9-11 Author to Discuss Aviation’s Dark Day of Chaos
Pilot and Commentator to Explore Challenges Faced and Lessons Learned
Jun. 14, 2010
To airline pilot Lynn Spencer, the tragedy of terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, was “gut-wrenching and personal.” The 9/11 Commission Report left so many questions unanswered that she decided to interview key people and produce a more definitive report from an insider’s point of view.
When: June 19, 4 p.m.
Where: McDermott Library Auditorium
Seating is limited. Call 972-883-4951 for more information.
The result was Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11 released in 2008.
Spencer recently responded to questions dealing with topics she will cover in detail at a UT Dallas visit on June 19 for the Jalonick Memorial Lecture. She is a senior aviation safety analyst for the Federal Aviation Administration and commentator for CNN and CBS.
She graduated from Duke University and holds a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings. She completed her high-altitude training at the Johnson Space Center and served as both a pilot and instructor at Continental Express Airlines.
When did you get the first impression that several aspects of the 9/11 Commission Report were incorrect or lacking?
As an airline pilot, I began to hear talk in “the ranks” that the report did not seem to address: terrorist practice runs that had occurred on many of these routes, other suspect aircraft that morning, shoot-down orders and more. When I started to really dig into the data and talk to the key players from that day, I realized that the report did not even begin to capture all that happened. It seemed to me that if the commission staff could not solve a mystery, they chose to ignore it. I think their failure to report and address some of this other information led to the rise in so many conspiracy theories, and also gave the American people an incomplete understanding of the incredible aspects of the air response.
Were there other incriminating reports of possible terrorist takeovers of planes from New York airports other than United Airlines Flight 23 that was at Kennedy airport on 9/11?
Yes. Officials at the highest levels of the FAA and military indicated to me that they believe that anywhere from 10-15 other flights may have been targeted, and the quick thinking of the airlines and the FAA's national operations manager – who was on his first day on the job when he made the call to shut down the airspace – went far in saving many lives. That United Airlines Flight 23 was an interesting example that made it into the news, although not completely accurately, and then disappeared from public sight. Talking to that crew and hearing about their extensive dealings with the FBI was fascinating. That flight was at the runway waiting to take off when the “no take-off” order arrived in the cockpit.
Were you impressed by the quick and direct decisions made by American Airlines CEO Don Carty from Fort Worth to land all of the company’s airborne flights and cancel all flights?
Absolutely. American Airlines was extremely pro-active in dealing with the mounting crisis. At first, American believed that both crashes into the World Trade Center were their aircraft. They knew that American 11 – the first flight to crash – was theirs, and at first thought that the second strike, which was actually United 175, was also theirs, because at that time they had lost all contact with American 77, which eventually hit the Pentagon. A full 15 minutes before the Federal Aviation Administration took action, and only 12 minutes after the second crash, Don Carty made the call to stop all take-offs of American Airlines flights at 9:15 am.
Was there somewhat of a cavalier approach in the military response, or was that more a lack of resources and outdated equipment?
To be quite frank, funding for American air defense had become a favorite congressional budget cut for the entire decade preceding 9/11, and the military had been fighting hard against the continued cuts. Their computer systems and radars were grossly outdated, and the number of air defense alert sites – where fighters sit on alert 24/7 ready to launch on 5 minutes notice – were being continually shrunk. In the weeks before 9/11, it was announced that our air defense alert sites would be further shrunk to four alert sites for the entire United States, down from 10, and military leaders were fuming. Gen. Larry Arnold, who was commander of 1st Air Force – the air defense unit responsible for protecting the United States mainland, fumed, “ A four-corner defense might work in basketball, but it will not work in air defense.” I found the military response to be anything but cavalier. In fact, I was awed and humbled by the number of military leaders who, in the face of a crisis for which the government and military were ill-prepared for, were willing to put their careers on the line that day to make decisions to save American lives.
In your view what are a few of the most important revelations we learned about air control from Sept. 11, 2001?
I think we learned that it is not enough to be prepared to fight the last war; that we must be diligent in anticipating and preparing for future threats. We are better prepared for 9/11 now, but are we prepared for the next attack? I think we also realized the critical requirement for seamless and timely communication and situational awareness between the military and the air traffic control system. We'd like to think that we've fixed a lot of those problems, but recent air events, such as the Northwest flight that was non-communicative for more than an hour and overshot its Minneapolis destination by more than 100 miles, revealed that there are still significant shortcomings in that link that must be addressed rather than brushed under the carpet.
Was this the toughest day in history for air traffic controllers?
I think that, without a doubt, it was. For many controllers as well as pilots, it was also their last day. They were not able to return to their seats after the trauma of that day. They were caught on the front lines of an air attack for which they had not expected and for which they had not prepared. Their professionalism saved many lives, but the memories have stayed close to the hearts and minds of pilots and controllers alike.