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United is the only airline in the U. The flight attendants on the United plane called through the inflight phone into the cockpit to tell the pilot that a passenger had been listening on channel 9 and wanted to know what was going on. It became horrifyingly clear moments later: Thousands of pilots rapidly began dialing up the operation centers of their airlines via the airborne communication systems that allow crew to contact the ground with e-mail or voice systems.

Pilots were informed that there had been terrorist attacks, were instructed to deny all access to the cockpit and get the plane down as quickly as possible. In one cockpit, a pilot checked that the door was locked. Then he made sure that the 'crash axe' that is carried in all cockpits was in place. Routine no more Controllers all over the eastern United States might have already realized this day had turned into hell.

The screens that glow in darkened rooms in hundreds of facilities around the country are the linchpin of an air traffic system that manages tens of thousands of flights a day. The system is almost dull in its routine. Controllers and pilots use regular routes, fly prescribed altitudes along decades-old highways in the sky, and most important, are in constant contact. Controllers are like flashlights in the dark for commercial airplanes: Each plane appears on a controllers radar screen as a so-called 'target' in controller-speak, and each blip representing a plane on that all-important radar is accompanied by a 'data block', which includes the abbreviated name of the airline AA for American Airlines, UA for United Airlines, for example, the flight number, the altitude of the plane, and a unique, 4-digit code each flight receives.

Only that day, Tuesday, September 11, was very, very different in these rooms from Cleveland to Washington to Boston. Instead of the normal 'data blocks', controllers were virtually blind in trying to track at least one of the planes, and perhaps as many as all four. One or more had 'lost' their transponders: Or more worrying, someone had known enough to turn them off. All aircraft flying at over 10, feet above the altitude of small general aviation planes or those in 'restricted' airspace in high volume areas around major cities, must have their transponders on.

Generally, ATC will radio the pilot and tell him if a plane's transponder is out. A controller will then ask the pilot to turn the transponder back on which is done by simply turning what looks like a radio dial on the plane's 'dashboard' , or asking if the plane has a second unit. When they got no response, the controllers would have flagged their supervisors, who are usually pacing just behind them, looking over their shoulders. Then, they would have examined the airspace around and in front of the planes: At the FAA's national command center in Herndon, Virginia, some 30 miles from Washington, the usually predictable patterns on the small, 21 inch screens, as well as the huge 10 foot screen that display the nation's air traffic control system in action would have started to go awry.

By several minutes after nine, the two airline representatives that sit alongside their FAA colleagues at the Center would have heard about the terrible call that dispatchers at the American Airlines operation center near Dallas Ft Worth airport had fielded: It is not clear how much information she transmitted to her shocked coworkers. Staffers in the AA op center, some veterans of the military, still others trained in disaster response, were stunned by news of the call.

With conflicting reports coming in, and controllers attempting to track 'invisible' airplanes, the news of the planes hitting the World Trade Center rocked the FAA headquarters. Although the FAA doesn't technically close an individual airport, a ground stop prevents any plane, commercial or private, from taking off from that airport and can require incoming flights diverted. The FAA had stopped the world. Five minutes later, FAA's few staffers who had stayed to set up the emergency operations center accomplished their mission and the center was up and running by 9: Subscribe to receive news, offers and more.

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