Did American 77 really crash into the Pentagon?

Ask the pilot

Did American 77 really crash into the Pentagon?
Are the laser incidents more than they seem?

The pilot continues his investigations.

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By Patrick Smith

Jan. 13, 2005 | A couple of weeks ago, my vetting of the recent laser beam scare included the following statement: "From a technical standpoint, one thing I find interesting is the presumption that approach and landing are the implicitly apropos time for such an attack. In fact, takeoff would be the more dangerous moment." Several of you found this perplexing and requested clarification.

I can see how my wording threw you off. A departing plane climbs away sharply while accelerating. When landing it comes in slowly, languidly, along a comparably shallow -- and presumably vulnerable -- approach course. Specifically, I was talking about those moments when an aircraft is still speeding down the runway -- from the point where it hits about a hundred knots until "rotating," as we say, into the air. This is the most precarious portion of any flight.

I'll qualify that with a reminder that neither takeoff nor landing is statistically unsafe. But for those who absolutely have to have something to worry about, those seconds building to liftoff are more deserving. Racing down the asphalt, you're often in close proximity to other aircraft, buildings and so forth. It's also a realm of transition, when a plane makes its marvelous switch from earthbound bus to flying machine. In that initial lurch skyward, the margins between lift and gravity, acceleration and drag -- the cushion that will hold you aloft and the power allowing you to climb -- are relatively thin.

Time already for another qualifier: Those margins are not so thin, however, that even a full-blown engine failure entails doom. All commercial aircraft are certified to lift off and climb, clear of all known obstructions, even if the plane's powerplant dies at the worst possible time. (Nonetheless, let me confess that I've never been fond of those high-speed stretches just before the altimeter unsticks and a voice calls, "Positive rate." I'd never say pilots are afraid of it, but some of us just don't like it. Which for the passenger is probably a good thing. In those important seconds the crew is jazzed and wired for anything -- a blown tire, a bird strike, a disintegrating turbine.)

Coming in to land, on the other hand, the craft is established airborne and is more solidly beyond the parameters that enable it to fly. Even a sudden reversal from descent to climb, as during an aborted landing, is perfectly natural and well within the envelope. A plane spends its takeoff roll trying to fly. On landing, it's already flying.

Of course, getting back to the dangerousness of lasers, I'm making the same mistake all over again with the definition of "landing." Are we talking about a plane on approach, or one over the threshold, just before the tires meet pavement? In the latter case, yes, a sudden blinding could be very hazardous.

In other words, neither of the two flight/ground transition zones would be opportune times to find your crew incapacitated. Fortunately it hasn't happened. Thus far, all reported laser incidents involved aircraft at reasonably high altitudes. The airliner over Cleveland, irradiated back on Dec. 27, was somewhere between 8,500 and 10,000 feet, or nearly two miles up.

And with that comes a whole new hypothesis, for out in the blogosphere have arisen stories suggesting we laser naysayers have totally missed the point.

"Lasers are not being used to blind pilots," contends a posting by Phantom, author of one of last week's most linked-to postings. "Lasers are being used to measure straight-line distances from the ground to an aircraft."

By whom, you ask, and for what reasons? Well, by terrorists, naturally, for purposes of gathering speed and azimuth data to most efficiently launch their shoulder-fired rockets. "Documenting straight line distances would be highly useful in target acquisition," he explains. "That information is critical regarding available weapons systems."

Those weapons systems are the portable missiles we've been hearing about for the past three years, thousands of which -- cheap and easily concealed -- are believed to be floating around on the black market. The terrorists' plan, we're told, is to attack aircraft at their "most vulnerable state," which at least for Phantom means landing. He gives us a flying lesson:

"An aircraft on takeoff would be a more difficult target -- maximum power and maximum climb. But a landing ship slows down to a speed just short of a stall and follows a prescribed path of flight."

Actually, departure patterns are no less strictly prescribed than those for approaches, and while nitpicking isn't the intention here, I'll mention that airliners usually do not take off at maximum power or maximum climb. Neither do landing aircraft slow to a point "just short of a stall" until only a few feet from touchdown, if at all.

That aside, we can accept the premise that an arriving jet, ambling in over a relatively flat course, makes a more attractive target for a rocket strike than a departing one in the throes of climb. Not fully graspable, though, is why said saboteurs would be interested in casing jets like the one over Cleveland. Ten thousand feet -- something of an intermediate descent level -- hardly constitutes "landing." Why not gun for a fatter target at 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 feet?

Phantom's posting concludes with more traditional conspira-babble. He sees an anti-missile preparedness program at Los Angeles International Airport, for example -- certainly not a bad idea on its own -- as "telling" evidence of a terror-laser connection. "[The terrorists] are trying to cripple our transportation industry before we can equip commercial aircraft with effective countermeasures. The laser activity is more than likely a target acquisition exercise. And people are taking notes."

In the end these things are always extrapolative, and the rumor mill inevitably gets the upper hand over fact or evidence. Overall, the missile proposal is more credible than the original shoot-to-blind theory, but what remains is the threadbare presumption that gangs of terrorists are hiding out in neighborhoods around the country, risking exposure while they monkey around with lasers. Here amid the most intensive anti-terror blitz in history, that's tough to accept.

To say that, I realize, is to get no shortage of you typing. Consider this note from reader Tom Izzo:

"Your views seem to swing to the polar opposite of paranoia, dismissing matters as complete nonsense. How would you have reacted before September 11th, to the suggestion that terrorists planned to hijack planes and fly them into buildings? Might you have argued such notions were undue paranoia?"

That's something I hear frequently, a reflex to my dissing of Annie Jacobsen, the lasers, etc. It's a good and fair question. An irrational obsession with terrorism is unhealthy and unproductive; so is a cavalier extreme.

The catch is, comparing the events of 2001 to these other scenarios is classic apples and oranges. Many view the Sept. 11 scheme as proof that outlandish and unthinkable plots need to be taken seriously. Not necessarily, because at heart there was nothing outlandish about it. Sept. 11 was a low-tech, down-and-dirty, classic-style assault. It was a skjacking, like a hundred others before it. It wasn't even the first simultaneous multiaircraft skyjacking. The only difference was the ending. Had you been privy to the script on, say, Sept. 10, it would have struck you how entirely doable the whole thing was, with every indication that it would succeed. Nothing was there to stop it -- certainly not a mind-set familiar with jetnappings solely as temporary diversions to Havana or Beirut, Lebanon. Startling, yes; unthinkable, not nearly. From the perpetrators' point of view it was practical, cost effective, and likely to unfold as planned.

On that note: Perhaps one of these days I'll gather up the courage and stamina necessary for a full scrutiny of that great granddaddy of Internet conspiracy theories: the purported mystery of American Airlines flight 77. I'd also need several stiff drinks and permission from Salon's editors to expropriate about 15 screens.

Until then, I'll offer the abridged version.

Many Americans are familiar with the Web-fueled assertion that the U.S. government orchestrated the events of Sept. 11. The clearest evidence of this, supposedly, can be seen in the films and footage of the crash of American 77, the Boeing 757 that hit the Pentagon.

Something indeed impacted the Pentagon, say the would-be detectives, but it wasn't a 757. They present several witnesses who saw a much smaller craft streaking toward the building -- a cruise missile, a military fighter, who knows. No less convincing is the conspicuous dearth of post-crash wreckage, suggesting the impossibility of an 80-ton Boeing having caused the damage.

I've scanned the various Web sites and watched the presentations. Where to begin?

Obviously it's impossible to address everything, such as the matter of the security camera videotapes allegedly confiscated from atop the Sheraton Hotel and along highway I-395. Neither can I speak to the accuracy of quotes or the validity of eyewitness sightings.

Even if the quotes are legitimate, any National Traffic Safety Board investigator will remind you that crash accounts are notoriously, sometimes wildly inconsistent. A select choice of witnesses can almost always be trundled out to bolster one's favored hunch, and I can't help assuming there are plenty of people out there willing to swear the incoming plane was a 757.

One of the more misleading pieces of testimony is the statement from a Washington area air traffic controller, whose out-of-context remark compares flight 77's radar maneuvers to those of "a military plane." No surprise, really, seeing how the terrorists weren't exactly finessing things, eventually accelerating to more than 500 miles per hour at treetop level, well beyond normal limits for a jetliner. A plane this low and fast also would produce some highly unusual sound effects, which could explain people's reports of the passing jet sounding like a fighter jet or "a missile." Essentially it was.

Much has been made of skyjacker pilot Hani Hanjour's spotty flight training records, which don't seem to square with the 757's numerous twists, turns, climbs and descents as it flew over Washington. Hanjour's instructors had rated him a terrible airman. But if anything, he was proving himself the exact crappy pilot that by all accounts he was. His reckless maneuverings were quite the opposite of the show-quality aerobatics -- "incredible stunts," says the above video -- often described. To hit the Pentagon squarely he needed only a bit of luck, and he got it.

As for the apparent lack of wreckage, the disaster montage shown in the videos I've seen is rather disingenuous, as is the assertion that "airplane crashes leave wreckage." They do and they don't. Flight 77's end was an exceptionally high-speed, fully distintegrative impact -- a type seldom seen in air crashes, and petty much guaranteed to obliterate every identifiable portion of the plane, including wings, engines and tail. Looking at the photos and footage, I see nothing inexplicable.

Next week: Exciting news from the airlines, answer to the three-vowel airport riddle, and nothing about terrorism or laser beams.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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About the writer
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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