At least for me, the most gripping portion of the 9/11 Commission Report is the opening chapter. In exhaustive detail, pages 1-46 cover the nitty-gritty of the four inflight takeovers, with cockpit voice recorder (CVR) excerpts and an impressive attention to accuracy. It’s fairly standard, even in official documents and reports, for non-aviation authorities to flub the occasional acronym and misuse jargon. From what I’ve seen of it, the Report is close to flawless.
I know, you’ll tell me that the Warren Commission had its ballistics arcana down pat. And where did that ever get us? But until there’s reason not to, I’m giving the exhaustive work of Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton benefit of the doubt.
I also give them credit for resisting any blatant scapegoating of the FAA and other government bodies. As the commandeered aircraft began ambling toward their targets, government response was, from the top down, bumbling and disorganized — from a dumbstruck President’s storybook reading in Florida to the FAA’s confused interpretations of what was happening. That does not, by itself, equate to blame or incompetence. The attack unfolded slyly and insidiously. We can debate the politics and intelligence failures leading up to the attack, but once it commenced, and unless we expected an instant scramble of F-16s and immediate shoot-down of the purloined jets, I fail to see any glaring examples of negligence.
Meanwhile, two of the often heard, plane-related myths about that morning are debunked rather speedily in chapter one.
First off, there’s no evidence that anybody, i.e. a terrorist, had been sitting in a cockpit jumpseat on any of the four planes. You’ll typically find one, two, or even three auxiliary crewmember seats, known as “jumpseats” in cockpit colloquial, on the flight deck. With proper ID and paperwork (the rules are understandably tighter than they used to be), airline pilots, controllers, and government officials can sit here. The layperson probably heard little of this, but circulating through industry ranks was a story that one or more of the 19 perpetrators, using phony credentials, had gained pre-departure access to a jumpseat, springing to action only inches from the captain and first officer.
Secondly, it’s pretty obvious that United Airlines flight 93 was intentionally crashed by the skjackers over Pennsylvania. To the dismay of many conspiracy hucksters, it was not fired on by the US military. Neither was there a wrestling match between skyjackers and passengers. The passengers never made it into the cockpit. Judging from the CVR, they are ramming what sounds to be a galley cart against the door when the skyjackers choose to crash the plane. On the tape, only seconds from being overtaken, skyjacker pilot Ziad Jarrah and at least one henchman are heard discussing their predicament and what they intend to do about it. “…shall we put it down?” Jarrah then pushes the control wheel forward and snaps it to the right, rolling the 757 onto its back and into a deadly, 580 mile-per-hour dive toward an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Yes, by the way, and if I may, this is the same 9/11 Commission Report that our illustrious president fought tooth and nail to prevent from ever assembling. On one hand the administration plays up September 11th as the most definingly godawful thing to happen since Noah’s flood, yet heaven forbid its causes and consequences be properly audited, or the assorted rumors and hearsay squelched.
Nowadays every serious air crash is trailed by one conspiracy story or another, the events of September 11th nourishing the mongers with an unprecedented opportunity. Four separate disasters; four alleged schemes. If you’re at all familiar with the netherworld of whisperings on the Internet, you’ll have learned, for example, about the mysterious bulge seen on the bottom of United 175, or the suggestion that American 77 never hit the Pentagon.
Please don’t ask me if I believe that flight 175 was flown into the South Tower by remote control, or if the “real” wreckage of flight 77 rests at the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle. Tackling these myths has all the fun — and is even less productive — of calling my Creationist friend in Colorado to argue the meaning of shark fossils.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.