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The last routine communication takes place between air traffic control and the pilots of Flight 11 at 8:13 and 29 seconds. Boston Center air traffic controller Pete Zalewski is handling the flight, and instructs it to turn 20 degrees to the right. Pilot John Ogonowski immediately acknowledges the instruction, but seconds later he fails to respond to a command to climb to 35,000 feet. Zalewski repeatedly tries to reach the pilot over the next ten minutes, even using the emergency frequency, but gets no response (see 8:14 a.m.-8:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). The 9/11 Commission concludes that Flight 11 is hijacked at 8:14, or shortly afterwards (see 8:14 a.m. September 11, 2001). (New York Times 10/16/2001; MSNBC 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 4)
Shortly after air traffic controllers ask Flight 11 to climb to 35,000 feet, its transponder stops transmitting. A transponder is an electronic device that identifies a plane on a controller’s screen and gives its exact location and altitude. Among other vital functions, it is also used to transmit a four-digit emergency hijack code. Flight control manager Glenn Michael later says, “We considered it at that time to be a possible hijacking.” (Clayton 9/13/2001; MSNBC 9/15/2001; LeBlanc 8/12/2002) Initial stories after 9/11 suggest the transponder is turned off around 8:13 a.m., but Pete Zalewski, the air traffic controller handling the flight, later says the transponder is turned off at 8:20 a.m. (MSNBC 9/11/2002) The 9/11 Commission places it at 8:21 a.m. (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) Colonel Robert Marr, head of NEADS, claims the transponder is turned off some time after 8:30 a.m. where the Flight 11 hijack was first detected a.m. (ABC News 9/11/2002)
After Flight 11 fails to respond to an instruction from air traffic control to climb to 35,000 feet (see 8:13 a.m. September 11, 2001), the controller handling it, Pete Zalewski, tries to regain contact with the aircraft. Over the following ten minutes, he makes numerous attempts but without success. (Zalewski says he makes 12 attempts; the 9/11 Commission says nine.) He tries reaching the pilot on the emergency frequency. Zalewski later recalls that initially, “I was just thinking that it was, you know, maybe they—pilots weren’t paying attention, or there’s something wrong with the frequency.… And at first it was pretty much, you know, ‘American 11,’ you know, ‘are you paying attention? Are you listening?’ And there was still no response.” He says, “I went back to the previous sector to see if the pilot had accidentally flipped the switch back over on the—on the radio.” But as Zalewski is repeatedly unable to get any response from Flight 11, he recalls, “I even began to get more concerned.” However, Zalewski claims, it is not until he sees the plane’s transponder go off at around 8:21 that he suspects something is “seriously wrong,” and calls his supervisor for assistance (see (8:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). And it is not until about 8:25 that he realizes for sure that he is dealing with a hijacking (see (8:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). It is only then that Boston Center starts notifying its chain of command that Flight 11 has been hijacked (see 8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001). (New York Times 10/16/2001; MSNBC 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 18; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 7 and 10-11)
Two Boston flight controllers, Pete Zalewski and Lino Martins, discuss the fact that Flight 11 cannot be contacted. Zalewski says to Martins, “He won’t answer you. He’s nordo [no radio] roger thanks.” (CNN 9/17/2001; New York Times 10/16/2001; Ellison 10/17/2001; MSNBC 9/11/2002)
Boston flight controller Pete Zalewski, handling Flight 11, sees that the flight is off course and that the plane has turned off both transponder and radio. Zalewski later claims he turns to his supervisor and says, “Would you please come over here? I think something is seriously wrong with this plane. I don’t know what. It’s either mechanical, electrical, I think, but I’m not sure.” When asked if he suspected a hijacking at this point, he replies, “Absolutely not. No way.” According to the 9/11 Commission, “the supervisor instructed the controller [presumably Zalewski] to follow standard operating procedures for handling a ‘no radio’ aircraft once the controller told the supervisor the transponder had been turned off.” Another flight controller, Tom Roberts, has another nearby American Airlines Flight try to contact Flight 11. There is still no response. The flight is now “drastically off course” but NORAD is still not notified. (MSNBC 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) Note that this response contradicts flight control manager Glenn Michael’s assertion that Flight 11 was considered a possible hijacking as soon as the transponder was discovered turned off.
Because the talkback button on Flight 11 has been activated, Boston Center air traffic controllers can hear a hijacker on board say to the passengers: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be OK. We are returning to the airport.” (Johnson 11/23/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 19) Air traffic controller Pete Zalewski recognizes this as a foreign, Middle Eastern-sounding voice, but does not make out the specific words “we have some planes.” He responds, “Who’s trying to call me?” Seconds later, in the next transmission, the hijacker continues: “Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.” (Wald and Sack 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004; MSNBC 9/9/2006) Bill Peacock, the FAA director of air traffic services, later claims, “We didn’t know where the transmission came from, what was said and who said it.” David Canoles, the FAA’s manager of air traffic evaluations and investigations, adds: “The broadcast wasn’t attributed to a flight. Nobody gave a flight number.” (Murray 9/11/2002) Similarly, an early FAA report will state that both these transmissions came from “an unknown origin.” (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 ) Zalewski asks for an assistant to help listen to the transmissions coming from the plane, and puts its frequency on speakers so others at Boston Center can hear. Because Zalewski didn’t understand the initial hijacker communication from Flight 11, the manager of Boston Center instructs the center’s quality assurance specialist to “pull the tape” of the transmission, listen to it carefully, and then report back. They do this, and by about 9:03 a.m. a Boston manager will report having deciphered what was said in the first hijacker transmission (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 6/17/2004; MSNBC 9/9/2006) Fellow Boston controller Don Jeffroy also hears the tape of the hijacker transmissions, though he doesn’t state at what time. He says: “I heard exactly what Pete [Zalewski] heard. And we had to actually listen to it a couple of times just to make sure that we were hearing what we heard.” (MSNBC 9/11/2002) At some point, Ben Sliney, the national operations manager at the FAA’s Herndon Command Center, gets word of the “We have some planes” message, and later says the phrase haunts him all morning. American Airlines Executive Vice President for Operations Gerard Arpey is also informed of the “strange transmissions from Flight 11” at some point prior to when it crashes at 8:46 a.m. (Levin, Adams, and Morrison 8/13/2002) Boston Center will receive a third transmission from Flight 11 about ten minutes later (see (8:34 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
According to Terry Biggio, the operations manager at the FAA’s Boston Center, the center initially thought Flight 11 “was a catastrophic electrical failure and… was diverting to New York” (see (8:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 10/19/2002) However, at about 8:24 a.m., controllers heard two radio transmissions from it, with the voice of a hijacker declaring, “We have some planes” (see 8:24 a.m. September 11, 2001). Pete Zalewski, who is handling Flight 11, says that after the second of these: “I immediately knew something was very wrong. And I knew it was a hijack.” He alerts his supervisor. Lino Martins, another Boston air traffic controller, says, “the supervisor came over, and that’s when we realized something was serious.” (Clayton 9/13/2001; MSNBC 9/11/2002; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004) However, two senior FAA officials—Bill Peacock and David Canoles—later say that the hijacker transmissions were not attributed to a flight, so controllers didn’t know their origin. (Murray 9/11/2002) An early FAA report will similarly refer to them as having come “from an unknown origin.” But right away, the center begins notifying the chain of command that a suspected hijacking is taking place (see 8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/17/2001 ) However, some reports claim that controllers decided Flight 11 was probably hijacked earlier than this, by about 8:20 a.m. (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
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