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9.36 a.m. September 11, 2001: Military Cargo Plane Asked to Identify Flight 77

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Washington Reagan National Airport air traffic control instructs a military C-130 Wikipedia.png cargo plane that has just departed Andrews Air Force Base to intercept Flight 77 and identify it.[1][2]

Remarkably, this C-130 is the same C-130 that will be 17 miles from Flight 93 when it later crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside [see 1]. [3] [4]The pilot, Lt. Col. Steve O’Brien, will claim that he took off around 9:30 a.m., planning to return to Minnesota Wikipedia.png after dropping supplies off in the Caribbean. He will describe his close encounter:

“When air traffic control asked me if we had him (Flight 77) in sight, I told him that was an understatement—by then, he had pretty much filled our windscreen. Then he made a pretty aggressive turn so he was moving right in front of us, a mile and a half, two miles away. I said we had him in sight, then the controller asked me what kind of plane it was. That caught us up, because normally they have all that information. The controller didn’t seem to know anything.”

O’Brien reports that the plane is either a 757 or 767 and its silver fuselage means it is probably an American Airlines Wikipedia.png plane. “They told us to turn and follow that aircraft—in 20 plus years of flying, I’ve never been asked to do something like that.”[4]

O’Brien and his crew, Maj. Robert Schumacher Wikipedia.png and flight engineer Master Sgt. Jeffrey Rosenthal Wikipedia.png, are unaware of the attacks in New York. Schumacher will say that, after being directed to follow Flight 77, he first thought that the plane was having technical difficulties, “that the pilots were really just trying to fly the airplane, and get it on the ground safely.” After the impact, O’Brien tunes in to a news broadcast, but is surprised to hear about a second crash in New York, not at the Pentagon. He will recall: “The first thing we heard on there was ‘We’re now hearing about a second airplane hitting the World Trade Center.’ That was not what we were expecting to hear. We were expecting to hear about an airplane impacting the Pentagon… and the light goes on, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, the nation’s under attack!’” [5]

The 9/11 Commission will report that O’Brien specifically identifies the hijacked plane as a Boeing 757 Wikipedia.png. Seconds after impact, he reports to the Washington tower, “Looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir.” [6]

  1. NEW YORK TIMES. 10/16/2001. 
  2. GUARDIAN. 10/17/2001. 
  3. PITTSBURGH CHANNEL. 9/15/2001. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 STAR-TRIBUNE (MINNEAPOLIS). 9/11/2002. 
  5. MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO. 5/31/2004. 
  6. 9/11 Commission (6/17/2004). 

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