NORAD and Flight 175

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The 9/11 Commission told us that NORAD were only informed about the Flight 175 hijacking at "about the time the plane was hitting the South Tower" - 9:03. There was no chance at all of intercepting the plane.

Some 9/11 researchers, however, say NORAD actually heard of the hijacking at 8:43, some 20 minutes earlier, and this has subsequently been covered up, presumably (though motive is rarely spelled out) to disguise the lack of response.

Which account are we to believe? Let's review the evidence.

The Commission on Flight 175

The 9/11 Commission Report talked about the hijacking of Flight 175 here.


It's interesting to note that Flight 175's last communication with the ground was at 8:42, and the hijacking could have been at late as 8:46. If this is true, then why would the FAA have been informing NORAD about a hijacking at 8:43? It's just too early.

Why was the notification delayed, though? There's more information later in the report.


The controller was focused on the missing Flight 11, and so missed the initial sign of problems with Flight 175. Once these were noticed at 8:51, there were problems conveying the information to the right people, and so a call wasn't made to NORAD until 9:03.

That's the Commission's version of events, at least, and the military and FAA awareness notes are based on the following records:


An impressive list. But is there any supporting evidence we can check for ourselves?

The FAA on Flight 175

An FAA document on the "ATO Response to Sept 11 Terrorist Attack", written in March 2002, contains a detailed timeline with some interesting entries for Flight 175.

Time Event Source
0841 United Airlines Flight 175 indicates to the controller at New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, "We figured we'd wait to go to your Center; we heard a suspicious transmission on our departure out of Boston. Someone keyed the mike and said everyone stay in your seats". AAT-20 Report 09/17
0843 FAA notifies NORAD that United Airlines flight 175 has been hijacked CNN, 17 Sept 2001
0846 United Airlines Flight 175's assigned transponder code of 1470 changed, first indicating 3020, then changing to 3321. The New York Air Route Traffic Control Center computers do not correlate either of these codes with United Airlines Flight 175. Consequently, the secondary radar return (transponder) indicating aircraft speed, altitude, and flight information began to coast and was no longer associated with the primary radar return. The controller communicating with United Airlines Flight 175 was also monitoring the flight track of American Airlines Flight 11. Based on the coordination with Boston's Air Route Traffic Control Center indicating a possible hijacking, most of the controller's attention was focused on American Airlines Flight 11. AAT-20 Report 09/17
0850 United Airlines flight 175 deviates from its assigned flight path. CNN, 17 Sept 2001
0851 The controller at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center transmitted to United Airlines Flight 175, "United Airlines Flight 175 recycle transponder, squawk code 1470." No response received from United Airlines Flight 175. The controller made several attempts trying to contact United Airlines Flight 175 for the next 4 minutes. During this time the aircraft was also observed making a left turn and descending. AAT-20 Report 09/17
0855 The New York Air Route Traffic Control Center controller was busy trying to turn other aircraft away from the aircraft believed to be United Airlines Flight 175. The flight track of this aircraft had changed and was now headed in a southeasterly direction. AAT-20 Report 09/17
0855 This time is approximate based on personnel statements from New York Air Traffic Control Center. A controller-in-charge (CIC) advised the Operations Manager that she believed United Airlines Flight 175 was also hijacked. The Operations Manager advised the CIC that an aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. The CIC began coordinating with the controllers working the position and one of the controllers stated that United Airlines Flight 175 appeared to be heading "right towards the city." The CIC returned to the Operation Manager's position and heard a request for military aircraft to scramble. United Airlines Flight 175 was observed in a rapid descent. AAT-20 Report 09/17
0900 This time is approximate based on personnel statements from New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (N90). An N90 controller stated "At approximately 0900 hrs, I observed an unknown aircraft south of the Newark, New Jersey Airport, northeast bound and descending out of 12,900 ft in a rapid rate of descent, the radar target terminated at the World Trade Center." AAT-20 Report 09/17
0903 United Airlines Flight 175 impacts World Trade Center. AAT-20 Report 09/17
0905 Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) logs indicate they were notified by the FAA of the events concerning United Airlines Flight 175. N90 receieved notification from the Newark Airport Traffic Control Tower of a second aircraft striking the World Trade Center. AAT-20 Report 09/17

(Source)

The timeline does say that NORAD were notified of Flight 175 at 8:43. However, that isn't sourced to any internal FAA document - it's taken directly from a CNN page. And when we look at the entries based on the FAA's own documents, we find that notification makes no sense at all. There's no record of Flight 175 behaving suspiciously until 8:46, and internal FAA notifications (CIC to ops manager) of a suspected hijack didn't take place until approximately 8:55.

So where did the 8:43 time come from, then? The CNN page refers to "informed defense officials". These are presumably the same people behind the flawed NORAD timeline, as their timeline also says "FAA notifies NORAD [at 9:24] that United flight 77 may have been hijacked" - there's very little evidence that this happened, and plenty that it didn't.

What we do see in the above timeline is a mention that the FAA was notified at 9:05. It could be argued that this relates only to the plane hitting the tower, if it wasn't for the fact that 9:05 appears in other documents as the first notification time:

Faanotifications.gif

The 8:43 notification time is clearly contradicted by FAA documents, then. And if we concentrate on the FAA-sourced records we find the controller was focused on Flight 11, didn't begin trying to contact Flight 175 until after 8:50, and senior level notifications of the hijacking didn't take place until after 8:55. Notification to NORAD then occurred (or was logged) at 9:05. This account makes more sense, and is very similar to the timeline presented by the 9/11 Commission.

ATC Transcripts

There's further support for the 9/11 Commission timeline in the transcripts of the communications between Flight 175 and the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (R42). This was published by the New York Times in October 2001:

(You may also view the official FAA reports containing these and other transcripts in this file.)

This shows Flight 175 making its final regular radio transmission at 8:41:56. The controller doesn't mention the flight again until 8:51:43, when he begins to try and make radio contact. No support for an 8:43 NORAD notification time here.

The NORAD Tapes

Much of what went on at NORAD on 9/11 was recorded on a series of tapes. This clip records the moment at around 9:03:31 when a background voice talks about the possible second hijack "real world, United"; at about the 31 seconds point in the clip he talks of an unconfirmed second hit; at 1:02 he summarises an "unconfirmed second aircraft hijack and second aircraft hit the building".

<mp3>NORAD-0903-Second-Hijack.wav.MP3|download</mp3>- NORAD hear about Flight 175

Download the full set of tapes here.

The NORAD audio record matches up with what the 9/11 Commission told us, then. There's no sign of NORAD hearing about Flight 175 until just after the aircraft hit the WTC.

Counter arguments

There's significant support for the 9/11 Commission's timeline from 9/11 records, then. However, some 9/11 researchers have mustered even more arguments that they say cast serious doubt on the Flight 175 notification time. Here's what David Ray Griffin presents in his book Debunking 9/11 Debunking.

The NORAD timeline

Dr Griffin understandably starts by presenting the NORAD timeline:


It's worth noting that Dr Griffin doesn't address the question of how NORAD could possibly have been informed so early. The first suspicious signs didn't arise until 8:46, the altitude change was 8:51, the first phone calls of the hijacking occurred at 8:52 - how would NORAD be alerted of a possible hijacking at 8:43? Especially as an alert would be the final step in a process probably taking minutes, as the air traffic controller first realised the problem, referred it to his manager, who would then escalate the situation further before the call was made.

This part of the NORAD timeline simply doesn't make sense. In our view it's far more likely that the 8:43 notification time was not a "lie" or the result of "confusion", rather just an error in reading the logs, which then became a part of the official record and was repeated without further investigation.

Media reports

Dr Griffin next points out that "countless news stories had reported on the FAA's advance notification of NORAD about UA 175", citing these pieces as examples:


The second story is problematic, as "Dooley's technicians" (the NORAD officers) certainly did not have "their headsets linked to Boston Center" (the NORAD tapes reveal their only contact was by occasional phone calls). And Flight 175 wouldn't fail to respond until some minutes after 8:43.

Still, Dr Griffin is quite correct. NORAD published the 8:43 notification time and so naturally it would be reproduced in hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories. But so what? This isn't a new argument, rather just the media repeating the NORAD press release. And if the NORAD timeline is in error, then it doesn't matter how many people reprint the 8:43 time - it's still wrong.

Captain Michael Jellinek

Dr Griffin moves on by citing a story involving Captain Michael Jellinek:


Here Dr Griffin attempts to persuade his audience by presenting them with a false dilemma: the account is completely true, or a fabrication. The possibility that this is the result of a misunderstanding or error (like NEADS thinking Jellinek was referring to the first impact, for instance) apparently doesn't occur to him. And there are good reasons to believe this is the case.

United Airlines didn't immediately know that Flight 175 was involved, for instance. They were discussing the possibility between 9:10 and 9:20, only issuing an advisory about the accident at 9:22 (Source). This seems a little slow if NEADS knew at 9:03.

And the NORAD tapes, as we've seen above, makde it clear that NORAD weren't notified about even a possible hijacking until just after it crashed. They had no position on the plane, and so there was no way in which they could immediately confirm that Flight 175 had hit the tower.

NEADS also didn't have CNN or any other TV news on the ops floor, at least at first, so wouldn't have the same view of events. In this part of the NORAD tapes officers are saying (at around 9:00 AM) that they need to get CNN to find out what's going on (and they're only half joking):

<mp3>NORAD-0900-CNN.MP3</mp3>- Somebody get CNN on

And at 9:06 someone suggests that the second plane at the WTC was just "media speculation", and perhaps the second tower was burning because it had been hit with debris from the first plane.



<mp3>NORAD-0906-speculation.MP3</mp3>- Media speculation

This kind of confusion sounds absurd when you've seen the footage, but this is the whole point: they hadn't. There's no way in which NEADS could have been immediately sure about what had happened at the WTC, and they simply weren't in any position to offer instant confirmation that the second hit was Flight 175.

Brigadier General Montague Winfield

Dr Griffin next presents a comment from Brigadier General Montague Winfield:


If you take this literally then it does appear that Winfield's saying some group of people (whoever "we" refers to) knew about multiple hijackings. But this is a weak argument. He may have simply meant to say that no-one realised the full nature of what was happening until the second hit, because before then the agency involved (the FAA) saw only "seemingly unrelated hijackings that the FAA was dealing with" comment as an example of what was happening before then. It's slightly misleading, but people don't speak with mathematical precision: errors occur all the time.

Another possibility: Winfield's "we" referred to the air defence system. He had read his briefing notes, which would include the NORAD timeline, and seen the 8:43 notification time for Flight 175. It would therefore make perfect sense for him to talk as though NORAD knew about both hijackings, as that's what his documentation says, but it doesn't necessarily mean he did. (Although he would still of course have realised that there was "a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States.")

Parsing words like this, trying to assess the most probable meaning of the word "we", does not make for strong evidence. Especially as, even if we take Griffin's interpretation as true, it takes us no further forward on the issue of Flight 175's notification time. What if, for instance, Winfield heard of the Flight 11 and 175 hijackings at 9:00 AM by some previously undiscovered route? It would be interesting to know what that was, and perhaps raise questions about when the NMCC teleconference should have begun, but this still doesn't show that NORAD were told of Flight 175 at 8:43, and could make no difference to the overall account of 9/11 at all. This really is a very weak argument.

Air traffic controllers

The New York air traffic controllers know when they suspected flight 175 was a hijack, of course. Do they support an early notification time? David Ray Griffin says yes:


Dr Griffin begins by saying these testimonies contradict the account of Michael Bronner in a 2006 Vanity Fair article, but it's hard to see why we should care that two media stories contain slight differences. A comparison with the 9/11 Commission report is surely more relevant. This told us:


So the Commission reports suspicions of a hijack beginning to spread at 8:53, not 8:57. Griffin then writes "the New York controller for UA 175, Dave Bottiglia, said he knew a few minutes after 8:46 that this plane had been hijacked". 8:53 could easily be "a few minutes after 8:46", so there's no contradiction here.

And Dr Griffin fails to consider another important issue. If the New York controller involved didn't realise that Flight 175 were hijacked until "a few minutes after 8:46", then who was responsible for notifying NORAD at 8:43? Bottiglia's testimony is yet another record showing that this early notification time cannot be accurate.

Dr Griffin's final point is that Bob Varcapade agreed the fighters "were sent to intercept UA 175". Here's the quote he mentions in context:


There's a question to be raised here in why Varcadapane said the fighters arrived "moments after the impact", as the evidence indicates it was much later. But with regard to the Flight 175 notification, Varcadapane at no point agrees that the fighters "were sent to intercept UA 175", and was in no position to know why they were launched anyway: he simply follows a voiceover where Brokaw says this. Brokaw doesn't provide a source for the comment, either, but we'd say it's most likely to be derived from the NORAD timeline. In any event, nothing Bottiglia or Varcadapane say here contradicts the 9/11 Commission with regard to Flight 175's NORAD notification time, and if anything they offer further support that no-one suspected a hijack at 8:43.

The Laura Brown memo

Dr Griffin next cites the Laura Brown memo:


There's a curious claim here that the FAA knew about Flight 175's "troubles" by 8:40, especially as Flight 175 reportedly made a normal radio transmission at 8:42. What troubles were these? Unfortunately Dr Griffin doesn't say.

A second problem is that this memo has been investigated, found to contain incorrect information, and has been effectively disowned by its author (see The Laura Brown memo).

But even if the memo were entirely accurate, it still wouldn't support Dr Griffin's case.

First, he's trying to tell us that NORAD were informed of the Flight 175 hijacking at 8:43. A teleconference beginning "within minutes" of the first impact (8:46:29 according to NIST) isn't going to do that.

And second, the teleconference would only be able to share information about suspected hijackings once those details had reached them. As we've seen, even the controller handling Flight 175 didn't believe the plane was hijacked at 8:47, wouldn't begin to do so and communicate his concerns until 8:53, and his manager only began to try to contact regional managers at 8:55. The suspicions about Flight 175 hadn't yet spread beyond New York, and so wouldn't have reached the teleconference even if it had been running.

General Craig McKinley

Dr Griffin offers this 9/11 Commission testimony by way of support for the Laura Brown memo:


McKinley's claims here are lacking in detail - who was "discussing these issues", and when?

They should also be treated with caution. The NORAD timeline is notoriously inaccurate, after all, and was the subject of a later investigation in itself.

But on the specific point of the NORAD notification of Flight 175, it makes no difference even if "lines were open". The same problem applies here as with the Laura Brown memo: the FAA wouldn't be able to convey suspicions about Flight 175 until they'd been escalated from the controller responsible and through the FAA hierarchy. The FAAs own records, testimony from controller Dave Bottiglia and the NORAD tapes say that's much more likely to have occurred at just before 9:03 than 8:43.

The NMCC teleconference

Dr Griffin concludes his arguments by referring to the NMCC teleconference:


The NMCC teleconference began at 9:29 according to the 9/11 Commission, but Dr Griffin argued earlier in Debunking 9/11 Debunking that it actually started much earlier. This is a topic we'll need to cover in a separate page, but with regard to Flight 175 it runs into the same issue as the Laura Brown memo and McKinley's testimony. Even if the teleconference was running, there's no way it could know about Flight 175's hijacking at 8:45 because even the controller responsible for the plane hadn't noticed it yet. There's no evidence that anyone else had, either, and the plane hadn't yet given anyone any reason to suspect it.

Conclusion

The most substantial counter argument to the 9/11 Commission is the NORAD timeline stating that they were informed of Flight 175's hijacking at 8:43.

However, this appears immediately unlikely given that the plane made a normal radio transmission at 8:42, and no-one has been able to show why anyone would be sufficiently sure of a hijacking to make a call only a minute or so later. Especially as this was before Flight 11 struck the first tower, and the nature of what was going on hadn't yet become clear.

Further, this early notification time is contradicted by all the FAA-sourced documents we've seen (the only 8:43 reference being taken from a CNN story), and the NORAD tapes. It's also made less likely by testimony of the air traffic controller who handled the plane, who makes no reference to suspecting a hijacking so quickly.

It could be argued that the notification came a little later: 8:50, say. But this still isn't supported by the FAA documents, or the NORAD tapes. It's also a tacit admission that the NORAD timeline is incorrect: if they got the "8:43" wrong, then why shouldn't the log entry be timed at 9:05, just as the FAA have claimed?

There's no obvious reason why anyone would have informed NORAD about Flight 175 at 8:43, then; no record of who passed on the information, or by what means; and substantial evidence indicating that no such early notification was ever made. For these reason we currently believe the 9/11 Commission timeline is the correct one, and NORAD didn't hear about the suspected Flight 175 hijacking until seconds before it crashed.