On Sept. 11, 2001, American 77, scheduled to fly from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, took off from Dulles International Airport at 8:20 a.m., with six crewmembers and 58 passengers. The aircraft crashed into the Pentagon just before 9:38 a.m.
8:20 American 77 departs Dulles.
8:40 The flight was handed off from the FAA's Washington Center to Indianapolis Center.
8:50 The Indianapolis controller instructed the aircraft to climb, and American 77 acknowledged. This was the last transmission from American 77.
8:54 American 77 began deviating from its flight plan.
8:56 American 77 turned off its transponder and disappeared from Indianapolis radar. The controller searched for the aircraft and tried to establish radio contact. He then tried to make contact through the airline. At this point, the Indianapolis controller had no knowledge of the situation in New York. He believed American 77 had experienced serious electrical and/or mechanical failure, and had possibly crashed.
9:00 Indianapolis Center started notifying other agencies that American 77 was missing and had possibly crashed.
9:08 Indianapolis Center contacted Air Force Search and Rescue at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and told them to look out for a downed aircraft. They also contacted the West Virginia State Police, and asked whether they had any reports of a downed aircraft.
9:09 Indianapolis Center reported the loss of contact to the FAA regional center.
9:20 Indianapolis Center learned that there were other hijacked aircraft in the system, and began to doubt their initial assumption that American 77 had crashed. A discussion of this concern between the manager at Indianapolis and the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Va., prompted the Command Center to notify some FAA field facilities that American 77 was lost.
9:21 The Command Center, some FAA field facilities, and American Airlines started to search for American 77. They feared it had been hijacked.
The Command Center advised the Dulles terminal control facility, which urged its controllers to search for the craft. The military's NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) did not know about the search for American 77. Instead, it heard once again about a plane that no longer existed, American 11. NEADS (the Northeast Air Defense Sector) received a report from the FAA around 9:21:
FAA: Military, Boston Center. I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air, and it's on its way towards — heading towards Washington.
NEADS: OK. American 11 is still in the air?
NEADS: On its way towards Washington?
FAA: That was another — it was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower.
That's the latest report we have.
FAA: I'm going to try to confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he's somewhere over, uh, either New Jersey or somewhere further south.
NEADS: OK. So American 11 isn't the hijack at all then, right?
FAA: No, he is a hijack.
NEADS: He — American 11 is a hijack?
NEADS: And he's heading into Washington?
FAA: Yes. This could be a third aircraft.
The mention of a "third aircraft" was not a reference to American 77. There was confusion at that moment in the FAA. Two planes had struck the World Trade Center, and Boston Center had heard from FAA headquarters in Washington that American 11 was still airborne.
The NEADS technician who took this call from the FAA immediately passed the word to the Mission Crew Commander. He reported to the NEADS Battle Commander:
Mission Crew Commander, NEADS: OK, uh, American Airlines is still airborne. Eleven, the first guy, he’s heading towards Washington. OK? I think we need to scramble Langley right now. And I'm gonna take the fighters from Otis, try to chase this guy down if I can find him.
9:23 The Mission Crew Commander at NEADS orders the deployment of fighters from Langley AFB toward Washington.
9:24 The FAA regional center informed FAA headquarters of the loss of contact with Flight 77.
9:25 The Command Center also advised FAA headquarters that American 77 was lost in Indianapolis Center's airspace, that Indianapolis Center was looking for the aircraft.
While FAA radar equipment tracked the flight from the moment its transponder was turned off, this information was not available to controllers at Indianapolis Center, for technical reasons. The result was that Indianapolis Center never saw Flight 77 turn around and head back toward Washington. The plane traveled undetected for 36 minutes.
At this point, the FAA's Command Center and FAA headquarters knew the following: They knew two aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center. They knew American 77 was lost. They knew that a hijacker on board American 11 had said "we have some planes." Concerns over the safety of other aircraft began to mount.
9:30 Langley AFB fighters were directed to the Baltimore area to intercept the American 11 flight that was reportedly heading toward Washington.
9:32 Dulles controllers find "a primary radar target tracking eastbound at a high rate of speed" and notified Reagan National Airport. FAA personnel at both Reagan and Dulles airports notified the Secret Service. The identity or aircraft type was unknown.
Reagan Airport controllers then order an unarmed National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft, which had just taken off en route to Minnesota, to identify and follow the suspicious aircraft. The C-130H pilot spotted it, identified it as a Boeing 757, and attempted to follow its path.
9:34 NEADS contacted the FAA's Washington Center to ask about American 11. During that conversation, a manager informed NEADS, "We're looking — we also lost American 77." This was the first notice to the military that
American 77 was missing, and it had come by chance.
No one at FAA Command Center or headquarters ever asked for military assistance with American 77.
9:37:46 The National Guard C-130H pilot reported to Washington Tower, "looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, sir." The Langley fighters were approximately 150 miles away.