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Pilots say crews likely overpowered, slain

By Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

For the passengers and crew on board American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, the terror most likely began minutes after the Los Angeles-bound flights lifted off from Boston's Logan International Airport.

Several commercial airline pilots and aviation specialists believe the flight crews were overpowered and most likely killed long before the two planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

''You had to get rid of the crew because they would not fly their plane into a building,'' said Michael Barr, director of aviation safety programs at the University of Southern California. ''The pilot is dead anyways. He is dead if it hits the World Trade Center or doesn't. He is going to fly it into the ocean to minimize the death.''

Barr said the person who took control of the plane ''had to change course, he had to know how to navigate. Those buildings stand out and are not hard to hit on a clear day, but he still has to maintain altitude and still has to have some ability to fly.''

Barr and several commercial airline pilots said they assumed that the terrorists were skilled pilots who had to have received some training in flying transport jets, particularly the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft, which are from the same family of airplane with the same cockpit. Pilots stressed it was not a coincidence that all of the planes hijacked were transcontinental 757s or 767s. They were full of fuel and did not require additional special training.

''You only have to train one group of people,'' said a 767 pilot, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''The perpetrators were trained pilots and trained to operate the 757- 767 family of aircraft. They seemed to have no consideration for airport passenger security and it did not seem to bother them that the flying was very demanding. To hit something with an airplane is easy only if you have been flying for 20 years.''

The pilot noted that the video of the second aircraft striking the World Trade Center shows the plane is banked, or turning, making the maneuver more difficult. And hitting the Pentagon was extremely difficult. ''One degree off and he either overshoots it or undershoots it,'' he said.

''If you put 15 guns to my head you are going to have to kill the crew outright and no one knows how to fly that airplane,'' said the pilot. ''They were all full of fuel and all the same type of airplane, that tells me just how sophisticated these people were.''

The pilot speculated that the United flight from Newark to San Francisco that crashed in Western Pennsylvania was the result of a struggle with the crew. ''My guess is somebody decided to fight back. Maybe they lucked out and had a flight attendant who was a black belt. Otherwise what kind of political statement are you trying to make blowing up farmland?''

On American Flight 11, one terror-stricken flight attendant managed to call her supervisor in Boston saying that a man seated in the business section had stabbed flight attendants and passengers and the flight was highjacked, according to three sources familiar with the investigation.

Radar tracks obtained from a private firm show American Flight 11 making a hard left turn after crossing from Massachusetts into New York State and heading down the Hudson River Valey towards New York City.

And on United Flight 175, instead of preparing to watch the scheduled movie, ''A Knight's Tale,'' the 56 passengers on board were given a terrifying ride. United said the plane was lost from radar between Newark and Philadelphia. Radar tracks from that flight indicate that the plane turned around over New Jersey and headed back to lower Manhattan. The tracks indicate the plane flew at low altitude for nearly an hour.

''I can't think but that the people who did this had at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to fly, and I cannot imagine any crew member doing something like this,'' said another 767 pilot. ''Weapons, guns, and knifes can be brought on board easily and the cockpit door can be kicked in with a good swift kick.'' The pilot, who flies out of Logan frequently, said ''every airport is vulnerable. I don't imagine that Logan is any worse than any other airport, and it may be better.''

The 767 pilot said the cockpit voice recorder may not contain the sounds of the struggle to control the plane because the tape is a 30-minute loop and any previous conversation is recorded over.

''The flight data recorder will tell a lot about the flight path itself. Just think about finding those things, oh my goodness. We live in a changed world from this morning on. I don't know what to do aside from giving blood.''

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.