation Battalion is the Military District of Washington’s aviation support unit, and includes three helicopter companies. It operates UH-1 “Huey” and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The battalion is stationed at Davison Army Airfield, which is at Fort Belvoir, 12 miles south of the Pentagon. [Military District of Washington, 8/2000] Davison Airfield’s missions include maintaining “a readiness posture in support of contingency plans,” exercising “operational control” of the Washington area airspace, and providing “aviation support for the White House, US government officials, Department of Defense, Department of the Army, and other government agencies.” [Pentagram, 5/7/1999] A chief warrant officer with the 12th Aviation Battalion will later recall that members of the battalion are away this morning, at the shooting range at another Virginia Army base, Fort AP Hill, for their annual weapons training. They had set off early and driven there—a journey of one and a half to two hours. They are at the range when the attacks on the WTC take place, and only learn of them when the sister of one of their captains calls her brother with news of the attacks, presumably after seeing the coverage on television. The chief warrant officer will recall that, after hearing of the second attack on the WTC, “[W]e were all pretty much thinking we probably need to go—you know, probably need to come to work.” The range officer calls Davison Airfield and is told that the members of the battalion should “pack it in and come on back” to base. He is also told during the call that an aircraft has crashed into the Pentagon (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001), meaning this call does not occur until after 9:37 a.m. According to the chief warrant officer, the Pentagon “is basically one of our missions. So we just pretty much packed up and came back up here and came into work.” Exactly how many of the 12th Aviation Battalion’s members are away from base for the weapons training is unstated, as is the exact time they arrive back at Davison Airfield. But considering it is one and a half to two hours drive between there and the range, they presumably do not get there until some time after about 11:15 a.m. When they do eventually get back to base, the battalion members will prepare to launch helicopters in response to the Pentagon attack (see (After 11:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file; Fort Belvoir News, 1/18/2002]

Entity Tags: 12th Aviation Battalion

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 77’s transponder is turned off, meaning that the aircraft’s speed, altitude, and flight information are no longer visible on radar displays at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] The Indianapolis Center air traffic controller in charge of Flight 77 watched the plane go off course and head southwest before its data disappeared from his radar screen. He looks for primary radar signals along the aircraft’s projected flight path as well as in the airspace where it had started to turn, but cannot find it. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] He tries contacting the plane repeatedly, saying “American 77, Indy,” and: “American 77, Indy, radio check. How do you read?” But there is no response. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001]
NEADS Not Contacted - US News and World Report will later comment, “[E]xperts say that an airliner making a 180-degree turn followed by a transponder turnoff should have been a red flag to controllers.” It will quote Robert Cauble, a 20-year veteran of Navy air traffic control, who says: “The fact that the transponder went off, they should have picked up on that immediately. Everyone should have been on alert about what was going on.” [US News and World Report, 10/8/2001] Yet the Indianapolis Center supposedly does not notify NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS will only learn that Flight 77 is missing at 9:34 a.m. (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 26-27]
Controller Thinks Plane Suffered Mechanical Failure - While several air traffic control centers were reportedly informed of the Flight 11 hijacking as early as 8:25 a.m. (see 8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001), according to the 9/11 Commission, the controller handling Flight 77 does not realize other aircraft have been hijacked, and he is unaware of the situation in New York. He mistakenly assumes Flight 77 has experienced an electrical or mechanical failure. [Guardian, 10/17/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] After he informs other Indianapolis Center personnel of the developing situation, they will clear all other aircraft from the plane’s westerly route so their safety will not be affected if Flight 77 is still flying along its original path but unable to be heard. [Freni, 2003, pp. 29; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 460; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30]
Airline and Possibly Pentagon Learn of Flight 77 Problems - While NEADS is not alerted about the errant aircraft, a controller at the Indianapolis Center will contact American Airlines at 8:58 to inform it that contact has been lost with Flight 77 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30] And an article in the New York Times will indicate that the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) promptly becomes aware of the problems with Flight 77 (see (Shortly After 8:51 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 9/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Robert Cauble, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The air traffic control tower at Dulles International Airport.The air traffic control tower at Dulles International Airport. [Source: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority]The FAA’s Herndon Command Center informs a supervisor at the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington Dulles International Airport that the FAA has lost contact with American Airlines Flight 77 and is trying to locate it. The Dulles TRACON then informs its air traffic controllers that a commercial aircraft is missing, and instructs them to look for primary targets on their radar screens. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32] (A primary target is a radar track that provides an aircraft’s position and speed, but not its altitude, and which can still be viewed when the plane’s transponder has been turned off. [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Salon, 9/10/2004] ) Dulles Airport is located 26 miles west of Washington, DC, and 22 miles from the Pentagon. [New York Times, 6/19/1994; USA Today, 9/13/2001] According to the 9/11 Commission, controllers at its TRACON will locate an unidentified aircraft on their radar screens at 9:32 (see 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001), although other accounts will suggest they locate the target slightly earlier (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33]

Entity Tags: Washington Dulles International Airport, Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Todd Lewis.Todd Lewis. [Source: NBC]After air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport notice an unidentified aircraft, later determined to be Flight 77, approaching Washington 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), they initially think it is a military fighter plane, due to its high speed and the way it is being flown. [ABC News, 10/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] Yet the alleged hijacker pilot of Flight 77 has been known for his poor flying skills. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001; New York Times, 5/4/2002]
Aircraft Performs Elaborate Maneuver - The Dulles controllers are unable to identify the plane because its transponder—which transmits identifying information about an aircraft to radar screens—has been turned off (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Washington Post, 9/12/2001] It is flying at almost 500 miles per hour while approaching Washington, and then performs a rapid downward spiral, “dropping the last 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes,” before hitting the Pentagon (see 9:34 a.m.- 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [CBS News, 9/21/2001; USA Today, 8/13/2002]
Moving 'Like a Military Aircraft' - Controller Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001] Another controller, Todd Lewis, will recall: “[N]obody knew that was a commercial flight at the time. Nobody knew that was American 77.… I thought it was a military flight. I thought that Langley [Air Force Base] had scrambled some fighters and maybe one of them got up there.… It was moving very fast, like a military aircraft might move at a low altitude.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002]
Alleged Pilot 'Could Not Fly at All' - Yet many people who have met Hani Hanjour, the hijacker allegedly at the controls of Flight 77, considered him to be a very poor pilot (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, February 8-March 12, 2001, and (April-July 2001)). Just a month previously, an airport refused to rent him a single-engine Cessna plane because instructors there found his flying skills so weak (see Mid-August 2001). [Gazette (Greenbelt), 9/21/2001; Newsday, 9/23/2001] And an employee at a flight school Hanjour attended earlier in the year will later comment: “I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all” (see January-February 2001). [New York Times, 5/4/2002]

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, Todd Lewis, Danielle O’Brien, Washington Dulles International Airport

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to some accounts, Vice President Dick Cheney is in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House by this time, along with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and others. Mineta will recall that, while a suspicious plane is heading toward Washington, an unidentified young man comes in and says to Cheney, “The plane is 50 miles out.” Mineta confers with acting FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger, who is at the FAA’s Washington headquarters. Belger says to him: “We’re watching this target on the radar, but the transponder’s been turned off. So we have no identification.” According to Mineta, the young man continues updating the vice president, saying, “The plane is 30 miles out,” and when he gets down to “The plane is 10 miles out,” asks, “Do the orders still stand?” In response, Cheney “whipped his neck around and said, ‘Of course the orders still stand. Have you heard anything to the contrary?’” Mineta will say that, “just by the nature of all the events going on,” he infers that the order being referred to is a shootdown order. Nevertheless, Flight 77 continues on and hits the Pentagon. [BBC, 9/1/2002; ABC News, 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; 9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; St. Petersburg Times, 7/4/2004] However, the 9/11 Commission will later claim the plane heading toward Washington is only discovered by the Dulles Airport air traffic control tower at 9:32 a.m. (see 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). But earlier accounts, including statements made by the FAA and NORAD, will claim that the FAA notified the military about the suspected hijacking of Flight 77 at 9:24 a.m., if not before (see (9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The FBI’s Washington Field Office was also reportedly notified that Flight 77 had been hijacked at about 9:20 a.m. (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission will further contradict Mineta’s account saying that, despite the “conflicting evidence as to when the vice president arrived in the shelter conference room [i.e., the PEOC],” it has concluded that he only arrived there at 9:58 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] According to the Washington Post, the discussion between Cheney and the young aide over whether “the orders” still stand occurs later than claimed by Mineta, and is in response to Flight 93 heading toward Washington, not Flight 77. [Washington Post, 1/27/2002]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Monte Belger, Norman Mineta

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Danielle O’Brien.Danielle O’Brien. [Source: ABC News]At 9:32 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, several air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport notice a fast-moving target, which is later determined to be Flight 77, heading eastbound on their radar screens. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33] At the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Dulles Airport, which is 22 miles west of the Pentagon, controllers have been searching for primary radar targets since 9:21, when the facility was notified of the loss of contact with Flight 77 (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). [USA Today, 9/13/2001; Navy Times, 9/22/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25]
Controllers See Fast-Moving Radar Track - They now notice an unidentified blip on their screens, heading toward the White House at unusually high speed. [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 145] Controller Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “I noticed the aircraft. It was an unidentified plane to the southwest of Dulles, moving at a very high rate of speed.… I had literally a blip and nothing more. I slid over to the controller on my left, Tom Howell, and I asked him, ‘Do you see an unidentified plane there southwest of Dulles?’ And his response was, ‘Yes. Oh, my gosh, yes! Look how fast he is.’” According to O’Brien, the aircraft is between 12 and 14 miles away when she notices it. It is heading for what is known as Prohibited Area 56 (P-56), which is the airspace over and near the White House, at a speed of about 500 miles per hour. [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; Department of Transportation, 8/4/2005] Because the plane’s transponder has been turned off (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001) its identity and type are presently unknown, and the Dulles controllers initially think it is a military aircraft (see (9:25 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25]
TRACON Notifies Others - The Dulles TRACON alerts Washington’s Reagan National Airport (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and the Secret Service (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001) to the approaching aircraft. Its operations supervisor also provides continuous updates over a teleconference that has been established at the FAA’s headquarters. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 25] According to an FAA chronology that is published shortly after 9/11, the Dulles TRACON controllers notice the unidentified aircraft earlier than the 9/11 Commission says, at between 9:25 and 9:30 (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Danielle O’Brien, Washington Dulles International Airport, Tom Howell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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. [Washington Post, 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. [St. Petersburg Times, 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; ABC News, 10/24/2001; USA Today, 8/13/2002; 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; New York Times, 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]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Victor Padgett, Dan Creedon, Washington Dulles International Airport

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The air traffic control tower at an Army airfield near the Pentagon receives a call from someone at Washington’s Reagan National Airport—presumably an air traffic controller—who instructs it to recall all its aircraft. [US Army Center for Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] Davison Army Airfield is at Fort Belvoir, 12 miles south of the Pentagon. The 12th Aviation Battalion, which is the Military District of Washington’s aviation support unit, is stationed there. This includes three helicopter companies that fly UH-1 “Huey” and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. [Military District of Washington, 8/2000]
Airfield Told to Land All Aircraft 'Very Quickly' - According to a supervisor of air traffic control at Davison Airfield who is currently in the airfield’s control tower, shortly before the time when the Pentagon is hit a controller at his facility receives the call from Reagan Airport telling them to recall all their air traffic. The supervisor, who will say that the caller is “going crazy,” takes over the call. The caller then tells him to “recall all your traffic. Just make sure that everybody lands.… [H]e was like, telling us, everybody that you got outside, bring them in and land them quickly, very quickly.” The supervisor tells him, “Give me a reason and I’ll do it,” but the caller responds, “I can’t tell you the reason, but you need to do this.” [US Army Center for Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] (At around 9:32 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission, Washington’s Dulles Airport notified Reagan Airport of a “radar target tracking eastbound at a high rate of speed” toward Washington (see 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001), so it is plausible that this is what has prompted Reagan Airport to call the Davison control tower. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33] )
Davison Airfield Recalls Its Aircraft - After the caller hangs up, the supervisor at Davison Airfield instructs the air traffic controller at his facility to “tell everybody to come in.” The controller then starts “recalling everybody that just departed,” and the supervisor approves “for them to make it straight in, the helicopters to land straight in without using the regular traffic pattern.” The control tower recalls its aircraft individually, rather than putting out a single broadcast telling all aircraft to return to the airfield. The supervisor will recall: “[E]verybody was coming in. And at that time when everybody was coming in… I was like thinking, why? Why do they want to recall everybody? That means that something is going on.” While the control tower is still recalling its aircraft, the supervisor looks out of a window to the northeast, and notices a large black cloud of smoke in the area of the Pentagon, the result of the attack there. [US Army Center for Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file] It is unclear what aircraft from Davison Airfield are airborne and recalled to base. But a 12th Aviation Battalion helicopter and its crew that are always on standby for “contingency” missions have been away this morning, conducting a traffic survey (see Early Morning September 11, 2001). They are presumably recalled at this time, if not beforehand. [Army Center of Military History, 11/14/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, 12th Aviation Battalion, Davison Army Airfield

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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