United 93: an interview with former air traffic controller Mahlon Fuller

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

We are offering our readers today the personal account of former air traffic controller Malhon Fuller who was working at the Pittsburgh International Airport when United 93 was hijacked by terrorists and when it crashed close to Shanksville.

We would like to thank Mahlon Fuller for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Mahlon Fuller:
I was the watch supervisor at the control tower and radar room at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, which at the time was among the ten or twelve busiest airports in the nation; after 9/11 that changed significantly. USAirways was principal user of the airport but moved to another primary base of operations, reducing traffic significantly. After the pandemic hit American Airlines parked about a hundred planes there because they are not using them. Traffic dropped even more.

On 9/11/01 when I got at work it was such a beautiful day, I recall the sky and it was bluer than I had ever even in Wyoming or Montana. I remember saying to myself “What a great day to be alive.”

I got to work at 6:30 and at the time US Airways ran what they called “banks of departures” and “of arrivals”; for example between forty and eighty aircrafts would arrive in a short period of time, people would deplane, most of them would change plane and forty minutes later all these planes would taxi out and take off. So you had times when it was very busy with arrivals and times when it was very busy with departures.

The second arrival rush had landed and it took about forty minutes to turn their planes around. A controller who was on break came into the radar room and said “The World Trade Center has been hit”. When an air traffic controller says “hit” in that context he means “by an airplane”. I talked to our traffic management coordinator, who we called OJ; you might have heard there was the FAA command center in Herndon, Virginia, that controlled the flow of traffic across the United States, OJ’s job was to keep in touch with them and our parent radar facility in Cleveland, Ohio, to keep the traffic moving well into our area and out of it. So I called him and said “Listen to the phones for a few minutes so I can go and see what’s going on on the TV.” OJ had not yet received any information on the first two hijackings.

I went into the break room and they were watching CNN, there was the North Tower with a gaping hole on a side and like most of the people I went into a state of denial, I thought this couldn’t possibly be an airliner but it had to be some small civil plane that somehow lost its course and spun into the tower. So I went back and told OJ what I had seen, he was not getting any information from the command center because they were trying to assess what was going on; we could understand there was disruption in the New York and Boston area, it turned out it was because of the hijacking but at the moment we didn’t know why. I said “Let me go and look again” and as I walked into the break room the second aircraft hit. That’s when I knew we were either at war or going to war, the question was “With whom?”

The command center stopped all departures nationwide. They do that if there are, for instance, thunderstorms or snowstorms or in case navigation or radars go down in a single airport; but in the whole nation it's something that never happened before. A few minutes after that, the Pentagon was hit and the word came down to land all airplanes at the closest airport, so all of a sudden we were working inbounds we hadn't even talked to before. When I did my oral history to the National Park Service my recollection was that we probably landed several dozen airplanes, but we actually landed about four; it was a day which ran both in fast forward and slow motion. Two minutes after the order was given I got a call from our parent facility in Cleveland who told us about a target which happened to be in our radar scope and that was not being tracked by the computers, it later turned out that aircraft was United 93.

The control tower of the Pittsburgh International Airport

The controller who got that information yelled “Mal, I need you here”, I ran over to the scope and he pointed to the radar target. It was the primary return only, the primary is the aircraft; when the transponder is turned on the aircraft you would get the call sign, altitude, ground speed and type of aircraft. On three out of four highjacked airplanes the terrorists turned off the transponder so they were harder to track; so at that time we didn’t know it was United 93. At that point the Towers and the Pentagon were already hit and we, as air traffic control, thought incorrectly that we had more than ten hijacked planes throughout the system. The controller said “This is a 757, it has been hijacked over Cleveland, they don't know where it's going and they think it has a bomb on board.”

I talked to the controller who worked this plane in the Cleveland center and when he heard them on the radio saying “We have a bomb”, he wondered if it was a nuclear device, TNT, or another explosive. He heard this because the hijackers were not familiar with the communication systems in the airplane and transmitted on the air traffic frequency instead of the interphone system used to speak to the passengers.

Two sweeps of the radar confirmed two things about the airplane. First, it was heading directly to the airport. The control tower at the airport is 230 feet off the surface of the Earth and it's among the tallest structures in the area; downtown Pittsburgh has much taller buildings but it's 500 feet below the elevation of the airport and the airplane's track was “airport first, downtown second”. So thinking we were a legitimate target I made the announcement to vacate the facility. We evacuated and I was the last one out because we had several people in wheelchairs and I wanted to make sure that they were safe and taken out of the facility. So I walked back to the radar room when the building was empty and at that point the target was ten miles from the airport, my estimation was it was flying eight miles a minute. I thought “By the time I get out of this facility the plane will either pass or hit us.”

Whenever you close an air traffic facility for whatever reason you have to call and report what you have done, so I opened my cell phone but couldn't get a line. I was standing next to the tower supervisor, Joe, and said “Do you think the KC135’s will take off?” KC135 is a military Boeing 707 which is just a flying gas station; there were about twenty KC135's. And Joe said “Yes, I called the command post and told them we were evacuating and they said they were going ‘Bust Out’”. It was a procedure during the Cold War days in the event of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the USA, the KC135’s would take off fully loaded go to an airborne control frequency and get instruction on where to go and who to refuel. There was also a procedure called SCATANA that also was for nuclear exchanges, we would put all planes on the ground and release the air space to the military, and that's what we did. So the FAA and the military responded as if we were under nuclear attack.

All the KC135’s took off and they all came back. Their instructions in case of EWO, Emergency War Operations, is when they are refueling airplanes they continue refueling whoever they are working with until there are almost out of gas for their tanker. At that point they reduce the throttle, thrust, drop the flaps and gears and go into a cruise until the engines burn out, because at that speed the crew has the possibility to bail out and probably survive. When you are at war everything is expendable.

I went back into the building myself to see if there was still a threat at the airport and United 93 was off the scope. The range of the Pittsburgh radar was 60 nautical miles, Shanksville is 6 or 8 miles beyond the range of our radar. So when I returned into the building United 93 was either crashing or about to crash. We later found out about the “Let’s roll” call from Todd Beamer, the flight attendants preparing hot water to throw at the terrorists and people making their phone calls to say “Goodbye”; all happened under the Pittsburgh radar coverage and we couldn't do a thing for them.

No controller wants to lose an airplane, and we lost four. But to lose that plane on that day was unbelievable.

Undicisettembre: How would you describe the confusion among controllers on that day?

Mahlon Fuller: It was like a thousand people playing “whisper down the lane”. For example the military never found out about United 93 till after it crashed, the FAA said to the military “The plane is down” and the military interpreted this as “It’s landed.” It was like we were at war. It still amazes me that we were able to put four thousand planes on the ground without an incident. It was a time of doing what was best and trying to figure out what everyone else was doing.

Undicisettembre: Before 9/11 what would have been the procedure to understand if a plane was hijacked?

Mahlon Fuller: There was a specific transponder code that the pilot would dial, that would alert air traffic control of the situation. Also if a plane called itself Flight 93 instead of United 93 would have meant there was trouble in the cockpit.

Undicisettembre: As far as you know had there been many false alarms on 9/11?

Mahlon Fuller: There was a time when we though there were a dozen plane missing, at the command center they started to get a census of planes air traffic control was not talking with. It’s a common problem: having a plane between frequencies and not talking to anybody

Undicisettembre: Can you elaborate a bit on what happens when a plane turns off the transponder, making it more difficult for you guys to identify it?

Mahlon Fuller: That happened at the Cleveland facility, so I can’t speak for them, but we had a good return on the primary so they followed them till the very end of the coverage of the radar. Our radar recording revealed that United 93 passed directly over the airport.

Anyway a non transponder aircraft is not that uncommon, sometimes they break and in flight they fail. There was a procedure for that, at the time you could do the data track on the primary target and the computer would follow it. That was twenty years ago, the technology changed significantly since then.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job and United 93 never even existed?

Mahlon Fuller: Here’s what I tell my audiences when I give my talks: last time I checked there were five or six truthers websites which said the radar room in Pittsburgh was evacuated so that the controllers couldn’t see the airplane shot down. I would go any place and take a lie detector test to confirm I evacuated the facility because I was legitimately concerned for the people working for me . I don’t know where the truthers got that information but that’s an example of the research they do.

Undicisettembre: What “lesson learned” did you get from 9/11?

Mahlon Fuller: Well, the air traffic system is certainly not perfect. I learned that you can’t ignore what’s going on in the world and I think to a degree the United States had done that for a while. The social disruption and wars that happen should be addressed sooner than later. I don’t understand what drove the terrorists to do what they did. What had the world done to them to make them feel that way? I don’t hold them blameless, but what can we do to change the way society interacts with different cultures or those less fortunate?

Nessun commento: