September 11, 2001 – Terrorists hijack four American airliners and use them to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth attack, targeting Washington, DC, is thwarted by passengers.

September 11, 2001 dawned bright and clear on the East Coast as America started the routine of a normal autumn day. Passengers boarding early morning flights in Boston, Washington, DC and Newark had no idea that they were to become victims of a brazen, highly coordinated and murderous attack on the United States by a well-trained group of terrorists. Never before had airplanes been used as a weapon of terror on such a scale, and even though there had been signs that an attack on the US was possible, even probable, nobody was prepared for what would transpire that day.

The attacks were carried out by teams of terrorists organized and funded by Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terror network. The hijackers entered the US in the months ahead of September 11, and some even took flying lessons at US flight schools. One member of the group already possessed a commercial pilot’s license. On the day of the attack, the terrorists boarded the planes in groups of 4 or 5. One member of each group was trained to fly the plane while the others provided the muscle to subdue the flight crew and handle the passengers. The 4 aircraft selected for the attack were all flying transcontinental routes that required large aircraft heavy with fuel. This combination would cause the greatest amount of damage to the intended targets.

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The first airliner to be hijacked, American Airlines Flight 11, was a Boeing 767 (N334AA) scheduled to fly from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles. It departed at 7:59 a.m. (all times are given in Eastern Standard Time) with a crew of 11 and carried 76 passengers. There were 5 hijackers on the flight, including the overall leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta. After the airliner reached cruising altitude, the attackers rose from their seats, stabbed 2 of the flight attendants, sprayed mace in the first class cabin and claimed they had a bomb. Then they began herding the passengers to the rear of the plane. It’s not clear how they gained access to the cockpit, as the door should have been locked, but they may have gotten a key from one of the flight attendants. Upon gaining control of the aircraft, Atta turned off the transponder, a device that allows controllers to track and identify the aircraft, and then turned the 767 towards New York City. At 8:46 a.m. the aircraft struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, punching a gaping hole in the side of the building and erupting in a massive fireball that started a fuel-fed fire which soon engulfed the upper stories of the skyscraper. Initial reactions were that a terrible accident had occurred. No one imagined that an aircraft would be flown deliberately into a building.

The second aircraft used in the attack was another Boeing 767 (N612UA), United Airlines Flight 175. Also departing from Logan Airport in Boston and bound for Los Angeles, the airliner carried a crew of 9 and 51 passengers. Like American Flight 11, this plane also carried 5 hijackers, and took off at 8:14 a.m., just as the hijacking of Flight 11 was beginning. Following a similar scenario as the other flight, the hijackers killed the pilots and took control of the aircraft, claimed to have a bomb on board the plane, and moved the passengers and remaining crew to the rear of the plane. Passengers on board the flight made contact with loved ones and airline authorities on the ground via cell phones and phones built into the seats. They provided information that would be crucial to the eventual understanding of the coordinated attack that was unfolding. At 8:52 a.m., the hijackers turned the aircraft toward New York City and flew the 767 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. with the same devastating effects as the first plane. One plane flying into a skyscraper could be an perceived as an accident. A second one, within minutes of the first, was unthinkable. Government officials and air traffic controllers were only just beginning to suspect that a coordinated attack was under way.

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The third aircraft hijacked that day was American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 (N644AA) that was scheduled to fly from Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia to Los Angeles. It departed at 8:20 a.m. with a crew of 6 and 58 passengers. Once the airliner reached its cruising altitude, the 5 hijackers moved against the flight crew, and while there were no reports of stabbings on this flight, the hijackers were similarly armed with knives and box cutters. Again, they herded the passengers and crew to the rear of the plane. It is not clear if the pilots were killed, or how the hijackers came to be in control of the aircraft, but at 8:54 a.m. the transponder was turned off and primary radar contact with the aircraft was lost. The hijacker in control of the plane then turned south towards Washington, DC. At 9:29 a.m., air traffic controllers reestablished radar contact with the plane and learned that it was heading back towards northern Virginia at high speed. Five minutes later, the hijacker flying the plane made a final turn towards the Pentagon and advanced the throttles to full power. The 757 smashed through the west side of the building at 9:37 a.m, traveling at 530 mph. It took just eight-tenths of a second for the airliner to penetrate 310 feet through 3 of the Pentagon’s 5 rings.

The fourth aircraft, United Airlines Flight 93, was another Boeing 757 (N591UA). It was scheduled to depart from Newark International Airport at 8:00 a.m. for a flight to San Francisco. On board were 7 crew members and 33 passengers, but only 4 hijackers (the man suspected of being the fifth hijacker had been denied entry to the US a month before). Due to dense fog that morning, the flight did not take off until 8:42 a.m., just 4 minutes before the first 767 would strike the World Trade Center. Even though the earlier hijackings had already taken place, it took some time for the FAA, controllers and airline officials to realize that they were facing a scenario of multiple, simultaneous hijackings, and no warnings were sent out to other aircraft departing at the same time. The hijacking of Flight 93 began at 9:28 a.m. over eastern Ohio, and passengers and crew were again moved to the rear of the plane. However, the delay in departure meant that passengers who contacted loved ones and officials on the ground were able to learn of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. They realized that their aircraft was part of an organized attack on the United States. Huddled in the back of the plane, they started discussing what, if anything, they could do. They chose to fight back.

“Let’s roll”

The passengers decided to make an assault on the front of the aircraft in an attempt to regain control of the airliner or, at the very least, stop the hijackers from hitting their target, which was later believed to be the US Capitol or the White House. One of the passengers who helped organize the attempt to retake the plane, Todd Beamer, was overheard saying, “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.” Another passenger ended her phone call to a loved one saying, “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.” At 9:57 a.m. the passengers’ assault on the terrorists began, and sounds of a struggle could be heard in the background over the open phone lines. The hijacker flying the plane, Ziad Jarrah, realized that the passengers were fighting the other hijackers in the first class cabin and initiated a series of violent maneuvers in an attempt to disrupt the assault, but muffled sounds of the battle were still captured on the cockpit voice recorder. When it became clear that the passengers would soon gain entry to the cockpit and that the terrorists’ mission to strike the nation’s capital would not succeed, Jarrah rolled the 757 onto its back and dove earthward, impacting the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. at a speed of 563 mph. Flight 93 was only 20 minutes from Washington, DC.

The Wall of Names at the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania.

Once the full scope of the attack was understood, officials implemented part of the plan called the Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids (SCATANA), “an emergency preparedness plan which prescribes the joint action to be taken by appropriate elements of the Department of Defense (DOD), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the interest of national security in order to effect control of air traffic and air navigation aids under emergency conditions.” The plan, devised to protect the nation in the event of a nuclear attack, limits the use of American airspace to military and other official flights. However, it was not fully implemented on September 11, as the DOD left the FAA in charge of the air traffic control system, and left radio navigational aids operating to assist the thousands of aircraft still in the air over the US to land safely or divert to alternate airports.

At 9:42 a.m., 5 minutes after Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney made made the unprecedented call to immediately land all aircraft already in flight over the US and to place a ground stop on all aircraft awaiting takeoff. Incoming international flights were ordered to turn back if they had enough fuel or to land at airports in Canada or Mexico. By approximately 12:15 pm, American airspace was completely cleared of commercial and civilian air traffic. To the north, Canada issued its own order to control its airspace, the Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic Plan (ESCAT), with the Canadian military taking control of the airspace over the country. Incoming airliners, and those diverted from the US, were directed to airports away from major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Canada ultimately took in 255 aircraft at 17 different airports across the country. Some airports were overwhelmed with aircraft, as a certain percentage of all the aircraft in North America must be in the air at any given time. There is simply not enough room to put all the aircraft on the ground at once and still maintain operations.

The airport at Gander, Newfoundland following September 11.

In all, 2,977 people were killed in the September 11 attacks (a number which does not include the 19 hijackers). Of that total, 246 were on board the 4 airliners hijacked that day. Civilian flights in the US resumed on September 13, but the inevitable changes to airline travel have made the flying experience much different than it was before 9/11. Cockpit doors were armored and secured. Airport security was federalized with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. Passenger screening was greatly expanded, no-fly lists were created for those individuals who are on terrorist watch lists, and the non-flying public was barred from entering the gate area of airports. But beyond the physical changes to our airports and the procedural changes to how we fly, the heroism and courage displayed by the passengers on Flight 93 in the face of almost certain death has changed the way the world faces the threat of air terrorism. The actions of Todd Beamer and the rest of the passengers on September 11, 2001 have emboldened the rest of the flying public to stand firm against terrorism, and fight back in any way possible. It is unlikely that hijackers will find an airplane full of meek victims in the future.


Photo credits: Flight 11 photo by Ken Fielding via Wikimedia Commons. Flight 175 photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons. Flight 77 photo by Sunil Gupta via Wikimedia Commons. Flight 93 photo by MacMax via Wikimedia Commons. WTC photo by Michael Foran via Wikimedia Commons. Pentagon photo by US Navy. Flight 93 Memorial photo ©Tim Shaffer. Gander photo author unknown. Sources: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States; The US Department of Defense; The Canadian Encyclopedia; Wikipedia (various).