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Shortly after the second crash, the local air traffic center in Boston told all the planes it controlled to heighten cockpit security. Boston Center asked the national command center to issue a similar alert nationwide, but the commission found no evidence that the national center sent that alert.
NEADS got word that a second plane had been hijacked at about the same time the second plane crashed. The fighter planes that had taken off earlier were holding off the Long Island coast. After the second crash, the commander decided to move the fighters. The commission heard this audiotape of his call:
"This is what I foresee that we probably need to do," the mission crew commander said. "We need to talk to FAA. We need to tell 'em if this stuff is gonna keep on going, we need to take those fighters, put 'em over Manhattan. That's best thing, that's the best play right now. So coordinate with the FAA. Tell 'em if there's more out there, which we don't know, let's get 'em over Manhattan. At least we've got some kind of play."
The fighters were sent to Manhattan, and more fighters were placed on battle stations at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
At that point, the military didn't know that a third plane had been hijacked and was headed for the Pentagon.
The third plane, American Flight 77, took off from Dulles airport in Washington at 8:20 in the morning, a few minutes after the second plane left Boston. Half an hour later, it veered off course and someone turned off its transponder. The strategy worked; the plane effectively disappeared. Its air traffic controller was in Indianapolis, and he didn't know about the other hijackings. He thought American 77 had crashed. When controllers began to suspect that American 77 was hijacked, too, they looked for it along its projected flight path, but it wasn't there. It had turned around.
|American Airlines Flight 77 - Washington D.C. to Los Angeles
8:51 Last routine radio communication
8:51-8:54 Likely takeover
8:54 Flight 77 makes unauthorized turn to south
8:56 Transponder is turned off
9:05 AA headquarters aware that Flight 77 is hijacked
9:25 Herndon Command Center orders nationwide ground stop
9:32 Dulles tower observes radar of fast-moving aircraft (later identified as AA 77)
9:34 FAA advises NEADS that AA 77 is missing
9:37:46 AA 77 crashes into the Pentagon
10:30 AA headquarters confirms Flight 77 crash into Pentagon
From 9/11 Commission report
"In sum," the report says, "Indianapolis Center never saw Flight 77 turn around. American 77 traveled undetected for 36 minutes on course heading due east to Washington, D.C."
After September 11, military officials said that they had scrambled fighter jets to intercept American 77. The commission found that this was not true. In fact, fighter jets were airborne, but they were chasing after a hijacked plane that didn't exist. All morning, erroneous reports of hijackings circulated. At one point, air traffic controllers thought a Delta flight might be hijacked. Fighter jets were sent to intercept it, but it was not hijacked and it landed safely.
Continued: part 5