11 September 2001>News Stories>Air Traffic Controllers Spotted Unidentified Aircraft

Air Traffic Controllers Spotted Unidentified Aircraft
Marc Fisher and Don Phillips . Washington Post . 11 September

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11
There was not even the grace of instant death. Instead, there was time to call from the sky over Virginia to loved ones, fingers pumping cell phones, voices saying quick, final goodbyes.

Herded to the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives and box-cutters, the 64 passengers and crew members of American Airlines Flight 77 including the wife of Solicitor General Theodore Olson, a Senate staffer, three D.C. schoolchildren and three teachers on an educational field trip and a University Park family of four headed to Australia for a two-month adventure were ordered to call relatives to say they were about to die.

About an hour after takeoff from Dulles International Airport, Flight 77, a Boeing 757 headed for Los Angeles, became a massive missile aimed at the White House. The target would change suddenly, but the symbolism was equally devastating.

By 9:45 a.m., when the diving plane carved out a massive chunk of the Pentagon, its passengers had experienced unspeakable terror, untold dozens died, and the nation's greatest symbol of security lay shattered, thick plumes of smoke camouflaging a gaping hole in its heart.

Barbara Olson, the former federal prosecutor who became a prominent TV commentator during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, called her husband twice in the final minutes. Her last words to him were, "What do I tell the pilot to do?"

"She called from the plane while it was being hijacked," Theodore Olson said. "I wish it wasn't so, but it is."

The two conversations each lasted about a minute, said Tim O'Brien, a CNN reporter and friend of the Olsons who is acting as family spokesman. In the first call, Barbara Olson told her husband, "Our plane is being hijacked." She described how hijackers forced passengers and the flight's pilot to the rear of the aircraft. She said nothing about the number of hijackers or their nationality.

Olson's first call was cut off, and her husband immediately called the Justice Department's command center, where he was told officials knew nothing about the Flight 77 hijacking.

Moments later, his wife called again. And again, she wanted to know, "What should I tell the pilot?"

"She was composed, as composed as you can be under the circumstances," O'Brien said.

But her second call was cut off, too.

"Incidentally, she wasn't even supposed to be on this flight," O'Brien added on CNN. "She was booked on a flight yesterday, but today is Ted's birthday, so she wanted to be here this morning to have breakfast with him before she left."

On the ground, air traffic controllers watching Flight 77's progress westward suddenly lost touch with the plane, which disappeared from radar screens and cut off radio contact.

Someone on board Flight 77 had flipped off the transponder, the tool that sends a plane's airline identification, flight number, speed and altitude to controllers' radar screens.

But soon after losing contact, Dulles controllers spotted an unidentified aircraft speeding directly toward the restricted airspace that surrounds the White House. Federal aviation sources said Dulles controllers noticed the fast-moving craft east-southeast of Reagan National Airport and called controllers there to report that an unauthorized plane was coming their way.

Controllers had time to warn the White House that the jet was aimed directly at the president's mansion and was traveling at a gut-wrenching speed full throttle.

But just as the plane seemed to be on a suicide mission into the White House, the unidentified pilot executed a pivot so tight that it reminded observers of a fighter jet. The plane circled 270 degrees to the right to approach the Pentagon from the west, whereupon Flight 77 fell below radar level, vanishing from controllers' screens, the sources said.

Less than an hour after two other jets demolished the World Trade Center in Manhattan, Flight 77 carved a hole in the nation's defense headquarters, a hole six stories high and 200 feet wide.

Aviation sources said the plane was flown with extraordinary skill, making it highly likely that a trained pilot was at the helm, possibly one of the hijackers. Someone even knew how to turn off the transponder, a maneuver that is considerably less than obvious.

Details about who was on Flight 77, when it took off and what happened on board were tightly held by airline, airport and security officials last night. All said that the FBI had asked them not to divulge details.

"Because of the heightened security due to the nature of today's events," American Airlines said in a statement, the airline "is working closely with U.S. government authorities and will not release more information at this time."

But some passengers on the flight were identified by friends and family. Flight attendant Michelle Heidenberger had been trained to handle a hijacking. She knew not to let anyone in the cockpit. She knew to tell the hijacker that she didn't have a key and would have to call the pilots.

None of her training mattered. "I'm just so heartbroken," said Ruby Ramer, Heidenberger's neighbor in Chevy Chase, where she lived with her husband, Tom, a pilot for U.S. Airways, and their 11-year-old son and college-age daughter. "I just can't believe she won't be one of our neighbors."

Flight 77 was to be the first leg of a long, happy journey for Leslie A. Whittington and Charles S. Falkenberg, both 45, and their two young girls. The University Park family was on its way to Australia, where Whittington, a Georgetown University professor of public policy, was to work as a visiting fellow at Australian National University. Her husband, a software engineer and nature buff, was looking forward to exploring Sydney and encountering the wildlife kangaroos, koala bears, scorpions and snakes said James Gekas, a neighbor who hosted a farewell dinner for the family Sunday night.

Three District schoolchildren and three teachers were on Flight 77, headed to Santa Barbara, Calif., for an ecology conference sponsored by National Geographic. School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the students and educators, whose names were not released, attended elementary and middle schools.

In the hazy hours that followed the attack, it was unclear which of four hijacked planes ended up where. But witnesses soon identified the aircraft that smashed into the Pentagon as an American flight, and then as Flight 77, which was unusually light on passengers this day.

On a Metro train to National Airport, Allen Cleveland looked out the window to see a jet heading down toward the Pentagon. "I thought, 'There's no landing strip on that side of the subway tracks,' " he said. Before he could process that thought, he saw "a huge mushroom cloud. The lady next to me was in absolute hysterics."

At the Dulles Airport Marriott, which American Airlines used last night as a bereavement center, families of passengers began arriving about 11 a.m.

Paul Sharp, a hotel manager, said three or four families, totaling about 10 people, were meeting with grief counselors and clergy in private suites.

In the lobby, dozens of frantic travelers whose flights had been diverted watched news programs solemnly.

Kathy Foley, 49, a United Airlines flight attendant from Chicago, was stranded in the hotel lobby after mechanical problems delayed her 9 a.m. flight. "Everything was perfect at 8 o'clock this morning," she said. "Nobody had any idea anything was happening. This is not what our country was about. As horrible as it is to say it, I want revenge."