Doing It Right – A Lesson From 9/11

Many of my DefenseWatch articles aim to make a point, to correct a wrong, or to poke away at some bureaucratic stupidity. Today, I wish to tell you a story of how a group of guys did it right, the first time, under some pretty difficult circumstances.

It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, off the coast of Alaska. The twin World Trade Center Towers had been hit. America was tottering towards a war footing without fully comprehending what or why. Across the continent, civilian aircraft were grounded. The skies above our cities were filled with an eerie silence punctuated by the whine of fighter jet engines crisscrossing overhead.

We were scared, and our fighter pilots were nervous and trigger-happy. They weren’t about to let another plane crash into another landmark. The guys on the west coast had not experienced anything first-hand, but they weren’t taking any chances.

This was the general scene when Korean Air Flight 85 first approached U.S. airspace in preparation for a refueling stop in Anchorage on its way to New York.

Like pilots everywhere, the pilots of KA Flight 85 were horrified at what had happened, and were trying to get more information from their headquarters. Typically, this kind of communications takes place using a teletype-like system. Conversation is typed, leaving a hard copy record. A Maryland firm, ARINC, collects these text messages and relays them from and to aircraft everywhere.

No one has been allowed to interview the pilots themselves, but according to Alan Levin of USA Today, the pilots had been talking with their Seoul headquarters that morning. Like everyone else, they wanted to know more about the disaster. In the normal process of their communications, they used the letters “HJK” as a shortcut in their query message for the word, “hijacking.” However, the ARINC computers are programmed to pick up these letters which pilots are instructed to insert into their messages when they have actually been hijacked.

The pilots of the Seoul-to-New York Boeing 747 carrying 215 passengers did not intend to signal that they had been hijacked, according to Korean Air’s operations chief, David Greenberg, but this is exactly what they did.

Obviously, ARINC officials assumed the message was a coded plea for help, especially in light of what had just happened shortly before in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. ARINC immediately contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, which notified Anchorage controllers and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

You know what happened next!

Although KA Flight 85 was still over the North Pacific hundreds of miles from Alaska, and had not actually transmitted a distress, NORAD was taking no chances. Fully armed jet fighters from Elmendorf Air Force Base scrambled into the sky to shadow KA Flight 85 from behind. Those onboard the aircraft remained unaware of their deadly escort.

The Korean jet reached Anchorage airspace about an hour after the skies in the rest of the Lower 48 had been cleared of all civilian aircraft. Controllers queried the pilots about their condition using codes especially created for this kind of circumstance. Pilots and controllers receive routine training in using these codes. Essentially, when a pilot receives such a query, if he has been hijacked, he sets his transponder to transmit the number 7500, which reads out on controller screens everywhere marking it as a hijacked aircraft.

Communications between civilian pilots and controllers had been tense ever since the first tower attack. Things on Korean Air flight 85 were no different. Perhaps the pilots simply misunderstood the controller’s order, but in any case, for whatever reason, KA Flight 85 made a second mistake: They began transponding the hijack signal, 7500.

If you missed the first clue, you can have no doubt what happened next!

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles immediately evacuated the large hotels and federal buildings in Anchorage. The Coast Guard ordered tankers loading oil from the Valdez Trans-Alaska pipeline terminal to depart immediately for the open ocean.

Then, according to Levin, NORAD ordered controllers to veer KA Flight 85 away from Anchorage, Valdez and the pipeline. Furthermore, Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, who commanded the NORAD section watching this flight, was determined to shoot down the flight if it did not change course.

Discretion being the better part of valor, the Korean Air pilots decided to comply with controllers’ orders – fortunately, in light of Schwartz’s determination.

After checking with Canadian officials, which apparently was a routine matter, NORAD ordered Flight 85 to land at Whitehorse, over 500 miles further away in the Yukon Territory.

You must have the pattern down by now.

Canadian officials evacuated all but the most necessary airport personnel for the landing of Korean Air Flight 85. Wouldn’t you? The flight still indicated with every response that it was hijacked: Controller radar screens read, 7500 … 7500 … 7500 ….

The airliner landed without mishap. You can imagine the astonishment of the pilots when they were greeted at gunpoint upon disembarking. The passengers were a little upset as well.

In retrospect, everybody did exactly what they should have done. Once the “secret” signal was received at ARINC, everything that followed was proper: shadow the plane, determine its “actual” hijack status, divert the plane, evacuate the area – and shoot if you must.

They did it right – and I’m damn proud of them!

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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