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Profile: Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center
Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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]
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