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Profile: Ben Sliney
Ben Sliney was a participant or observer in the following events:
Ben Sliney, a former air traffic controller and FAA manager who has been working as a lawyer in the private sector for many years, is offered the position of national operations manager at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. The offer is made by Jack Kies, the FAA’s manager of tactical operations. Sliney agrees to return to the FAA but asks to work first as a traffic management specialist at the Command Center, to learn the learn the operational details of the center from the ground up. After six months, Kies will again approach Sliney and offer him the job of national operations manager, and Sliney will accept it. His first day in the post will in fact be September 11. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 1-2]
The FAA Command Center, the center of daily management of the US air traffic system. On 9/11 it is managed by Ben Sliney (not pictured here). [Source: CNN]The FAA’s Boston Center calls the FAA Command Center and says it believes Flight 11 has been hijacked and is heading toward the New York Center’s airspace. The Command Center immediately establishes a teleconference between the Boston, New York, and Cleveland air traffic control centers, so Boston can help the other centers understand what is happening, in case Flight 11 should enter their airspace. Minutes later, in line with the standard hijacking protocol, the Command Center will pass on word of the suspected hijacking to the FAA’s Washington headquarters (see 8:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 19; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 11 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 21]
National Operations Manager Learns of Hijacking - A supervisor at the Command Center promptly passes on the news of the possible hijacking to Ben Sliney, who is on his first day as the national operations manager there. The supervisor says the plane in question is “American Flight 11—a 767 out of Boston for Los Angeles.” According to author Lynn Spencer, “Sliney flashes back to the routine for dealing with hijackings from the days when they were more common.” The procedure is to “[k]eep other aircraft away from the errant plane. Give the pilots what they need. The plane will land somewhere, passengers will be traded for fuel, and difficult negotiations with authorities will begin. The incident should resolve itself peacefully, although the ones in the Middle East, he recalls, often had a more violent outcome.” Apparently not expecting anything worse to happen, Sliney continues to the conference room for the daily 8:30 staff meeting there (see 8:30 a.m.-8:40 a.m. September 11, 2001).
Command Center a 'Communications Powerhouse' - The FAA Command Center is located in Herndon, Virginia, 25 miles from Washington, DC. According to Spencer, it “is a communications powerhouse, modeled after NASA’s Mission Control. The operations floor is 50 feet wide and 120 feet long, packed with tiered rows of computer stations, and at the front, seven enormous display screens show flight trajectories and weather patterns.” The center has nearly 50 specialists working around the clock, planning and monitoring the flow of air traffic over the United States. These specialists work with airlines and air traffic control facilities to fix congestion problems and deal with weather systems. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 1 and 19-20]
Managers at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, learn of the apparent hijacking of Flight 11, but continue with a meeting they are in for several minutes, until being notified that one of the plane’s flight attendants may have been stabbed. The daily staff meeting among all the department heads at the Command Center begins at 8:30 a.m. Ben Sliney, who is on his first day as national operations manager there, has just been informed of the suspected hijacking of Flight 11 (see 8:28 a.m. September 11, 2001). He begins the meeting by announcing news of the hijacking to the other managers, but then continues with his normal briefing, about the outlook for the coming day’s operations. Sliney is interrupted, apparently at around 8:40 a.m., when a supervisor enters the conference room and whispers to him that the situation with the hijacking has deteriorated: American Airlines has just called, reporting that a flight attendant on the plane may have been stabbed. Deciding he should be on the center’s operations floor rather than in the meeting, Sliney announces to the other managers: “Look, this hijack situation has seriously escalated and I need to get back to the floor. There is an unconfirmed report indicating that a flight attendant may have been stabbed.” He then excuses himself. The meeting is quickly broken up before the first World Trade Center crash occurs at 8:46 a.m. The managers then head to their posts. Despite the “intuitive nature of this group of people,” none of them will initially consider the first WTC crash to be connected to the hijacking they have been informed of. According to Linda Schuessler, the deputy director of system operations at the Command Center, “something that seemed so bizarre as flying a hijacked plane full of people into a skyscraper didn’t seem possible.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001; Freni, 2003, pp. 63; Spencer, 2008, pp. 1 and 19-21]
At the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, the national operations manager, Ben Sliney, learns more details of the hijacking of Flight 11, and becomes involved with the emergency response to it. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 21] A supervisor at the Command Center informed Sliney of the suspected hijacking at just before 8:30 (see 8:28 a.m. September 11, 2001). Soon after, the supervisor interrupted a meeting Sliney was in, to tell him American Airlines had called to report the deteriorating situation on Flight 11 (see 8:30 a.m.-8:40 a.m. September 11, 2001).
Sliney Receives More Details - Sliney heads to the center’s operations floor, where the supervisor gives him further details of the call from American Airlines, including information about flight attendant Betty Ong’s phone call from Flight 11 (see 8:19 a.m. September 11, 2001). The supervisor says the plane’s transponder has been switched off (see (Between 8:13 a.m. and 8:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001), which means no flight data is showing on the screens of air traffic controllers, and the latest information from the FAA’s Boston Center is that Flight 11 has turned south, and is now 35 miles north of New York City. On one of the large screens at the front of the Command Center that shows flight trajectories, Sliney can see that the track for Flight 11 is in “ghost.” This means that, because no transponder data is being received, the computer is displaying track information based on previously stored track data.
Sliney Seeks Information, Requests Teleconference - Sliney instructs his staff to contact facilities along the path the flight appears to be on, to find if anyone is in contact with it or tracking it. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 1 and 19-21] He will later recall, “I figured we’d try to get the people on the ground, the towers in the area, the police departments, anyone we could get to give us information on where this flight was.” [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/10/2006] Sliney then requests a teleconference between the FAA’s Boston Center, New York Center, and FAA headquarters in Washington, so they can share information about the flight in real time. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 21] The Command Center has already initiated a teleconference between the Boston, New York, and Cleveland Centers, immediately after it was notified of the suspected Flight 11 hijacking. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 11 ] However, Sliney apparently does not request military assistance. According to author Lynn Spencer, “The higher echelons at headquarters in Washington will make the determination as to the necessity of military assistance in dealing with the hijacking.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 21]
Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, learns that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, but it does not occur to him that this might have been the hijacked Flight 11 that he has been tracking. As national operations manager, Sliney is in charge of supervising all activities on the Command Center’s operations floor and overseeing the entire air traffic control system for the United States. He is currently on the operations floor, trying to gather and disseminate whatever information he can about Flight 11. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 2 and 45-46] At 8:48 a.m., a manager at the FAA’s New York Center provides a report on Flight 11 over a Command Center teleconference, saying: “We’re watching the airplane. I also had conversation with American Airlines, and they’ve told us that they believe that one of their stewardesses was stabbed and that there are people in the cockpit that have control of the aircraft, and that’s all the information they have right now.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 21] Although Flight 11 crashed two minutes earlier (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001), this is all Sliney is currently hearing about the aircraft. The Command Center’s military liaison then approaches him. The liaison is a colonel who is responsible for handling military airspace reservations, but is not part of the NORAD chain of command. He tells Sliney to put CNN up on one of the center’s screens, because “They are reporting that a small plane has hit the World Trade Center.” Upon following this suggestion, Sliney and his colleagues see the television footage of the burning North Tower. Sliney is baffled, commenting aloud: “That’s a lot of smoke for a small plane. I’ve worked New York airspace. Why would you be right over the World Trade Center on a clear, bright day?” However, according to author Lynn Spencer, “The notion that it is actually American 11 that has hit the tower doesn’t cross his mind; the idea that the hijacking they’ve been tracking might have flown into that building, especially on such a clear day, is simply unfathomable.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 46]
At the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, manager John White learns of the communication apparently made by a hijacker on Flight 11, stating “We have some planes” (see 8:24 a.m. September 11, 2001), and quickly notifies the national operations manager of this. Terry Biggio, the operations manager at the FAA’s Boston Center, is relaying all the information he has about Flight 11 to the Command Center’s teleconference. In the conference room at the Command Center, White is listening in. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 79-80] Because the air traffic controller monitoring Flight 11 had not understood the “We have some planes” hijacker communication, the Boston Center’s quality assurance specialist had been instructed to “pull the tape” of the transmission, listen to it carefully, and then report back. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 19] Having learned that the specialist has deciphered the transmission, Biggio now relays the details of it over the teleconference. Seconds later, those at the Command Center see Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade live on CNN. White promptly dispatches a manager to pass on the details of the transmission to Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the Command Center (see 9:06 a.m. and After September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 79-80] The FAA’s New England regional office also learns of the “We have some planes” communication at this time (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 23 ]
Linda Schuessler. [Source: Robert A. Reeder / Washington Post]After staff members at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, see the second attack on the World Trade Center live on CNN, Linda Schuessler, the deputy director of system operations there, makes the decision to secure the center in order to protect the building and its occupants. The Command Center’s doors are locked and all non-FAA personnel are ordered to leave the premises immediately. [Freni, 2003, pp. 64; Spencer, 2008, pp. 80-81] Schuessler will later say her reason for doing this is “because we didn’t know exactly what the situation was and what was going on.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001] At some point early on, she also assigns a member of staff to each manager at the Command Center, to be a note-taker and keep a record of every decision and order given by that manager. She realizes that documentation of all actions will be crucial for later recreating the day’s events. [Freni, 2003, pp. 65]
FAA Managers Gather Information - Schuessler will recall that, following the second attack, those in the Command Center start receiving information from FAA field facilities, “about unusual things that were going on.” National operations manager Ben Sliney, three first-level supervisors, and Schuessler are involved in gathering together information from around the country that the specialists at the Command Center are receiving. Schuessler will recall, “Every few minutes, we would gather in the middle of the operational floor and share the information and discuss what some of our options might be, what we needed to be doing.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001; Freni, 2003, pp. 64]
Schuessler Standing in for Absent Manager - Linda Schuessler has come to the Command Center after working at FAA headquarters, and lacks operation-level experience there. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 81] She is in charge of the Command Center this morning only because Jack Kies, the FAA’s manager of tactical operations, who would normally be in charge, is away for a meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Freni, 2003, pp. 65-66; Federal Aviation Administration, 5/18/2006] According to author Lynn Spencer, Schuessler therefore focuses on staying out of Ben Sliney’s way, and taking care of administrative tasks. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 81]
Two officers in the Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC)—a small office at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, manned by military reservists—contact the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at the Pentagon, to ask about military assistance in response to the terrorist attacks. [US Air Force, 9/11/2001; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/10/2002; 9/11 Commission, 4/14/2004]
Military Leaders 'in a Meeting to Determine Their Response' - Apparently shortly after the south World Trade Center tower is hit at 9:03 a.m., Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the Command Center, asks the ATSC for a military response to the ongoing events (see 9:06 a.m. and After September 11, 2001). Therefore, Lieutenant Colonel Michael-Anne Cherry, one of the three officers on duty in the ATSC, calls the NMCC. However, according to a chronology of the ATSC’s actions on this day, Cherry is told that “senior leaders” at the NMCC are “in a meeting to determine their response” to the attacks, and will call back.
Second Officer Calls NMCC, Told Fighters Have Been Launched - Then, at around 9:08 a.m., Sliney talks to another of the officers on duty in the ATSC, Colonel John Czabaranek, and asks if fighter jets have been launched toward New York. [US Air Force, 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission, 4/14/2004] Two F-15s have already taken off from Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, toward the New York area (see 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001), but, according to the 9/11 Commission, “Lacking a target,” these fighters have been “vectored toward military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast” (see (8:53 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20] In response to Sliney’s inquiry, Czabaranek calls the NMCC. The NMCC indicates that it is aware of the request for fighter support, and says aircraft have been scrambled from Otis Air Base. Czabaranek passes this information on to Sliney, telling him that fighters are en route.
ATSC's Secure Phones Initially Not Working - According to the chronology of the ATSC’s actions, the unit’s secure phones do not work for an incoming call from the NMCC that is apparently made shortly after 9:03 a.m. The ATSC’s keys for its secure phones are recalibrated, and the phones then “worked fine.” [US Air Force, 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission, 4/14/2004]
Bruce Barrett. [Source: H. Darr Beiser / USA Today]The FAA’s New York Center declares “air traffic control zero” (“ATC zero”), which means that all air traffic is prevented from departing from, arriving at, or traveling through the center’s airspace until further notice. [USA Today, 8/13/2002; Freni, 2003, pp. 18; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 24 ] According to author Lynn Spencer: “ATC zero is designed for situations in which an air traffic facility is completely incapable of handling aircraft due to a massive computer failure, power outage, or even a large enough weather system. The declaration pushes all their aircraft onto neighboring sectors, and any new airplanes from adjacent sectors are turned back, at the sector boundaries if necessary.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 68] The decision to declare ATC zero is made after the second plane hits the World Trade Center, confirming that the US is under terrorist attack. There are currently hundreds of aircraft in the skies around New York and the western Atlantic that the New York Center is responsible for. [Associated Press, 8/12/2002] Bruce Barrett, a senior manager at the New York Center, announces, “We’re declaring ATC zero,” and Mike McCormick, the center’s air traffic control manager, approves the order. Several of the managers there then start informing air traffic controllers of the decision.
Unprecedented Order - USA Today will report that this decision is unprecedented: “Controllers had gone to ‘air traffic control zero’ before, but only when their radar shut down or their radio transmitters went silent. The planes kept flying then, and controllers in other centers guided them. This time, ATC zero means something far more drastic. It means emptying the skies—something that has never been attempted. And not just the skies over Manhattan. Controllers must clear the air from southern New England to Maryland, from Long Island to central Pennsylvania—every mile of the region they control.… Controllers from Cleveland to Corpus Christi must reroute jets headed to the region and put some in holding patterns.”
Accounts Conflict over Whether Center Seeks Permission - According to USA Today, McCormick and Barrett declare ATC zero without first seeking permission from higher-ups, because a “call to Washington could take minutes, and they aren’t sure they have that long.” [USA Today, 8/13/2002] But according to Lynn Spencer, a New York Center supervisor has already requested ATC zero in a call to the FAA’s Herndon Command Center. Ben Sliney, the Command Center’s national operations manager, assured the supervisor, “You take care of matters in your center and we will provide all the assistance necessary by stopping any further aircraft from entering your airspace.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 68]
At the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, national operations manager Ben Sliney responds to the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and orders a “first-tier ground stop” to prevent aircraft from departing, arriving at, or flying through the airspace of the FAA’s New York Center. Like many others at the Command Center, Sliney has just seen Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the WTC live on CNN. A manager at the center then reports to him the news just received over the Command Center’s teleconference, about the sinister radio transmissions that have been deciphered by the Boston Center, stating “We have some planes” (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). According to author Lynn Spencer, “The words take on a sickening significance” to Sliney “after what he has just observed.”
Sliney Orders 'First-Tier Ground Stop' - Sliney orders across the room, “Give me a first-tier ground stop!” According to Spencer, “The order stops all aircraft departing, arriving, or flying through New York Center’s airspace, effectively closing down the nation’s busiest skies.” At 9:06 a.m., an advisory is sent out to every air traffic control facility in the nation, and the skies above New York are now officially closed. Numerous flights that are in the air or preparing to take off are given “holding instructions.” Meanwhile, the large screen at the front of the room in the Command Center displays the footage of Flight 175 hitting the WTC as it is shown repeatedly on CNN. According to Spencer: “[I]t becomes sickeningly obvious to all watching that the plane was a large commercial airliner. And it was no accident.” [AOPA Pilot, 11/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 80-81] Around this same time, the FAA’s New York Center takes action similar to that of the Command Center, declaring “air traffic control zero,” which prevents all air traffic from departing, arriving at, or traveling through its airspace (see 9:05 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 24 ] And at around 9:25 a.m., the Command Center will order a “nationwide ground stop,” which prevents any aircraft from taking off in the entire United States (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 33 ]
Sliney Expands Teleconference - Also in response to the second WTC crash, Sliney decides that he needs to expand the Command Center’s teleconference (see (Between 8:48 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001) so as to include the secretary of transportation. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 81] It is expanded to include the secretary of transportation’s office, FAA headquarters, and other agencies. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001] It is unclear whether Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta participates himself, as he is told to go to the White House around this time, and subsequently heads there (see (9:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003]
Military Liaison Unable to Help - Sliney also seeks out the military liaison at the Command Center to get more information about what is going on. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 81] Presumably this officer is one of the three members of the Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC) there (see (Between 9:04 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/10/2002] But, according to Spencer, it is “clear that the lieutenant colonel’s job has nothing to do with NORAD or the air defense interceptors. He is military, but his job duties at the Command Center are focused on military airspace usage. He has no place in the military chain of command that is relevant this morning.” Sliney therefore “can only assume that people much higher up than both of them are dealing with the military response. The fighters must be on their way.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 81]
The FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. [Source: Federal Aviation Administration]Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, puts the word out that he wants all air traffic control facilities around the US to inform him of anything unusual that occurs with the flights they are handling. In response, news of suspicious activity quickly starts coming in to the Command Center. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 125-126]
Command Center Calls Field Facilities - Sliney wants air traffic control facilities to notify him of anything out of the ordinary, such as a radar target disappearing from the radar scope, loss of communication with an aircraft, or an aircraft making an unauthorized change of course. He also wants to know immediately of any glitches that occur, even if these are common, everyday problems, such as a flight deviating from its course, missing a frequency change, overlooking a radio call, or getting a transponder code wrong. The center’s controllers at each regional desk therefore start calling their field facilities, and ask them to report any unusual occurrences. [9/11 Commission, 7/22/2003 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 125] The Command Center has telecommunications lines to all the major air traffic control facilities in the US, which enables it to reach out to those facilities and establish the big picture about aircraft activity. [Freni, 2003, pp. 64]
'More and More' Responses Received - Following the call for information, numerous reports of suspicious activity are received from the air traffic control facilities. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 125-126] Linda Schuessler, the deputy director of system operations at the Command Center, will later recall, “[W]e started getting more and more calls about bomb threats, about aircraft that we had lost communication or radar identification with.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 12/17/2001]
Center Lists Suspect Aircraft - Sliney wants a list compiled of the reportedly suspicious aircraft. A dry-erase board is set up in the middle of the room. On it a manager keeps track of the reports that are coming in, writing down where each suspect aircraft was last seen, who was working it, where the flight originated, and where it is going. Another person contacts the field facilities to follow up on the reports. [9/11 Commission, 7/22/2003 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 126]
Two Dozen Suspicious Flights - Author Pamela Freni will later describe, “[F]or the next several hours the call signs and status” of every suspicious aircraft will be recorded. Command Center personnel call “airline operations centers, trying to determine any crises on each flight. Only when each plane landed or was found safe did its identification information disappear from the board. Upward to two dozen were listed at one time, but ultimately the number was whittled to 11 highly suspicious cases” (see (9:09 a.m. and After) September 11, 2001). “Nine of those airplanes would land safely. Two of them—AA 77 and UA 93—would not.” [Freni, 2003, pp. 64-65]
Daniel Bueno. [Source: Discovery Channel]At “approximately 9:15 a.m.,” according to the 9/11 Commission, Daniel Bueno, a supervisor at the FAA’s Boston Center, asks the FAA’s Herndon Command Center to contact all the FAA centers nationwide and instruct them to issue an alert, informing all airborne aircraft of the events unfolding in New York and advising them to heighten their cockpit security. Boston Center air traffic controllers have recently issued a similar alert to all aircraft in their airspace (see 9:09 a.m.-9:10 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 25-26 ] However, the 9/11 Commission will conclude, “We have found no evidence to suggest that the Command Center acted on this request or issued any type of cockpit security alert.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 23] According to author Lynn Spencer, “The request never makes it to Ben Sliney,” the national operations manager at the Command Center. “Tragically, it is lost in the confusion and never gets past the staff person monitoring Sliney’s desk as events rapidly spiral out of control.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 99] But Ellen King, a Command Center manager, offers a different explanation. She will tell the 9/11 Commission that the FAA culture and mindset on 9/11 are such that the FAA “would never have relayed this message directly to all pilots.… [T]he FAA would pass situational awareness to the airline company representatives who, in turn, would determine if such action was necessary.” [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 26 and 92 ]
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. [Time, 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.”
[USA Today, 8/13/2002] 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.”
[USA Today, 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.’”
[Aviation Week and Space Technology, 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). [Time, 9/14/2001; US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; Newsday, 9/23/2001; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; Newsday, 9/10/2002]
According to the 9/11 Commission, word of Flight 93’s hijacking reaches FAA headquarters. By this time, headquarters has established an open line of communication with the FAA Command Center at Herndon, Virginia. It had instructed the center to poll all flight control centers about suspect aircraft. So, at this time, the Command Center passes on Cleveland’s message: “United 93 may have a bomb on board.” The FAA headquarters apparently does not forward this information to the military, despite having the responsibility for doing so. Ben Sliney, the FAA’s national operations manager at its Herndon Command Center, will later recount, “I do know that all the information was being relayed to headquarters and, at least as far as we were concerned, it should have been. We thought it had been given to the military at each juncture.” The Command Center continually updates FAA headquarters on Flight 93 until it crashes. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; CBC, 9/12/2006]
Military officers at the FAA’s Command Center are informed of the hijacking of Flight 93, according to the FAA’s National Operations Manager Ben Sliney. If such notification is given, it is presumably shortly after the Command Center learns of the hijacking (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). Sliney will later tell the 9/11 Commission: “Available to us at the Command Center of course is the military cell, which was our liaison with the military services. They were present at all of the events that occurred on 9/11.” He will add, “The normal protocols for the events that were transpiring then—that is to say hijacked aircraft, which requires a notification to NORAD—those, at least I was given to understand, were made promptly—the notifications on each hijack.” The FAA’s acting Deputy Administrator Monte Belger will add: “[T]here were military people on duty at the FAA Command Center, as Mr. Sliney said. They were participating in what was going on. There were military people in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization in a situation room. They were participating in what was going on.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] If the cell is notified, it is unclear what, if anything, the military liaison officers—Colonel John Czabaranek, Lieutenant Colonel Michael-Anne Cherry, and Major Kevin Bridges (see (Between 9:04 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001)—at the Command Center do with the information about Flight 93’s hijacking. The 9/11 Commission will say that the first notification to the military about Flight 93 comes at 10:07 a.m. (see 10:05 a.m.-10:08 a.m. September 11, 2001).
FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney. [Source: Publicity photo]Ben Sliney, FAA’s National Operations Manager, orders the entire nationwide air traffic system shut down. All flights at US airports are stopped. Around 3,950 flights are still in the air. Sliney makes the decision without consulting FAA head Jane Garvey, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, or other bosses, but they quickly approve his actions. It’s Sliney’s first day on the job. [CNN, 9/12/2001; New York Times, 9/12/2001; Washington Post, 9/12/2001; MSNBC, 9/22/2001; Associated Press, 8/12/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; USA Today, 8/13/2002; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; Newsday, 9/10/2002] Seventy-five percent of the planes land within one hour of the order. [USA Today, 8/12/2002] The 9/11 Commission will later remark that this “was an unprecedented order” that the “air traffic control system handled… with great skill.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29] The Washington Post has reported that Mineta told Monte Belger at the FAA: “Monte, bring all the planes down,” even adding, “[Expletive] pilot discretion.” [Washington Post, 1/27/2002] However, it is later reported by a different Post reporter that Mineta did not even know of the order until 15 minutes later. This reporter “says FAA officials had begged him to maintain the fiction.” [Slate, 4/2/2002]
Doug Davis. [Source: Federal Aviation Administration]John White, a manager at the FAA’s Command Center, suggests to Doug Davis, the special assistant for technical operations in air traffic services at FAA headquarters, that fighter jets should be launched in response to Flight 93. However, FAA headquarters is apparently unable to act on this suggestion. [Federal Aviation Administration, 10/21/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/10/2006] In the last few minutes, the Command Center has warned headquarters that Flight 93 is “29 minutes out of Washington” and approaching the city (see 9:41 a.m.-9:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 44 ]
Command Center Asks about Launching Fighters - Davis now tells White, “They’re pulling Jeff [Griffith, the FAA’s deputy director of air traffic] away to go talk about United 93.” White asks, “Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft?” Davis replies, “Oh, God, I don’t know.” White says, “Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.” However, Davis only responds, “Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 10/21/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 29] This conversation takes place 13 minutes after the FAA’s Cleveland Center asked the Command Center whether anyone had asked the military to launch fighter jets to intercept Flight 93 (see (9:36 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 40 ]
Person Who Could Request Fighters Is Unavailable - Apparently there is only one person at FAA headquarters who is authorized to request military assistance, and Ben Sliney, the Command Center’s national operations manager, is told that no one can find him. Sliney will later recount: “I said something like, ‘That’s incredible. There’s only one person. There must be someone designated or someone who will assume the responsibility of issuing an order, you know.’ We were becoming frustrated in our attempts to get some information. What was the military response?” [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 9/10/2006] This lack of response to Flight 93 contrasts with the FAA’s earlier reaction to Flight 11, when Boston Center air traffic controllers contacted NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) themselves (see (8:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and even called military bases directly (see 8:34 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:34 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 20]
The plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft is ordered to land by the FAA’s Cleveland Center, but Ashcroft is intent on reaching Washington, DC, and instructs his pilot to ignore the order. [Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 117; Spencer, 2008, pp. 258] Ashcroft learned of the attacks in New York while flying to Milwaukee in a small government jet, and immediately wanted to return to Washington, but his plane needed to land first in Milwaukee to refuel (see Shortly After 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Even though the FAA had issued a nationwide ground stop to prevent aircraft from taking off, Ashcroft then insisted that his plane leave Milwaukee to fly back to Washington (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001).
FAA Manager Furious, Wants Plane to Land - When Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, hears about Ashcroft’s plane defying the ground stop order, he is livid. He immediately calls the FAA’s Cleveland Center and tells it to order the plane to land. An air traffic controller at the Cleveland Center then issues this order to Ashcroft’s plane. [Newsweek, 3/10/2003; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257-258] David Clemmer, the plane’s pilot, tells Ashcroft, “They’re instructing me to land outside of Detroit,” but Ashcroft tells him, “No, keep going.” [Washington Post, 9/28/2001; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 117]
Controller Reports that Plane Is Not Complying - According to a 2002 FAA report, Ashcroft then requests that his plane be allowed to immediately return to Washington, and he receives permission to do so. [Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ] But author Lynn Spencer will give a different account, saying that Clemmer “chooses to ignore the controller and continues toward Washington.” The Cleveland Center controller then informs the FAA Command Center that the pilot of Ashcroft’s plane is not responding and not complying. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 258] Ashcroft’s plane will subsequently be redirected toward Richmond, Virginia, and is threatened with being shot down if it does not land (see 11:11 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Daily Record (Glasgow), 9/29/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 118]
The plane carrying Attorney General John Ashcroft, which is heading toward Washington, DC, is threatened with being shot down by the military if it does not land, and is diverted to Richmond, Virginia. [Washington Post, 9/28/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 258] Even though the FAA had issued a national ground stop preventing aircraft from taking off (see (9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Ashcroft insisted that his plane take off and fly back to Washington after it landed in Milwaukee to refuel (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). And though the FAA has been instructing all aircraft to land at the nearest airport (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001), Ashcroft told his pilot to ignore an order to land near Detroit, and instead continue toward Washington (see 10:40 a.m. September 11, 2001). [US Congress. House. Committee On Transportation And Infrastructure, 9/21/2001; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 117; Spencer, 2008, pp. 257-258]
Fighters Intercept Ashcroft's Plane - When Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, hears that Ashcroft’s pilot is refusing to land, he notifies NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). As a result, two F-16 fighter jets from a nearby Air National Guard base intercept Ashcroft’s plane, but they remain out of sight and undetected by its pilot. The F-16s’ pilots report to NEADS that the errant plane is a private corporate jet without any markings, which is heading for Washington and does not seem to have any intention of landing.
Sliney Wants Plane 'out of My Sky' - Ashcroft’s pilot, David Clemmer, has started broadcasting a message “in the blind,” meaning it is not intended for any specific air traffic controller, stating that the attorney general is on the plane and they are returning to Washington. The F-16 pilots notify NEADS of this, but when a NEADS officer then tells Sliney about the message, Sliney asks, “Can you guarantee me that it is indeed John Ashcroft on that plane?” The officer replies, “No sir, we cannot,” and so Sliney demands, “Then get him out of my sky!” NEADS issues the order to the two F-16 pilots that if the plane will not land voluntarily, then they must take it down. The F-16 flight lead calls the FAA’s Washington Center and arranges for one of its controllers to call the plane’s pilot and tell him that if he does not divert and land, his plane will be shot down. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 258]
Pilot Warned Plane Could Be Shot Down - The Washington Center controller tells Clemmer, “Land your plane immediately, or risk getting shot down by the US Air Force.” [Newsweek, 9/24/2001] Clemmer relays this warning to Ashcroft, telling him: “Sir, there’s a shootdown order. If we get any closer to Washington, they might blow us out of the sky.” [Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 118] Clemmer also turns to an FBI agent who has been assigned to guard Ashcroft, and says, “Well, Larry, we’re in deep kimchi here, and basically, all the rules you and I know are out the window.” He tells air traffic controllers that he is carrying the attorney general, but is worried that this information won’t get through to military commanders who control the airspace around Washington. [Newsweek, 9/24/2001] Clemmer will later recall: “We didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize our safety or the safety of the [attorney general]. I know I didn’t want to get shot down either.”
Plane Diverted to Richmond - According to some accounts, Ashcroft finally relents, and, at the insistence of the FAA, his plane is diverted to Richmond. Ashcroft will later recall, “It was a real negotiation [with the FAA].” [Washington Post, 9/28/2001; Newsweek, 3/10/2003; Spencer, 2008, pp. 258] However, according to a 2002 FAA report, Ashcroft’s plane is diverted to Richmond “due to air traffic requests for the release of medevac aircraft in the Washington, DC, area.” [Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ] As the plane flies toward Richmond, Clemmer negotiates getting a fighter escort for it. Ashcroft will persist in his desire to reach Washington, and his plane will eventually be cleared to land in the capital (see 11:27 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/28/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 272]
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]
Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, announces that the last of the aircraft inbound to the United States has landed. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 279] At 10:21 a.m., the FAA ordered the diversion of all international flights inbound to the US (see 10:21 a.m. September 11, 2001). Most flights that were close to US shores then headed for Canada, while other flights headed back to the airports they had come from. [Time, 9/14/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 3/21/2002 ] In total, 239 diverted aircraft have landed at Canadian airports. Most of them had been heading to the US from Europe. [NAV Canada, 7/22/2005]
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