A pilot reconstructs the real-time response of America’s commercial airline industry and military to the terror in the skies on 9/11.
By now it’s clear that no single book can capture the full dimensions of that momentous day. Patrick Creed and Rick Newman’s upcoming Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11 (2008), for example, deals solely and memorably with putting out the inferno caused by the crash of American Flight 77. Relying on tapes, transcripts and interviews, Spencer offers another perspective on the fate of that flight and numerous other incredible events in the American sky that morning. Saddled with outdated equipment and communications systems, the military’s air defense was organized to anticipate an attack from missiles or airplanes approaching the borders. Forced to improvise, the Air Force quickly scrambled jets and, for the first time in American history, found itself flying combat patrol in American skies filled with hundreds of airliners. Contrary to the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, Spencer argues that the military could have shot down United 93, the last of the four hijacked aircraft, had it continued toward the nation’s capital. For a generation of industry civilians—pilots, air-traffic controllers, regulatory officials—for whom hijackings were a relic of the ’60s and ’70s, these attacks broke all known rules. Instead of commandeering airplanes to make a political statement, to seek asylum or ransom, the al-Qaeda operatives converted planes into missiles. How the industry moved from surprise to bafflement to comprehension, to an unprecedented ordering of all planes out of the sky, is the core of Spencer’s story. Although she depends too heavily on direct transcriptions and sometimes fails to smoothly integrate the many strands of her narrative, Spencer manages to convey a sense of the excruciating problems posed that morning to anyone charged with wringing order from the chaos in the sky.
A useful addition to the literature of 9/11.