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Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11
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Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11

4.6 16
by Lynn Spencer

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Now in paperback, the riveting story of the response of the heroic pilots and air traffic controllers who found themselves on the front lines of an undeclared war on September 11, 2001.

In this gripping minute-to-minute narrative, based on an astonishing feat of reporting, Lynn Spencer re-creates the never-before told story of the unprecedented battle in the


Now in paperback, the riveting story of the response of the heroic pilots and air traffic controllers who found themselves on the front lines of an undeclared war on September 11, 2001.

In this gripping minute-to-minute narrative, based on an astonishing feat of reporting, Lynn Spencer re-creates the never-before told story of the unprecedented battle in the skies on 9/11, making vital corrections to the findings of the 9/11 Commission and revealing many startling, unknown elements of the day’s events. The reader is taken right to the front lines of the heroic response that fateful morning as thousands of air traffic controllers, military commanders, jet fighter pilots, and commercial pilots with flights in the air snapped into stirring action. She brings readers to the hot spot of each split-second decision, taking them inside the cockpits, the control towers, the fighter jets, and the military battle cabs to bring to life the intensity of the firsthand struggles to grasp what was happening and how to respond.

From the shocking moment that American Flight 11 fails to respond to a controller’s call to the announcement that the last commercial flight has safely landed and military jets rule the skies, Touching History is a powerful and deeply moving nonfiction thriller that is a vital addition to the country’s understanding of a day that changed our nation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Through meticulous research and a talent for scene-setting, Spencer delivers a minute-by-minute account of the events of September 11, 2001, through the eyes of people in the flight industry and the military. Spencer's detailed account jumps from commercial airports to military bases to executive board rooms around the country as she depicts the events and actions of all those involved in responding to the terrorist attacks. The audio acknowledges the problems with the security system, but also the resourcefulness and determination of the many people who tried to prevent the catastrophe. At first, Joyce Bean doesn't seem the right voice in a book dominated by male voices. In some of the narrative and exhaustive parts of the text, her voice doesn't provide the energy and emphasis that is needed. However, her many masculine vocal projections are distinct and match the emotional projection of each character, making her performance a very strong one. A Free Press hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 14). (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Commercial airline pilot Spencer shows how, with an American public stupefied by the unimaginable airline attacks on its homeland on 9/11, civil aviation and military circles joined forces quickly to fathom, manage, and defend against a then-unknown enemy. She further conveys the sense of frustration, confusion, and terror felt by flight crews already airborne as the disasters at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unfolded. Spencer scarcely disguises her profound admiration for these individuals who, armed with the barest intelligence, managed to bring their planes and passengers safely through the ordeal. She exhibits great sympathy for the Air National Guard fighter pilots, who managed to defend their country without sufficient authority and effective rules of engagement. And she insists that, despite the clear findings of the 9/11 Commission Report, these fighter pilots and their commanders did fashion an adequate aerial defense-even though no word had been forthcoming from their civilian higher-ups in Washington. An impressively researched and compellingly written narrative of one of America's worst catastrophes; recommended for collections on terrorism and aviation and all libraries.
—John Carver Edwards

Kirkus Reviews
A pilot reconstructs the real-time response of America's commercial airline industry and military to the terror in the skies on 9/11. By now it's clear that no single book can capture the full dimensions of that momentous day. Patrick Creed and Rick Newman's upcoming Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 (2008), for example, deals solely and memorably with putting out the inferno caused by the crash of American Flight 77. Relying on tapes, transcripts and interviews, Spencer offers another perspective on the fate of that flight and numerous other incredible events in the American sky that morning. Saddled with outdated equipment and communications systems, the military's air defense was organized to anticipate an attack from missiles or airplanes approaching the borders. Forced to improvise, the Air Force quickly scrambled jets and, for the first time in American history, found itself flying combat patrol in American skies filled with hundreds of airliners. Contrary to the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, Spencer argues that the military could have shot down United 93, the last of the four hijacked aircraft, had it continued toward the nation's capital. For a generation of industry civilians-pilots, air-traffic controllers, regulatory officials-for whom hijackings were a relic of the '60s and '70s, these attacks broke all known rules. Instead of commandeering airplanes to make a political statement, to seek asylum or ransom, the al-Qaeda operatives converted planes into missiles. How the industry moved from surprise to bafflement to comprehension, to an unprecedented ordering of all planes out of the sky, is the core of Spencer's story. Although she depends tooheavily on direct transcriptions and sometimes fails to smoothly integrate the many strands of her narrative, Spencer manages to convey a sense of the excruciating problems posed that morning to anyone charged with wringing order from the chaos in the sky. A useful addition to the literature of 9/11.
From the Publisher
"Spencer...expertly elucidates the complexities and pitfalls of American aviation as it faced a staggering challenge." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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Free Press
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

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Touching History The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11
By Lynn Spencer
Free Press Copyright © 2008 Lynn Spencer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416559252

American 11, Do You Hear Me?

Boston Center, Nashua, New Hampshire, 7:59 a.m.

American Flight 11 receives takeoff clearance at 7:59 and is handed over from the controllers at Logan to the FAA's Boston Center after reaching 11,000 feet. The plane appears on Pete Zalewski's radar screen just after passing through 20,000 feet, and he radios the flight crew climb and course instructions.

"American 11, turn 20 degrees right."

"20 right. American 11," comes the prompt reply from the cockpit.

"American 11, now climb/maintain flight level 3-5-0," Zalewski continues, instructing them to head up to 35,000 feet.

He receives no response.

"American 11," he repeats, "climb/maintain flight level 3-5-0."

Still nothing.

"American 11, Boston," he radios, requesting a call back from the pilots. "American 11, uh, the American on the frequency, how do you hear me?"

Again, there is no response. When a crew is handed off to a new controller, they're given a new frequency and are expected to check in right away. In this case, either the pilots aren't paying attention, Zalewski thinks, or, more likely, there is something wrong with their radios or perhaps with the frequency. Airliners have two primary radios for communicating; each can transmit on two frequencies, one that is active and another that is normally inactive. Thepilot simply has to flip a switch to go between the two radios, or between the inactive and active frequencies. They usually listen to just one frequency at a time, and they can hear all the communications between the controller and other aircraft on that frequency. They can also listen to both active frequencies available to them simultaneously, although that gets confusing, like having a phone to each ear.

If a crew doesn't check in right away, it's usually because they've accidentally tuned to the wrong frequency or because they got the frequency information wrong. In that case, they just go back to the previous frequency and ask for a clarification. Such mishaps are not uncommon, and it usually doesn't take a crew much time to get onto the correct frequency.

Zalewski wonders if the pilots have returned to the frequency of their last sector, so he calls them on that frequency, but they're not there. Next he tries them on the emergency or "Guard" frequency, 121.5. This frequency is reserved for emergency communications with aircraft in distress, and airline crews usually monitor it continuously on their secondary radios. Zalewski figures the American 11 pilots should hear him if he calls them on that. But again he gets no response. He then tries several more times on the normal frequency, but to no avail. Zalewski is getting concerned, but not overly so. His radar tells him that the plane is still on course and the pilots have not yet changed their transponder to the "loss of radio" code, 7600. They may not yet realize that they have fallen out of the loop. If they are aware, Zalewski is confident that the crew is working on the problem.

"American 11, this is Boston Center. How do you read?" he repeats again and again. "American 11, if you hear Boston Center...please acknowledge."

He begins systematically running through a checklist in his mind, trying to recall all the eventualities that might account for the loss of communication. The crew may be significantly distracted or dealing with some problem on the aircraft. In a worst-case scenario, he figures, they may have experienced a failure in their avionics equipment or some other electrical problem. There doesn't seem to be any issue on his side of the equation; his other flights are hearing him just fine.

He reports to his supervisor that American 11 is not responding, and then, at 8:14, just as the flight is officially labeled "NORDO," no radio contact, the plane's transponder signal is turned off. This is rare, and not a good indication at all. No pilot would turn off his or her transponder, so this indicates a serious electrical failure on board the aircraft.

American 11 is no longer transmitting any signal to other aircraft or to air traffic control, and the plane's altitude is now a matter of sheer guesswork. The flight has become a simple blip on Zalewski's screen, with no data tag, what's called a primary radar return. The radar picks up the plane only because of its large mass, but no additional information is transmitted. Zalewski keeps his eyes riveted on the blip, afraid to lose it in the sea of returns that fill his monitor.

"Would you please come over here?" he calls out urgently to his supervisor. "I think something is seriously wrong with this plane. I don't know what. It's either mechanical or electrical, I think, but I'm not sure."

When his supervisor asks him if he suspects a hijacking, though, Zalewski replies without hesitation, "Absolutely not. No way."

Hijacking is completely out of the realm of his experience. Hijackings are a thing of the past, a concern of the '60s and '70s. The operating manuals provided to controllers and pilots, which outline every imaginable procedure and regulation dictating pilot and controller actions, have only three or four pages dedicated to hijacking procedures. They're just not relevant these days.

At their peak in 1969, hijackings were committed by refugees or criminals and were nearly always headed to Cuba. As a precaution airliners carried navigating data, known as approach plates, for the Havana airport. Diplomatic procedures were in place to ensure the return of planes and passengers, and most incidents were resolved without violence. In subsequent years, extortion-centered hijackings increased, in which hijackers commandeered aircraft for political purposes or monetary gain all around the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, Singapore to Ethiopia. Yet as hijackers increasingly ended up dead at the hands of highly trained teams of negotiators and commandos, hijackings became less and less common. Zalewski can't imagine what is going on; but it's not that.

His supervisor instructs him to use standard operating procedures for handling a "no radio" aircraft, which includes calling back to the last sector that worked the flight and asking the aircraft to "ident," meaning to press a button on their transponder that makes their data tag light up on the controller's screen. If the pilot presses the Ident button, this lets the controller know that although the pilot cannot communicate, the crew is at least hearing controller instructions. Controllers can also ask the dispatcher of the airline company to try to reach the pilot, or enlist the help of other company flights. All airlines have a staff of dispatchers who also monitor their flights and can communicate directly with their pilots via various methods. Pilots of the same airline can communicate with each other on special company frequencies. Nearby flight controller Tom Roberts, who is working another American flight on his frequency calls to another American flight he is working on his frequency. He asks that pilot to attempt to contact the pilots of American 11, and within moments the pilot reports back that he's tried without success.

Zalewski is becoming increasingly anxious. He's never lost communication for this long -- or to this degree -- with one of his flights, and he is desperately continuing to try get through.

"American 11, Boston."

"American 11, if you hear Boston Center, ident."

"American 11, if you hear Boston Center, ident please or acknowledge."

He keeps his eyes glued to the flight's radar blip on his screen, and now, to his amazement, he sees the target making an abrupt turn toward the south, taking it significantly off course. He is shocked. Standard operating procedures dictate that, in the event of loss of radio communication, a flight continue along its planned route. The last thing a pilot would do when out of radio contact is to divert from the flight plan, leaving controllers with no clue as to where the plane is going.

With no way now to predict the aircraft's course and no altitude information for the flight, Boston Center controllers have no choice but to clear, or "sterilize," the entire airspace around the plane to create a buffer zone. They cannot have other aircraft coming into its proximity. Aircraft separation is urgent if a crash is to be averted. Working at a frenzied pace, the controllers call every aircraft between zero and 35,000 feet -- and between New York, Albany, and Syracuse -- to keep them out of the way. At least 20 flights are at immediate risk.

Meanwhile, planes have continued taking off from Logan and are heading into the danger zone. One of them is United 175. It is 8:23 when the cockpit crew checks in with Boston Center. They had taken off out of Boston at the same time that American Flight 11 turned off its transponder. The Boeing 767, under the command of Capt. Victor Saracini, is climbing toward its initial cruise altitude of 23,000 feet, and the cabin crew is beginning preparations for the meal service.

"Boston, morning, United 175's out of 19 for 2-3-0," Saracini announces when he checks onto Zalewski's frequency.

"United 175, Boston, uh, Center, roger," Zalewski responds. But he is quickly distracted by an odd transmission he has just heard on the frequency.

"We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport."

"Uh, who's trying to call me here?" Zalewski calls out to the voice. "American 11, are you trying to call?" The voice is heavily accented and he can't readily understand the nonstandard phraseology he's hearing.

He is sure that the transmission is coming from the wayward flight. Are they heading back to Boston? he wonders.

The ominous voice continues, as if the speaker is unaware that Zalewski is even addressing him. "Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."

Clearly the speaker is using the handheld radio in the cockpit, which he must think transmits only to the passengers, when in fact that radio transmits out to whatever active frequency the pilot is using. Only once the pilot flips a switch on the radio panel is its transmission restricted to the cabin of the plane.

There is now no doubt that American 11 is being hijacked. Zalewski calls out to his supervisor, "John, get over here immediately! Right now!" and immediately starts to hand off his other flights to a neighboring controller's frequency so that he can concentrate on American 11.

"Delta 351, Boston Center on 125.57," he calls, giving the flight that frequency to switch to.

"2-5-5-7, Delta 351," the pilot parrots back.

"Flexjet 420, Boston Center 125.57," he says to the next.

Not only is this a hijacking, but it's no normal hijacking. Pilots would always find a way to let air traffic control know that they are dealing with a hijacker, and hijackers don't know how to turn off transponders or use radios!

Stunned by the urgency in his voice, the other controllers up and down his aisle stop to stare at Zalewski.

"This is really scary," a controller two positions down comments.

Zalewski calls to an assistant to pull the tapes that are automatically recorded of all transmissions to and from the center and to listen to the troubling transmissions he's just heard. He isn't sure he has made out clearly exactly what was said, and he knows that those transmissions will be critical in evaluating what's happening.

Supervisor Dan Bueno immediately calls the FAA's Command Center to notify them, and Zalewski continues to hand off his flights while keeping his eyes intently on the small blip that is the only identifier of the hijacked plane.

"United 175, contact the, um, Boston Center on 133.42," he directs.

"Okay, 3-4-2. United 175, so long."

Though Zalewski has not been able to get through to American 11, a remarkable communication is about to be made from the flight: a courageous call is placed from the cabin of the plane.

American Airlines Reservations Office, Cary, North Carolina, 8:19 a.m.

Nydia Gonzales is on duty in American's Southeastern Reservations Office in Cary, North Carolina. As an operations specialist, her responsibilities include monitoring any emergency situations with American flights and forwarding information to American System Operations Control at headquarters in Dallas. At 8:19, one of the reservation agents receives an alarming call from a woman claiming to be a flight attendant on a hijacked American plane, and the agent immediately patches the call through to Gonzales.

When Gonzales picks up her phone, the caller calmly identifies herself as the number three flight attendant on American Flight 11, out of Boston. She is calling from one of the seatback Airfones in the cabin. She hurriedly relays that two flight attendants have been wounded and one passenger fatally stabbed, and she believes her aircraft is being hijacked. The passengers cannot breathe; something's been sprayed in the cabin. The flight attendants have tried to communicate with the cockpit but have been unable to.

Gonzales is stunned. She knows that someone at headquarters needs to be hearing this call, now. But her telephone system is not set up to transfer calls, so she holds the phone to her ear and grabs another phone to dial the airline's emergency line to the operations center in Dallas.

When the American Airlines' operations center emergency hotline rings at 8:27, manager Craig Marquis picks up. Gonzales excitedly explains that she is on the phone with a caller claiming to be a flight attendant on a hijacked plane. With a phone to each ear, Gonzales hurriedly relays that the caller says her name is Betty Ong, on American 11, a Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles.

Marquis is not sure what to think. Could this be a hoax? Remaining calm, he pulls up the personnel record for Betty Ong and asks Gonzales to have the flight attendant verify her employee number. His face drains of color when the information Gonzales relays matches the record on his screen. He then looks further in the record to see that Betty Ong is indeed listed as a flight attendant working American Flight 11 today. Okay, he thinks, so I'm dealing with something real. But could this be an incident of air rage that the flight attendant is misinterpreting?

In his 20-something years at American, Marquis has faced his share of multimillion-dollar, airline-impacting decisions. He stays calm.

"I'm assuming they've declared an emergency," he tells Gonzales, figuring that the pilots must have reported the hijacking to the air traffic controller whose airspace they're in. "Let me get ATC on here. Stand by." He initiates a call to air traffic control at Boston Center. "Okay, we're contacting the flight crew now and we're...also contacting ATC."

Betty Ong continues to talk to Gonzales. She relays that the hijackers are in the cockpit with the pilots, that the first-class passengers have been moved to the back, and the plane is now flying erratically. Gonzales focuses on providing reassurance, working to keep her voice calm. She is stunned that somehow Ong is managing to maintain such composure.

"We've contacted air traffic control," Marquis quickly reports back to Gonzales. "They are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking, so they are moving all of the traffic out of this aircraft's way." Then he asks Gonzales to find out if there is a doctor on board.

"No, no doctor," she reports back moments later.

Ong then fills Gonzales in that the hijackers came from first-class seats 2A, 2B, 9A, and 9B. Marquis directs one of his staff to look up the flight and see who was assigned those seats. Meanwhile Marquis is informed by Boston Center that controllers there have heard radio transmissions from the plane indicating arguing in the cockpit. What they've actually heard is the transmission instructing the passengers to remain in their seats, but the information is relayed inaccurately. He also learns, correctly, that the plane has made an unauthorized southerly turn over Albany. Following protocol, Marquis calls out to an aide to notify the FAA Command Center that the airline has a confirmed hijacking.

FAA Command Center, Herndon, Virginia, 8:30 a.m.

Ben Sliney is making his way among the tiered rows of computer stations in the Command Center toward the glass-enclosed conference room at the far side of the Ops floor for the daily 8:30 meeting. The meeting is convened among all department heads and is a forum for briefings about the status of things in all sections: training, plans and procedures, computer operations, international operations, and system efficiency. As the National Operations Manager, Sliney is expected to present an outlook for the coming days' operations and expectations. Delays and what they did or will do about them are naturally the focus, as well as anything that may be newsworthy, like a huge backup at some airport. A staff member from FAA headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., attends telephonically and reports to the highest echelons of the FAA as needed.

Sliney has thoroughly reviewed yesterday's operational log entries and delay summaries, which each air traffic control center must submit every day, and he's prepared to brief further up the chain as to any elements of the previous day's operations that may be called into question. He will also discuss the weather outlook, airport and route congestion, and any staffing shortages affecting operations. He is well prepared, but what he's not prepared for is what happens next.

As he strides toward the conference room, one of the supervisors calls to him, "We may have a hijacking out of Boston."

Sliney is startled. As far as he can recall, it's been years since the last hijacking in the United States.

"American Flight 11 -- a 767 out of Boston for Los Angeles," the line supervisor continues.

Sliney flashes back to the routine for dealing with hijackings from the days when they were more common. Keep other aircraft away from the errant plane. Give the pilots what they need. The plane will land somewhere, passengers will be traded for fuel, and difficult negotiations with authorities will begin. The incident should resolve itself peacefully, although the ones in the Middle East, he recalls, often had a more violent outcome.

"When was the last time we had a hijacking?" he asks. The supervisor shrugs, and Sliney continues into the conference room, thinking So much for a quiet first day on the job!

It has, indeed, been many years since the last hijacking of a U.S. airliner. In 1987, a fired USAir employee used his invalidated credentials to board an aircraft with a pistol. He hijacked the flight and killed the pilots. The plane crashed. More recently, in 1993, a Lufthansa flight that was hijacked in Europe flew into JFK Airport in New York. In that case, the hijacker surrendered.

Sliney begins the meeting by announcing the news of the apparent hijacking and then commences with his briefing. The weather is clear across the nation and they have no current equipment, staffing, or airspace restrictions. The volume of air traffic will necessitate some spacing restrictions between aircraft to smooth the flow in some congested sectors. They might need to order some short-duration ground stops at airports that have too many arrivals scheduled in order to prevent a bottleneck -- and then holding -- for incoming flights.

His briefing is interrupted when the same supervisor comes in and whispers into his ear that the situation with the hijacking is developing. American Airlines has just called and there's a report that a flight attendant may have been stabbed.

Sliney decides his place is on the Operations floor, and he excuses himself, announcing to the room, "Look, this hijack situation has seriously escalated and I need to get back to the floor. There is an unconfirmed report indicating that a flight attendant may have been stabbed."

The others quickly clear the room, heading to their posts. On the floor, the supervisor reports to Sliney on the rest of the call from American Airlines headquarters and the information from Betty Ong. He also reports that the plane's transponder has been turned off so that no flight data is showing on controller screens. The latest information from Boston Center is that the aircraft has turned south and is now 35 miles north of New York City.

Sliney looks up at one of the large screens at the front of the Command Center and sees that what was the track for American 11 is in "ghost," meaning that no transponder data is being received. Instead, the computer is giving track information based on the previously stored track data.

Sliney directs his staff to query facilities on the north-south line the flight appeared to be on when it was last seen and determine if anyone was talking to or tracking the flight. The plane is somewhere, and they need to find it. He then requests a teleconference between the FAA's Boston Center, New York Center, and headquarters so that all parties can get caught up and can share information in real time. The higher echelons at headquarters in Washington will make the determination as to the necessity of military assistance in dealing with the hijacking.

The standard hijacking protocol calls for the air traffic facility that first becomes aware of the incident to pass the information up the FAA chain of command, from the facility to the Command Center to FAA headquarters. There, a hijack coordinator contacts the National Military Command Center, or NMCC, to officially request fighter assistance. Once the NMCC receives authorization from the secretary of defense, orders are transmitted down the military command chain, in this instance to NORAD, then CONR, and then to NEADS, to issue a scramble order, getting fighter jets in the air to intercept the hijacked plane and follow it. The nearest alert aircraft in this instance are at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod.

Boston Center, Nashua, New Hampshire, 8:30 a.m.

Back at Boston Center, supervisor Dan Bueno has just hung up with the FAA Command Center in Herndon. His next move is to request military assistance from the 102nd Fighter Wing at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. He knows it's not standard operating procedure to call the military directly -- that's supposed to be done by FAA headquarters -- but he's checked the FAA regulation manual, and in the back under section FAAO 7610.4J. Appendix 16, it states that fighters can be launched directly at FAA request, so he is going to make that happen. He may not be FAA headquarters, but he is FAA!

When he reaches tower control at Otis, though, the controller tells him to contact NEADS, under Bob Marr's command. That's the protocol.

"You've got to go through the proper channels," the controller says. "They're the only ones with the authority to initiate a scramble order." So much for the back page of the regulations manual.

Despite the emergency situation with American 11, controllers still need to take breaks in order to stay alert, and Tom Roberts is now relieved from duty for a scheduled coffee break. Forget the coffee! Roberts thinks, and instead he hurries over to controller John Hartling's desk, whose airspace American 11 is heading for. Just as he gets there, American 11 blips onto Hartling's screen. Hartling hasn't heard the word yet about the hijacking. The concentration required for the job is so intense that controllers operate on a need-to-know basis. They don't need to know what's happening in other controllers' sectors unless it might affect their own airspace, and distractions are rigorously kept to a minimum.

"You see this target here?" Roberts says to Hartling. "This -- this aircraft we believe is hijacked, and he's last reported at 29,000 feet."

Hartling stares incredulously at the blip on his screen. It's bad enough that he has no access to the flight data or identifying information for the plane, that he's just got a primary radar return with no data tag -- but it's a real shocker hearing the plane could be hijacked.

With no altitude data for the plane, he turns to another flight that has just moved into his airspace, United 175, to ask for assistance getting a read on American 11's altitude. The United pilot has just checked onto his frequency, after being handed off from Zalewski's sector.

"Do you have traffic?" Hartling asks the United pilot. "Look at, uh, your 12 to 1 o'clock at about, uh, 10 miles southbound to see if you can see an American 767 out there please."

"Okay, we're looking," Captain Saracini responds. Then moments later, "Negative contact, United 175 Heavy." He has added the "Heavy" tag to his call sign to indicate that he is a wide-body aircraft.

Hartling tries to give him a better description in hopes that the crew can spot the aircraft. He really wants to know its altitude and he knows that it's not easy for a pilot to spot another aircraft in the vast sky unless he knows exactly where to look.

"Okay, United 175, do you have him at your 12 o'clock now and five, 10 miles?" Hartling offers.

"Affirmative," the pilot now responds, "we have him, uh, he looks, uh about 20, yeah, about 29, 28,000."

"Okay, thank you."

Considering that airliners typically fly between 450 and 500 miles per hour, and because their flight paths are converging, Hartling chooses to err on the side of caution and move United 175 away from American 11.

"United 175," he directs, "turn 30 degrees to the right. I want to keep you away from this traffic."

"Thirty degrees to the right, United 175 Heavy," the pilot responds, and the 767 compliantly rolls into a gentle right bank.

With United 175 out of American 11's flight path, Hartling passes the United plane on to the next link in the air traffic control chain, Dave Bottiglia at the New York Center in Islip, Long Island. Hartling then continues to track American 11 as it approaches New York. He can tell that it is flying much faster than the 450 mph it should be moving.

Meanwhile, per Supervisor Dan Bueno's instructions, Boston controller Joseph Cooper has gotten through to the NEADS facility in Upstate New York to request fighter assistance.

NEADS, Rome, New York, 8:37 a.m.

Bob Marr is in the battle cab expecting the Vigilant Guardian exercise to commence at any moment. Today's training exercise runs a number of scenarios, including a simulated hijacking in which the perpetrators overtake an aircraft for political purposes, directing it to an island in order to seek asylum.

There's no way to know exactly when the exercise will begin -- it just will -- so the NEADS staff go about their normal business of monitoring until something different happens. When it does, each section will do what they've been trained in order to respond to the challenge or threat. The three operational groups -- Surveillance, Identification, and Weapons -- are interdependent. The Surveillance technicians find targets and pass on their coordinates to Identification, who determine what the target is and if it is friend or foe. The ID techs then hand off the target to Weapons, who give scramble orders to fighter jets and direct them to their target.

At 8:37, Tech Sgt. Jeremy Powell, who works on the Ops floor in support of the senior director in charge of the Weapons section, receives the phone call from the FAA's Boston Center controller Joseph Cooper.

"Hey Huntress," Cooper says, using the NEADS call sign, "we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed toward New York, and we need you guys to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out."

"Is this real-world or exercise?" Powell asks, looking across the Operations floor to the simulations team, to see if he can discern whether this may be one of their tricks for the morning.

"No, this is not an exercise, not a test," Cooper responds urgently.

Powell bolts up and turns toward the ID section behind him on the Ops floor. "We've got a hijack going on!"

Assuming that the exercise has begun, the leader of the ID section directs her team into action.

"We have a hijack going on. Get your checklists. The exercise is on."

"No," Powell urges, "you don't understand. We have a no-shit hijack!"

The ID supervisor raises her eyebrows. Okay, she figures, taken somewhat off guard. Quickly shifting gears, she thinks, I know this routine. Sitting just next to her is the mission crew commander technician, whose job it is to support the mission crew commander, or MCC. The MCC is in charge of the entire Ops floor, and if there is anything at all happening, he needs to know about it. The MCC tech gets on the building's paging system and calls for the mission crew commander, Maj. Kevin Nasypany, to return to the Ops floor immediately. The loudspeakers in the building crackle as the call to Nasypany goes out.

The technician then bellies up to his console, which shows the entire northeast sector, to look for an aircraft squawking the universal hijack code. Pilots have three special transponder codes that they can dial in: 7500 for hijacking, 7600 for loss of radio, and 7700 for other emergencies. Any of them will cause the airplane's tag to light up on his radar screen, but he doesn't see any such tag.

Nasypany arrives on the Ops floor moments later to talk of a hijacking. No, that can't be right, he thinks, the hijacking simulation doesn't start until later. Who screwed up?

"The hijack's not supposed to be for another hour!" he snarls, clearly not happy with this early mistake.

In the battle cab overlooking the Ops floor, Marr and his staff make note of a huddle of people gathering. Sergeant Powell, who took the call from Boston Center, is up on his feet and mouthing something to Marr that Marr can't make out. Since only the MCC has a hotline into the battle cab, Powell doesn't have any other way of communicating directly with the commander. It's not his job.

Marr has participated in enough training missions to know this is something out of the ordinary. Clearly, he thinks, the simex is kicking off with a lively, unexpected twist. Marr sends one of his officers to check out what's going on. His bet is that his simulations team has started off the exercise by throwing out a "heart attack card" to see how the troops respond to a first-aid call from a fellow soldier, testing their first responder training.

The officer Marr sent to the Ops floor rushes back into the battle cab after a brief conversation with the Boston Center controller, still on the line on Powell's telephone. "It's a hijacking, and this is real life," she reports to Marr, "not part of the exercise. And it appears that the plane is heading toward New York City."

This is an interesting start to the exercise, Marr thinks. This "real-world" mixed in with today's simex will keep them on their toes. A direct call from a regional FAA facility is not the customary means for requesting military assistance with a hijacking. The 1993 Lufthansa hijacking had been textbook in terms of FAAmilitary coordination. On that day in 1993, Marr spoke directly with his counterpart at the FAA and explained that they needed to start a request up their chain of command, or the military would not be able to respond quickly enough if the hijacking, which took place in Europe, came to the United States, which it did. Then he went up the same route of his own chain of command, letting them know that they should be prepared for a request for military assistance from the FAA. Several hours later, Marr received notification that military assistance was authorized, and the Otis F-15s, and later the Atlantic City F-16s, were scrambled.

Proper request or not, Marr decides to act first and ask questions later. At 8:37 he directs Mission Crew Commander Nasypany to order the two F-15 alert aircraft at Otis Air National Guard Base to battle stations. A battle stations order requires the pilots to suit up into their full flight gear and get into their jets. There, they're ready to start their engines and taxi out should a scramble order follow.

Otis Air National Guard Base, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 8:34 a.m.

Though the Otis tower controller had directed Dan Bueno from the FAA's Boston Center to call NEADS, he decides that he should also go ahead and alert the Otis Operations Center that a call from NEADS might be coming. If the information Bueno was giving about a hijacked flight was accurate, he figures a call will be coming from NEADS soon and a scramble order is likely. He knows the fighter pilots will appreciate the heads-up.

MSgt. Mark Rose is on duty at the Operations desk when the phone rings. As the superintendent of aviation management, he is in charge of flight records and currency for the Wing's pilots. He's not sure what to make of the call.

"What do you have available?" the tower controller asks. He has not taken the time to first identify himself, and Rose has no idea where the call is coming in from.

"What are you talking about?" he responds. He knows what the caller is asking, but you just don't blurt out that kind of information: "Yeah, I've got 24 F-15s armed with AIM-120 Amraam missiles capable of locking onto targets at 50 nautical miles..." For all he knows, this could be a wrong number or a crank call.

The tower controller then identifies himself and offers a quick explanation that he's had a report of a hijacking. Rose knows it's time to forward the call to someone better suited to respond. The director of operations for the fighter squadron, Lt. Col. Timothy "Duff" Duffy, is standing next to him, chatting with some pilots who are getting ready to depart for a routine training flight.

"Duff, you got a phone call," Rose says.

When he left home this morning, Duff couldn't help but think that it was a perfect day to fly -- it felt like the first day of autumn. The chances were slim, though, of his getting up in the air, because he was scheduled to sit alert for the next three days, and alert scrambles were few and far between.

"Who is it?" Duff asks, looking over at Rose and thinking that the only person who knows he is here this early in the morning is his wife.

"Otis tower -- something about an apparent hijacking under way: American 11, a 767, out of Boston and headed for California."

Well, it's not my wife, he thinks. At an alert site such as Otis, the word "hijacking" is not used casually. Scramble orders involving a commercial airliner are not all that uncommon; often enough a flight loses radio contact or carelessly dials in an incorrect transponder frequency, or gets off course and flies a little too close to someplace it ought not to be. Jets are scrambled to investigate and report back. But a hijacking? That's a whole different matter, and for Duff, whose primary job is as a commercial pilot and who is part time with the Guard, the word hits very close to home. He fully expects that he and the other alert pilot on duty, his wingman, Maj. Dan "Nasty" Nash, will be getting a scramble call, so he grabs his handheld radio and calls for Nash to suit up.

Duff is betting that they're going to at least be ordered to go to battle stations. It's a fairly rushed process, so if there's even a chance of that call, Duff would just as soon have a head start.

Wingman Nasty Nash is a full-time National Guard F-15 pilot. Muscular, and in extremely good physical condition, he is a classic fighter pilot: all business. A man of few words, he comes across as not just serious but borderline offensive, and that's when he's not speaking. When he does speak, he uses the fewest possible words. He does have a sensitive and reflective side -- he just doesn't often show it.

Nasty wasn't scheduled to sit alert this week, but the pilot who was is part of the training mission flying this morning. So by a twist of fate, Nasty has been left covering the guy's alert shift, "holding the alert packet" for him.

"Have you ever done a hijacking?" Duff asks Nasty as he fastens his G suit.

"No," Nasty responds with his hallmark brevity.

"I have," Duff says, and he recounts his experience with the 1993 hijacked Lufthansa flight. Since the FAA and law enforcement have primary responsibility for dealing with hijackings, the military is brought in only to give "safety of flight" support. There are very clear rules about the use of the military, and their presence is strictly to monitor and report back -- nothing more. If something happens to the hijacked aircraft -- maybe there is an explosion on board -- the fighters are able to report to the pilots on the extent of the damage.

In 1993, Duff explains, the Otis F-15s, and later the Atlantic City F-16s, were scrambled. The fighters intercepted the aircraft off the coast of eastern Canada and initially stayed at a distance of about 10 miles in trail. As the hijacked plane approached JFK Airport, the fighters moved in closer, to around 5 miles, and stayed a bit above the aircraft and out of sight. They did a low fly-by as the plane landed, then circled overhead while the hijacking played out on the ground, finally returning to their bases when the crisis was resolved. No one was injured, and the hijacker surrendered.

In light of Duff's experience, Nasty tells him, "You've got the lead."

But Nasty had been designated lead in the alert roster, so after strapping into this G suit, Duff makes a quick trip across the hall into the Command Post to report the switch.

As he enters the Command Post, the supervisor of flying has a phone to each ear, talking to Otis tower on one phone and NEADS on the other.

"I'm 1, Nasty's 2, and we're going to the jets," Duff reports, and the supervisor calls back to him.

"It's an American 767 from Boston to California -- American Flight 11 -- and it looks like the real thing."

"Okay, we're going to the jets," Duff responds, heading out the door before finishing his sentence.

He sprints out to the alert truck to join Nasty, and within minutes the pilots are being driven across the ramp to the alert hangar, where their fully fueled and armed F-15s await. Duff can't help but think about his sister, who is a flight attendant for American. She often flies the Boston-L.A. route. He forces the thought out of his mind, reminding himself to remain focused on his mission. If I can't effect change, I have to let it go, he tells himself.

When they are halfway across the tarmac, the claxon blares, indicating an order to battle stations. The radio in Duff's hand crackles to life: "Alpha-Kilo 1-2, Battle Stations!"

He and Nasty are way ahead of the game, and Duff is glad he made the decision to suit up right after getting that call from the control tower. It has saved precious time. His pulse quickens while the truck speeds across the ramp, and he can't help but think about the troubled flight. Being a commercial pilot, he pictures the scene in that cockpit and imagines what those pilots must be going through.

Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Spencer


Excerpted from Touching History by Lynn Spencer Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Spencer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"Spencer...expertly elucidates the complexities and pitfalls of American aviation as it faced a staggering challenge." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Meet the Author

Lynn Spencer is a pilot for ExpressJet Airlines as well as a certified flight instructor. She has been a commercial pilot for eleven years, and in that time has held the coveted position of Instructor for the airline. She graduated from Duke University with honors, before following her dream to become a pilot, and she completed her high-altitude training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her three children.

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Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing story! This book gives an amazing perspective of what was happening in the skies on Sept 11, and tells a story that few  people know about. I originally heard about this story on C-Span during a symposium involving the author and some of the aviation personnel featured in the book. I was fascinated by the stories told and so tracked down the book, which turned out to be equally as captivating. I have no aviation experience, so it was a little difficult understanding the complexities of how air traffic control works and the differences in the radar systems and communication systems between civilian and military personnel, but i was still captivated by the stories told. I am completely grateful to all those who were able to perform heroically and make quick decisions to keep a horrible day from getting worse. Everyone should read this book!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book tells you what really happened--pretty much from an air traffic control perspective. Knowing something about how airliners operate with ATC, I always found the common wisdom about what was known and when to be completely at odds with how ATC operates. But now I know. It was also gratifying to read how various folks stepped up to the plate and put their careers at possible risk in order to get the right thing done, and get it done NOW. So if you want to understand what happened in the air that day, and what was done to regain control of US airspace, this is your book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The old adage about writing holds true once again...'write about what you know.' In Touching History, Lynn Spencer not only knows what she writes about...the world of airlines and pilots...but she had an inside, up front seat in a plane herself, as its commercial pilot on that fateful day, 9/11. And she tells the in-air drama from the pilots' point of view like it was, with carefully researched data, personal interviews with those who orchestrated this incredible airborne drama, and astute observations that drew me into the front seat of the planes with all these people. It was white knuckle time for Air Traffic Controllers, Pilots, Fighter Jocks, and the Commanders, who had to meld an all-in winning poker hand when dealt more jokers than aces, and my knuckles were white clutching the book, turning the pages, as they played each fateful card. They showed the American Can Do spirit, figured their way around log jams..and author Lynn Spencer was there, in the air that day, to hear and see that drama firsthand, to play her part, and once she was safely back on the ground, she knew she had touched history, and followed up to learn more so she could tell us about it. This is one of those books you don't want to miss! Get it...read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A truly captivating account of what transpired in the military and commercial aviation on 9/11. Meticulously researched and well written. Once you start reading it you won't put it down. Breathtaking, second by second history of the valiant performance of those in command who were presented with a tragedy that none could have anticipated. Their responses will hearten those who ever had doubts about how our nation responded of that fateful day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick and gripping read covering the events from an aviator's perspective. Wonderful insight in to a terrible event.
MissLML More than 1 year ago
A bit technical but a very good read. You'll be surprised and learn ALOT about the behind the scenes happenings. Then you'll appreciate many for their heroism SO much more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read TOUCHING HISTORY in two sittings. God's hand was on everyone flying on 9/ll. In recommending to many, the comments are positive. I was introduced to this story when Cspan featured the author interviewing pilots (commercial and military) who were in the air that fateful day. I'm purchasing books as Christmas gifts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Touching History is the story of the 9/11 attacks-or rather America's response to them-as told by people who make their living from the air. Civilian and military pilots, air traffic controllers, FAA officials all replay that fateful day. The federal aviation official on his first day on the job; the air defence people whose exercise turned real("This is a no s--t hijack!"), the 747 pilot who was denied landing permission at Honolulu airport while he was 600 feet over the runway; the fighter pilot who mapped out an air defence strategy with a pad and pencil while flying at nearly the speed of sound; the officials who had to decide at a moment's notice what approaching radar blips were and what to do about them-these aren't even the strangest recountings in the book. Touching History is filled with heroism, bizarre happenings and split second decisions. The side of 9/11 you haven't heard. One military official even said this book was better than the 9/11 Commission Report. Worth reading!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Touching History, by Lynn Spencer, takes the readers throughout the course of 9/11 from the perspectives of pilots, air traffic control and civilians. The book travels through the day by jumping around from different airports, to air traffic control towers, military bases around the country and even onto the airplanes. At the begining of the book it is a normal day for everyone however it soon turned into a day that changes American's lives forever. The first plane to go "missing" was American 11.(crashed into the North Tower)The transponder on the aircraft was turned off. Air traffic control soon realized that the plane was hijacked however they did not know of its intensions. The next flight to go missing was United 175. (Crashed into the South Tower).was American 77.(Crashed into the Pentagon)The third plane hijacked was American 77.(Crashed into the Pentagon) The final plane hijacked was United 93 (Crashed into field in Pennsylvania). Air Traffic decided after the third plane was hijacked, to close all American air space and get every plane out of the air. They also called in every F-15 the military had available. Many flights were allowed to take off two days later on September 13th with heavy security and fighter jets in the air. The major message in this book was that when people come together they can accomplish incredible things. For example, air traffic control was able to get every plane out of the sky. This was something that had never even been attempted. I liked this book because it provided insight to what happened that day. The book was able to explain why the fighter jets were unable to stop any of the planes from crashing. I also liked that it took the readers into the cockpits of the hijacked planes. As readers we are able to hear the conversations of the pilots shortly before they were hijacked. I disliked how the book jumped locations and time. This made it hard to keep up with the timeline of what happened when. Someone should read this because it explains how air traffic reacted when they realized that America was under attack. It also provides insight into why some of the decisions were made that day. A book that I would recommend would be 102 Minutes that Changed America.
wolfer98 More than 1 year ago
Incredible book that goes behind the scenes of what happened on 9/11.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Incredible book that goes behind the scenes of what happened on 9/11. This book brings first hand accounts from the brave pilots, air traffic controllers, military, and other civilians who with a lack of leadership from our upper government made the right decisions to protect America. The tales and first hand accounts in this book make you feel as if you were there and brought out incredible emotions. At times I found it hard to hold back tears even though it's been 7 years. Everyone who is a true American should read this book. Lynn Spencer hit a home run on this one.