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The FAA’s Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, is informed that a Korean Airlines plane is a possible hijacking, although the aircraft is in fact fine. (CNN 8/14/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 256-257) Korean Airlines Flight 85, a Boeing 747 with 215 people on board, is on its way from Seoul, South Korea, to New York. It is heading for a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, and is currently several hundred miles west of Alaska, over the North Pacific.
Pilots Sent Message Signifying Hijacking - The alarm has been raised by ARINC, a Maryland company that airlines pay to transmit text messages to and from their planes. In response to the morning’s terrorist attacks, the company had begun scanning every communication it had transmitted on this day, in a search for other hijacked aircraft. It found a message sent by the pilots of Flight 85 to the Korean Airlines headquarters at 11:08 a.m. that included the letters “HJK,” which is the code signaling a hijacking. ARINC officials are concerned the message was a coded plea for help, and so alert the FAA to it. In response to this notification, the FAA informs air traffic controllers in Anchorage of the suspicious flight, and alerts NORAD to it (see (12:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (Levin 8/12/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 257)
Reason for Message Unclear - The reason the Flight 85 pilots used the code for a hijacking in their ARINC message when their plane is not hijacked is unclear. Korean Airlines administrator Michael Lim will suggest the “HJK” code was intended as a question rather than a warning, but this was unclear in the message because pilots are unable to type question marks into ARINC messages. (Hollander 9/8/2002) David Greenberg, the Korean Airlines operations chief, will say the pilots’ message was “innocent, part of a routine discussion on where to divert the flight after airspace in the United States had been closed.” He will add that the pilots used the hijack code “to refer to the hijackings that day.” (Levin 8/12/2002) Author Lynn Spencer will similarly suggest that the crew of Flight 85 had “simply been trying to relay to controllers their awareness of the hijackings on the East Coast.” She will add: “It was an odd idea for the pilots to have, and contrary to their training. But for whatever reason—perhaps because of some language or communication barrier, or some training failure—they made a very dangerous bad call.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 279)
Flight 85 Redirected to Canada - At 1:24 p.m., the pilots of Flight 85 will set their plane’s transponder to indicate that the flight has been hijacked (see 1:24 p.m. September 11, 2001). The plane will be directed away from Anchorage (see (Shortly After 1:24 p.m.) September 11, 2001) and escorted by fighter jets to Whitehorse Airport in Canada, where it lands at 2:54 p.m. (see 2:54 p.m. September 11, 2001). Only then will officials be able to confirm that the aircraft has not been hijacked (see September 12, 2001). (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 9/12/2001; Yukon Government 11/13/2001, pp. 16, 18 ; Levin 8/12/2002)
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). (Hollander 9/29/2001; Levin 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. (Levin 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). (Hollander 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.” (Levin 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. (Hollander 9/29/2001)
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