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9:56 a.m. September 11, 2001: Air Traffic Controller Changes Flight 93’s Destination to Washington

An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Cleveland Center enters a new flight plan for Flight 93 into the FAA computer system, giving a new destination of Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. Flight 93 is currently flying in the airspace covered by the Cleveland Center’s Imperial Sector radar position, which is being managed by controller Linda Justice. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001; St. Petersburg Times, 9/12/2001; 9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003 pdf file; Lynn Spencer, 2008]
Controller Enters New Flight Plan for Flight 93 - Justice changes the flight’s destination code from “SFO,” the code for San Francisco International Airport, to “DCA,” the code for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/12/2001] An FAA chronology will specify that she changes the flight plan “direct HGR [the code for Hagerstown Regional Airport in Maryland] to DCA.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001] Another FAA chronology will similarly state that Justice reroutes Flight 93 “direct to Hagerstown direct to Washington National.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 12/6/2001] Flight 93’s tag therefore now reads, “Hagerstown—National,” according to Justice. [9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003 pdf file]
New Flight Plan Not Due to Communication with Pilot - The reason Justice enters a new flight plan for Flight 93 is unclear. A minute earlier, the hijacker pilot on Flight 93 reprogrammed the plane’s navigational system for the new destination of Reagan Airport (see 9:55 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Longman, 2002, pp. 182; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 457] And according to the St. Petersburg Times, controllers typically only change a plane’s destination when this is requested by the pilots. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/12/2001] But one of the FAA chronologies will state that Justice’s change to the flight plan is “not a result of any communication with the pilot.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001]
Flight Plan Changed to Aid Handoff to Washington Controllers - Justice will later explain why she changes the flight plan. She will state that Flight 93 appears to be heading toward the airspace of the FAA’s Washington Center, and so, in “an attempt to expedite the situation,” she enters the change of routing to reflect Hagerstown Airport to Reagan Airport. She will say she does this “only to forward [the] information [about Flight 93] to the sectors the aircraft appeared to be tracking toward.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/12/2001 pdf file] Justice will tell the 9/11 Commission that she changes the routing when she sees Flight 93 is heading eastbound. She will say, “The easiest way to do a handoff is to change the flight plan,” and also say she changes the flight plan “to show that Washington Center was the recipient.” According to Justice, the “controversial step” she takes is “putting in Hagerstown, because the misconception was that she had communicated with the plane and cleared it through.” [9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003 pdf file] John Werth, another controller at the Cleveland Center, will tell the 9/11 Commission that Justice enters the new destination for Flight 93 “because she knew it would be easier to track the primary [radar track for the aircraft] when the computer has a flight plan to work with.” [9/11 Commission, 10/1/2003 pdf file] After changing the flight plan, Justice calls the Potomac Sector radar position at the Washington Center and tells the controller there to “pull up the data block” for Flight 93. Justice will say it is clear to the Washington Center controller that she has created the new destination in order to make it easier to locate the plane. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/12/2001 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003 pdf file]
New Flight Plan Causes False Reports of Plane Approaching Washington - According to author Lynn Spencer, the new flight plan creates a “coast track” of Flight 93 on the traffic situation displays at air traffic control facilities. “A coast track,” Spencer will write, “differs from a radar track in that it is not supported by radar returns but rather by a computer-generated, projected course for the flight. Although this track did not appear on controller radar screens, its presence on their [traffic situation displays] allowed Washington controllers to monitor the flight’s progression toward Washington.” According to Spencer, the presence of this coast track leads to incorrect reports of an aircraft approaching Washington in the minutes after Flight 93 crashes. She will write, “A controller in Washington, unaware that the flight had crashed, was calling position reports for the coast track of United 93 to the White House (see (Between 10:10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001)… as well as the FBI at the Pentagon (where firefighters were evacuated and the firefight suspended in anticipation of a second impact)” (see (10:15 a.m.-10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Lynn Spencer, 2008]

Entity Tags: John Werth, Linda Justice, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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