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Profile: Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center
Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center was a participant or observer in the following events:
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 ; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 ; 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]
According to the 9/11 Commission, “Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked [Flight 77] from the moment its transponder was turned off at 8:56 [a.m.].” However, for eight minutes and 13 seconds, between 8:56 and 9:05, this primary radar data is not displayed to Indianapolis Center air traffic controllers. “The reasons are technical, arising from the way the software processed radar information, as well as from poor primary radar coverage where American 77 was flying.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] According to the Washington Post, Flight 77 “was hijacked in an area of limited radar coverage.” The Post adds that there are two particular types of radar system. “Secondary” radar “is the type used almost exclusively today in air traffic control. It takes an aircraft’s identification, destination, speed, and altitude from the plane’s transponder and displays it on a controller’s radar screen.” “Primary” radar, on the other hand, “is an older system. It bounces a beam off an aircraft and tells a controller only that a plane is aloft—but does not display its type or altitude. The two systems are usually mounted on the same tower.” Normally, “If a plane simply disappears from radar screens, most controllers can quickly switch on the primary system, which should display a small plus sign at the plane’s location, even if the aircraft’s transponder is not working. But the radar installation near Parkersburg, W. Va., was built with only secondary radar—called ‘beacon-only’ radar. That left the controller monitoring Flight 77 at the Indianapolis Center blind when the hijackers apparently switched off the aircraft’s transponder (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001), sources said.” [Washington Post, 11/3/2001] In its final report, the 9/11 Commission will include a rather elaborate explanation for the loss of primary radar contact with Flight 77, saying it is because “the ‘preferred’ radar in this geographic area had no primary radar system, the ‘supplemental’ radar had poor primary coverage, and the FAA ATC [air traffic control] software did not allow the display of primary radar data from the ‘tertiary’ and ‘quadrary’ radars.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 460] The Commission will note that two managers at the Indianapolis Center who assist in the search on radar for the missing aircraft do “not instruct other controllers at Indianapolis Center to turn on their primary radar coverage to join in the search for American 77.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]
An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs it that contact has been lost with Flight 77. The controller is a sector radar associate, whose job is to help with hand-offs and to coordinate with other sectors and facilities. He speaks to American Airlines dispatcher Jim McDonnell. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 63] The controller begins, “This is Indianapolis Center trying to get a hold of American 77.” McDonnell asks for clarification, “Who you trying to get a hold of?” and the controller replies: “American 77.… On frequency 120.27.… We were talking to him and all of a sudden it just, uh…” McDonnell interjects: “Okay, all right. We’ll get a hold of him for you.” The call comes to an abrupt end and the controller then continues trying to contact Flight 77. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 63-64] Soon after this call, American Airlines’ executive vice president of operations, Gerard Arpey, will give an order to stop all American flight takeoffs in the Northeast US (see Between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. September 11, 2001). By 8:59 a.m., American Airlines begins attempts to contact Flight 77 using ACARS (a digital communications system used primarily for aircraft-to-airline messages). Within minutes, some time between 9:00 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., American will get word that United Airlines also has lost contact with a missing airliner (presumably Flight 175). When reports of the second WTC crash come through after 9:03 a.m., one manager will mistakenly shout, “How did 77 get to New York and we didn’t know it?” [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 454; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 31 ] The sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center will call American Airlines again about Flight 77 at 9:02, and again speak with McDonnell (see 9:02 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001]
According to the 9/11 Commission, shortly after 9:00 a.m., Indianapolis flight control begins to notify other government agencies that American 77 is missing and has possibly crashed. For instance, at 9:08 a.m., Indianapolis contacts Air Force Search and Rescue at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and tells them to look out for a downed aircraft. It is not clear what Air Force Search and Rescue does with this information. Indianapolis also contacts the West Virginia State Police at about 9:15 a.m., and asks whether they have any reports of a downed aircraft (see Soon After 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). However, they apparently do not contact NORAD, but do notify the FAA regional center at 9:09 a.m. (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]
An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center contacts the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas, and informs dispatcher Jim McDonnell that the center is unable to make contact with Flight 77 and does not know the location of this aircraft. The same controller called American Airlines and spoke with McDonnell four minutes earlier, reporting that radio contact had been lost with Flight 77 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001). McDonnell now says he has tried contacting Flight 77 but did not get a reply back. The controller then tells him: “We, uh, we lost track control of the guy. He’s in coast track but we haven’t, we don’t [know] where his target is and we can’t get a hold of him. Um, you guys tried him and no response?” McDonnell confirms, “No response.” The controller continues: “Yeah, we have no radar contact and, uh, no communications with him. So if you guys could try again.” McDonnell replies, “We’re doing it.” [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30 ] Flight 77 made its last radio communication with controllers at 8:51 (see 8:51 a.m. September 11, 2001), and deviated from its assigned course at 8:54 (see (8:54 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 8-9]
After the second World Trade Center crash at 9:03 a.m., air traffic controllers at the FAA’s New York Center are told by their supervisors to watch for airplanes whose speed indicates that they are jets, but which either are not responding to commands or have disabled their transponders. Controllers in Washington receive a similar briefing, which will help them pick out hijacked planes more quickly. [New York Times, 9/13/2001] Whether controllers at other FAA air traffic control centers receive similar instructions at this time is unclear, but those at its Indianapolis Center, which is handling Flight 77, are apparently not informed by their supervisors of the unfolding crisis. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 105-107]
According to the 9/11 Commission, Flight 77’s radar blip, missing for the last eight minutes, reappears on Indianapolis flight control’s primary radar scope. It is east of its last known position. It remains in air space managed by Indianapolis until 9:10 a.m., and then passes into Washington air space. Two managers and one flight controller continue to look west and southwest for the flight, but don’t look east. Managers don’t instruct other Indianapolis controllers to join the search for the flight. Neither they nor FAA headquarters issues an “all points bulletin” to surrounding centers to search for Flight 77. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] Newsday claims that rumors circulate the plane might have exploded in midair. [Newsday, 9/23/2001] However, the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that Indianapolis flight controllers did not look east is contradicted by an account indicating that American Airlines headquarters was told that Flight 77 had turned around.
An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which was monitoring Flight 77 when it disappeared from radar (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001), learns for the first time that there has been at least one hijacking—of Flight 11—this morning, and that planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. Yet, after he passes this information on to a colleague, neither controller suspects that the missing Flight 77 might also be hijacked. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24; Spencer, 2008, pp. 105-107]
Dispatcher Gives Details of Crisis - The controller, a sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center, calls the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas and overhears dispatcher Jim McDonnell on another call, discussing the morning’s crisis. He hears McDonnell saying, “… and it was a Boston-LA flight and [Flight] 77 is a Dulles-LA flight and, uh, we’ve had an unconfirmed report a second airplane just flew into the World Trade Center.” McDonnell then acknowledges the Indianapolis Center controller, who asks, “Did you get a hold of American 77 by chance?” McDonnell answers, “No sir, but we have an unconfirmed report the second airplane hit the World Trade Center and exploded.” The controller asks, “Say again?” McDonnell tells him: “You know, we lost American 11 to a hijacking. American 11 was a Boston to Los Angeles flight.” The controller seems shocked, saying: “I can’t really… I can’t hear what you’re saying there. You said American 11?” McDonnell replies, “Yes, we were hijacked… and it was a Boston-LA flight, and [Flight] 77 is a Dulles-LA flight and, uh, we’ve had an unconfirmed report a second airplane just flew into the World Trade Center.” The controller then abruptly ends the call, saying: “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” [New York Times, 10/16/2001; Spencer, 2008, pp. 106]
Controllers Make No Connection with Flight 77 - After hanging up, the Indianapolis Center controller immediately calls another of the center’s radar associates and repeats what he has just heard. They look through their flight plans but can find no record of Flight 11 in their system. According to author Lynn Spencer, the center’s host computer, which performs critical radar and flight management functions, only holds on to active flight plans. Therefore, several minutes after the system had stopped tracking the transponder data tag for Flight 11, its flight plan dropped out of the system. According to Spencer, the two controllers fail to connect what McDonnell has said with the disappearance of Flight 77: “The best the controllers can figure is that [Flight 11] was hijacked on the ground in New York and proceeded to take off for Los Angeles without a clearance. They’re not sure just how this is relevant to the disappearance of American 77, if at all, and they’ve done all they can do for now.… Confused, they return to their jobs.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 106-107]
Hijacking Not Suspected - At 9:08, the Indianapolis Center contacted Air Force Search and Rescue to request that it be on the lookout for an accident involving Flight 77 (see (After 9:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and at 9:09 it informs the FAA regional office of a possible accident involving Flight 77 (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). However, according to the 9/11 Commission, it is not until about 9:20 that the center begins to doubt its initial assumption that Flight 77 has crashed, and discusses this concern with the FAA’s Herndon Command Center (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 31-32 ]
When Indianapolis flight control reported the loss of contact with Flight 77 to the FAA’s Great Lakes Regional Operations Center (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001), an employee at an FAA flight service station (which particular one is unspecified) picks up on the communication and mistakenly calls the Ashland, Kentucky police to report a confirmed crash. Indianapolis controllers had noted the last known position of Flight 77 as being near the Ohio-Kentucky border, so this becomes part of the employee’s report. Indianapolis Center personnel, suspecting that Flight 77 may have crashed, subsequently contact the same police office, requesting information on any crashes. (An FAA report describes them contacting the West Virginia State Police at about 9:15 a.m. Ashland, though in Kentucky, is only a few miles out of West Virginia, so this may be referring the same incident.) Using the flight service station report as an actual accident, the police mistakenly confirm the crash, even though it never actually happened. A state helicopter is even dispatched to the plane’s last known coordinates, but there is nothing there. Time is lost in all the confusion. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ; Freni, 2003, pp. 29] It is not until about 9:20 a.m., when Indianapolis Center learns there are other hijacked aircraft in the system (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001), that it will start to doubt its initial assumption that Flight 77 crashed. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32 ] However, the report of a downed plane persists. Shortly before 10 a.m., Dale Watson, counterterrorism chief at the FBI, will say to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke over a video teleconference, “We have a report of a large jet crashed in Kentucky, near the Ohio line.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 13] According to USA Today, “The reports are so serious that [FAA Administrator Jane] Garvey notifies the White House that there has been another crash. Only later does she learn the reports are erroneous.” [USA Today, 8/13/2002]
An air traffic controller at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which was monitoring Flight 77 when it disappeared from radar (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001), receives confirmation from American Airlines that Flight 11 was hijacked, but apparently still does not suspect that the missing Flight 77 may also have been hijacked. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24] The controller, a sector radar associate at the Indianapolis Center, called the American Airlines dispatch office in Texas five minutes earlier, and was informed by dispatcher Jim McDonnell that Flight 11 had been hijacked and that two planes had hit the World Trade Center (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Spencer, 2008, pp. 106] He now calls the dispatch office and again speaks with McDonnell. After introducing himself, he asks, “American 11, you guys said he departed off of, uh, New York?” McDonnell replies, “Boston.” The controller continues, “Boston, he was going to LA, and it was a hijacked airplane?” McDonnell confirms, “Yes.” The controller asks, “And you, have you heard anything from American 77?” McDonnell replies, “No,” and then adds, “I talked to a winder in the center up there, and I gave them the information I got.” (What McDonnell is referring to here is unclear.) The controller thanks McDonnell, and the call ends. [New York Times, 10/16/2001] Despite receiving this information from American Airlines, according to the 9/11 Commission it is not until about 9:20 that the Indianapolis Center begins to doubt its initial assumption that Flight 77 has crashed, and discusses this concern with the FAA’s Herndon Command Center (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32 ]
According to the 9/11 Commission, the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which was monitoring Flight 77 when it disappeared from radar (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (8:56 a.m.-9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001), has learned by 9:20 a.m. that there are “other hijacked aircraft,” and begins “to doubt its initial assumption that American 77 had crashed.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24] In fact, a transcript of air traffic controller communications will show that the Indianapolis Center was informed of the Flight 11 hijacking, and that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, at 9:09 a.m. (see 9:09 a.m. September 11, 2001); five minutes later, it received confirmation of the Flight 11 hijacking (see 9:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 10/16/2001] And television networks have been covering the crashes in New York since as early as 8:48 a.m. (see 8:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Bamford, 2004, pp. 16-17]
Other Facilities Notified - The manager at the Indianapolis Center now discusses the concern that Flight 77 may not have crashed with the FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. This discussion prompts the Command Center to notify some FAA field facilities that Flight 77 is lost. [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32 ] Also at around 9:20, the Indianapolis Center operations manager contacts the FAA’s Chicago Center. He advises its operations manager of his concern that Flight 77 may have been hijacked, and says to be on the lookout, based on the events that have occurred in New York. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 ] By 9:21, according to the 9/11 Commission, the FAA “Command Center, some FAA field facilities, and American Airlines had started to search for American 77. They feared it had been hijacked.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 24-25]
Investigators for the 9/11 Commission discover that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has withheld a large amount of documents from it about the day of the attacks and falsely claimed it had provided everything the Commission asked for (see August 2003). The discovery is made on a day when the Commission’s investigators begin interviewing air traffic controllers at centers on the East Coast and in the Midwest. John Farmer, the staffer who leads the Commission’s team dealing with this aspect of its work, is only a few minutes into interviews at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center when he realizes, in the words of author Philip Shenon, “just how much evidence the FAA had held back.” His interviewees tell him that there is “extensive information the Commission has not seen, including tape recordings of conversations between the individual air traffic controllers and the hijacked planes.” He also discovers that what the FAA has provided is merely the “accident package,” rather than the much larger “accident file.” Farmer is “furious” and contacts the Commission’s lawyer in Washington. Asked to explain the situation, the FAA rapidly admits there is other material and, within days, several boxes of new material, including the air traffic control tapes, arrive at the Commission’s offices. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201-202] However, the Commission has lost confidence in the FAA and will issue it with a subpoena next month (see October 14, 2003).
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