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Voices Reveal 'Problem' On One Doomed Flight

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By Sylvia Adcock

September 13, 2001

The pilot of the American Airlines jet that crashed into the World Trade Center Tuesday punched a button that allowed air traffic controllers to hear the disturbing conversations within the cockpit as hijackers took control of the Boeing 767, sources said yesterday.

"There was reason to believe there was a problem with the flight," an aviation source told Newsday.

The Christian Science Monitor quoted a controller in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control facility in Nashua, N.H., saying the pilot's voice and the heavily accented voice of a hijacker were audible. "When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew," the controller told the paper. "There was this voice that was threatening the pilot and it was clearly threatening."

Other aircraft in the area also were listening to the transmissions and growing concerned, sources said, contacting controllers to make sure they were aware of the situation.

The transmissions were recorded; federal law enforcement officials are reviewing the tapes.

Controllers first realized something might be wrong when the aircraft failed to follow an instruction to climb or respond to the controller. About the same time, the aircraft's transponder was apparently disabled by someone in the cockpit. Without the transponder, a radar device in the plane's nose, the controllers still could see the plane on their screens, but did not have the identifying information such as the flight number and type of plane.

Pilots can punch in a four-digit code in the cockpit that surreptitiously alerts controllers to a hijacking, causing the letters "HJCK" to appear on the screen. But in this case, that didn't happen, sources said.

The Monitor quoted a controller as saying that the hijacker indicated, "We have more planes, we have other planes," although the statement's import was not understood. "The person in the cockpit was speaking in English. He was saying something like, 'Don't do anything foolish. You're not going to get hurt,'" one controller told the paper.

The plane, which took off from Boston around 8 a.m., tracked toward New York City as controllers continued to try to make contact. Then controllers watched in horror as the plane's altitude began to drop dramatically from about 28,000 feet. Sources said the rate of descent may have been as steep as 10,000 to 12,000 feet per minute - more than three times the rate of a normal descent.

The numbers kept dropping. The controllers, trained to think on their feet and act quickly to avert disaster, could do nothing as the plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower at about 8:45. "It's like watching a child wandering into a busy freeway, and there's nothing you can do," said one controller. "It's something you never hope you see, and we saw it."

The second plane to hit the Twin Towers, United Flight 175, had given no indication of problems after its takeoff shortly after 8 a.m., sources said. "We had no idea with the second one. There was never any indication of a problem. Then all of a sudden we realized United had turned," a source said. Just before the turn, the flight lost its transponder. It wasn't until the second plane hit the tower at 9:03 a.m. that controllers realized there was an organized hijacking effort involving more than one plane.

The hijackers had turned off the transponders of all four planes that crashed Tuesday morning, sources said. Their organized effort raises the specter that the black boxes on the aircraft, when recovered, may contain only limited information. It's not difficult to turn off the power to the two boxes, which contain recordings of flight data and cockpit voices.

In the 1997 crash of a SilkAir Boeing 737 in Indonesia, in which the pilot is suspected of intentionally diving the plane into the ground and killing 104 people, someone in the cockpit apparently turned off both recording devices before the dive.

The sift for black boxes through the massive amount of rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center may be more difficult than most searches following crashes that occur on land. In water, the boxes emit a sound to help investigators locate them. But without water, the device doesn't work.

Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.

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