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Delta Air Lines instructs one of its aircraft, Flight 1989, to land at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, but the FAA’s Cleveland Center, which is handling the aircraft, is not notified of this. (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; Kropko 8/15/2002)
Pilots Instructed to Land - The pilots of Delta 1989 receive an ACARS text message from their airline’s dispatch office in Atlanta, Georgia, instructing them to “Land immediately in Cleveland.” (Spencer 2008, pp. 167) According to USA Today, “Since early reports that a bomb, then hijackers, might be aboard” Delta 1989, Delta Air Lines’ headquarters in Atlanta has been tracking the flight, and receiving reports on it every five minutes. (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) The plane’s pilot, Captain Paul Werner, quickly types a response to the message, “ok.” But, a couple of minutes later, he receives another ACARS message from the airline. It says: “Confirm landing in Cleveland. Use correct phraseology.” Werner and First Officer David Dunlap are puzzled. According to author Lynn Spencer: “There’s such a thing as correct phraseology on the radio, but there is no such thing when typing back and forth with dispatch on ACARS. Those messages are usually casual.” Werner carefully types a response: “Roger. Affirmative. Delta 1989 is diverting to Cleveland.” He calls the Cleveland Center at 9:44 a.m. and requests a diversion to Cleveland Airport. (Spencer 2008, pp. 167-168; Levin 9/11/2008)
Cleveland Center Not Informed - About 15 minutes earlier, Cleveland Center heard the sounds from Flight 93 as it was being hijacked, but initially thought these came from Delta 1989, and mistakenly believed the Delta flight was being taken over (see (9:28 a.m.-9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) But the Delta pilots’ normal responses to radio transmissions soon led air traffic controller John Werth, who is handling Delta 1989, to conclude that this aircraft was fine. (Levin 9/11/2008) However, controllers at the Cleveland Center are unaware that Delta Air Lines has instructed Flight 1989 to land, and so Werner’s request for a change of course will make them suspicious of it again (see (Shortly After 9:44 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002)
Having earlier concluded that it was not hijacked, air traffic controllers at the FAA’s Cleveland Center again become suspicious of Delta Air Lines Flight 1989, after its pilot requests a change of course and then fails to respond to a message.
Pilot Requests Diversion - Cleveland Center controllers initially thought the sounds from Flight 93 as it was being hijacked had come from Delta 1989, but soon decided they had come from Flight 93 (see (9:28 a.m.-9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) However, without notifying the Cleveland Center, Delta Air Lines has just instructed Delta 1989 to land at Cleveland Hopkins Airport (see (9:42 a.m.) September 11, 2001). After the plane’s pilot, Captain Paul Werner, calls the Cleveland Center at 9:44 a.m., requesting an immediate diversion, controllers there become suspicious. (Spencer 2008, pp. 167-168; Levin 9/11/2008)
Supervisor Reports Concerns over Teleconference - USA Today will later describe: “The Delta flight wants to land in Cleveland? And the captain’s request comes before he can know that the FAA wants every flight down. On this day, the fact that the pilot requests to be rerouted before he is ordered to land seems suspicious. Why the urgency? Controllers don’t know that Delta officials, also concerned about the flight, have ordered Werner to land in Cleveland.” After Delta 1989 makes an abrupt 30-degree turn back toward Cleveland Airport, a supervisor at the Cleveland Center announces the apparently suspicious development on an FAA teleconference.
Coded Message Confirms No Hijacking - As Delta 1989 begins its descent toward Cleveland, a Cleveland Center controller radios Werner with a coded message to check whether his plane has been hijacked. The controller says, “Delta 1989, I hear you’re ‘late’ today.” (The controller is using the code word for a hijack, which has been replaced with the word ‘late’ in subsequent accounts of this incident, for security reasons. Pilots can use this code word to alert controllers to their situation if they are unable to do so openly because hijackers are in the cockpit.) Werner reassures the controller that all is okay, saying: “Negative. Delta 1989 is not a ‘late.’”
Lack of Response Causes More Suspicion - Then, as the plane descends, it receives another message from the Cleveland Center. But Werner, who is busy, fails to respond to it. This arouses further suspicion. According to USA Today: “On the ground, controllers in Cleveland Center grow alarmed. Why didn’t he respond? Have both jets—the United [Flight 93] and the Delta flights—been hijacked?” (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; Spencer 2008, pp. 168-169)
Air traffic controllers at the Cleveland Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) remain suspicious of Delta Air Lines Flight 1989 as it is coming in to land at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, due to the pilot’s failure to use an important standard term in his communications with them. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) A TRACON is an FAA facility that guides aircraft approaching or departing an airport. Flights coming in to land will subsequently be passed on to the airport’s air traffic control tower once they are within five miles of the airport and below 2,500 feet. (Federal Aviation Administration 3/24/2006) The Cleveland TRACON is in contact with Delta 1989 as it descends from 9,000 feet down to 3,000 feet. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) Delta 1989, a Boeing 767 out of Boston, is mistakenly suspected of being hijacked (see 9:39 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (Shortly After 9:44 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and has been instructed to land as soon as possible in Cleveland (see (9:42 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27-28; Spencer 2008, pp. 167-168; Levin 9/11/2008)
Pilot Does Not Use Term 'Heavy' - A detailed timeline provided by the Cleveland Airport control tower shortly after 9/11 will describe, “One anomaly that perpetuated concern by approach controllers in the face of constant information that there was nothing going on with [Delta 1989] was that the pilot never used the HEAVY designator in his communications.” (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) The term “heavy” alerts controllers to provide extra spacing behind very large aircraft, which are above a certain weight, because these aircraft generate significant wake turbulence. (Getline 6/1/2005; Getline 5/22/2006)
Controllers Skeptical of Delta 1989's Security - While the TRACON controllers use the “heavy” designator, “the pilot [of Delta 1989] did not respond with it.” The control tower’s timeline will state that, while this detail “may seem minor,” it “should not be overlooked. The use of HEAVY in the terminal environment is of the highest importance. Increased separation standards are required, and misapplication of separation standards can be disastrous. For pilots, not referring to a heavy aircraft as HEAVY is tantamount to calling a doctor ‘Mister.’” As a result, “This omission, along with all of the other information flying around, kept everyone alert and skeptical of the security of the flight.” (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001)
Delta Air Lines Flight 1989, a Boeing 767 out of Boston that is wrongly suspected of being hijacked (see 9:39 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (Shortly After 9:44 a.m.) September 11, 2001), lands at Cleveland Hopkins Airport in Ohio, and is directed to a remote area of the airport. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001; Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27-28; O'Mara 9/11/2006)
Plane Flies Long Path toward Airport - Delta Air Lines had been concerned about Flight 1989, and ordered it to land as soon as possible in Cleveland (see (9:42 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 167; Levin 9/11/2008) As it was heading in to land, air traffic controllers instructed Delta 1989 to follow a trajectory that initially took it far past Cleveland Airport. Unknown to the plane’s pilots, the controllers incorrectly believe the flight has been hijacked and contains a bomb, and they were therefore making time to evacuate the airport before the plane landed (see (9:50 a.m. and After) September 11, 2001). (Spencer 2008, pp. 191)
Plane Directed to Remote Area - Once Delta 1989 is on the ground, the Cleveland Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) informs the FAA’s Cleveland Center that Delta 1989 is “on the ground at 1418,” where “1418” means 10:18 a.m. Cleveland Center asks, “Very safely too, I hope?” The TRACON responds that the plane is being taken to the bomb area to check. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) Delta 1989 is directed to “taxi left onto taxiway Bravo and wait there.” This taxiway leads to a remote part of the airport that is far away from the terminal. The pilot does as instructed. (Spencer 2008, pp. 229)
Passengers Not Allowed Off - The pilots radio the airport’s air traffic control tower and say: “Just to make sure we don’t have any misunderstandings here, our flaps are up, we are landing only as a precaution at the company’s request. You understand that?” They ask if they are going to get to their gate soon, but the controller responds that city authorities are in charge and he believes people will be coming to search the aircraft. The controller advises that city authorities have said to keep the plane’s passengers on the aircraft for now. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) The passengers and crew will have to remain on board for perhaps a couple of hours, until FBI agents allow them off (see 11:28 a.m.-12:23 p.m. September 11, 2001). (O'Mara 9/11/2006; Spencer 2008, pp. 270-271)
Conflicting Reports of Landing Time - Subsequent accounts will give conflicting times for when Delta 1989 lands at Cleveland Airport. According to a detailed timeline provided by the airport’s control tower, the aircraft is “on the ground” at 10:18 a.m. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) Several accounts will give similar landing times of between 10:05 a.m. and 10:10 a.m. (Federal Aviation Administration 1/2/2002; Adams, Levin, and Morrison 8/13/2002) But a NORAD official will tell the 9/11 Commission that Delta 1989 landed at 9:47 a.m. (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) Other accounts will say it lands at between 10:33 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. (Singer 9/11/2001; Singer 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 )
Passengers and crew members on board Delta Air Lines Flight 1989, which was wrongly suspected to have been hijacked, are finally allowed to get off their plane and are taken to be interviewed by the FBI. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 ; O'Mara 9/11/2006) Delta 1989 made an emergency landing at Cleveland Hopkins Airport in Ohio after FAA and military personnel mistakenly thought it was hijacked and might have a bomb on board (see (10:18 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 27-28; O'Mara 9/11/2006; Spencer 2008, pp. 167-169) The plane was directed to a remote part of the airport, far away from the terminal, and the pilots were told not to allow passengers off.
No Evidence of Hijacking or Bomb - At 11:28 a.m., Cleveland Airport’s air traffic manager calls city officials and says he has no apparent reason to believe Delta 1989 has been hijacked, and he does not have any specific bomb threats. He says he has just received clearance from the FAA headquarters, which told him the airport had no reason to hold the aircraft unless city officials have other information from the FBI. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 229)
SWAT Team and FBI Approach Plane - Delta 1989’s pilots, Captain Paul Werner and First Officer David Dunlap, are finally informed that the Cleveland Police SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team and a team of FBI agents are coming out to their aircraft. While the FBI agents approach the plane, the SWAT team takes up a position about 50 yards behind it. Lt. Bernie Barabas, the leader of the SWAT team, will later recall, “If there had been some sort of problem and this turned into a situation where this was a live hijacking, or if they started killing Americans, we were going to act.”
SWAT Team Sees Pilot with Bloodied Face - Suspicion is aroused when Werner accidentally knocks his head and cuts it while returning to his seat, after going to the cabin to speak to the plane’s passengers. The members of the SWAT team outside are perplexed when they see him leaning out of the window to give the “all clear” signal, with blood running down his face. They then board the plane. (O'Mara 9/11/2006; Spencer 2008, pp. 270)
Passengers Taken off Plane - By 11:34 a.m., according to an FAA chronology, the FBI has commenced a controlled debarkation of Delta 1989. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 ) The FBI agents slowly and carefully remove the passengers in small groups. (O'Mara 9/11/2006) According to some accounts, there are 78 people on the plane. (Singer 9/11/2001; Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) But other accounts say there are about 200 on it. (Singer 9/11/2001; Dunn 9/11/2001; WCPN 9/12/2001) The FBI then instructs everyone that has got off to gather their belongings and line them up on the tarmac. (Spencer 2008, pp. 270) Every piece of luggage and carry-on baggage will be opened and examined by security agents. (O'Mara 9/11/2006) Bomb-sniffing dogs board the aircraft, which is then searched, but no explosives will be found.
Passengers Taken Away and Interviewed - The SWAT team gathers the plane’s crew and passengers onto nearby buses. (Singer 9/11/2001; Spencer 2008, pp. 271) According to a timeline provided by the Cleveland Airport air traffic control tower, at 12:23 p.m. the passengers are taken to the Federal Facilities Building, located on the opposite side of the airfield to the terminal, where they are debriefed by the FBI. (Federal Aviation Administration 9/16/2001) But the Associated Press will report that they are taken to a nearby NASA facility, presumably the Glenn Research Center, which is located next to the Cleveland airport. (Singer 9/11/2001; Sirhal 11/27/2002) After being interviewed separately by FBI agents, the passengers will be put up at a local Holiday Inn. (Calder 9/15/2001)
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