911 Blogger

United Airlines personnel were subjected to a surprise training exercise 12 days before 9/11 in which they were led to believe that one of their planes had crashed. The exercise was so realistic that some of them ended up in tears or became physically sick. Consequently, on September 11, 2001, when two United Airlines planes were hijacked and then crashed, the manager who organized the exercise apparently thought his employees had mistaken reports about the terrorist attacks for part of an exercise and therefore told them, “This is not a drill!”

        A United Airlines Boeing 767

Furthermore, United Airlines had previously conducted other exercises that were based around scenarios resembling aspects of the 9/11 attacks, which may have caused its employees to be confused on September 11 over whether the crisis that day was real or simulated. The scenarios included hijackings and planes crashing into buildings.

We need to consider whether these exercises hindered the ability of United Airlines personnel to respond to the attacks on September 11. If they did, was this intentional? Did people involved in planning the 9/11 attacks help organize exercises that would lead to confusion on September 11, so as to increase the likelihood that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would succeed?

The exercise held 12 days before 9/11 was arranged by Andy Studdert, United Airlines’ chief operating officer, who was based at the airline’s headquarters, near Chicago. Studdert has claimed that the exercise came about because he had been concerned that United Airlines hadn’t had to deal with a “real accident” in over 15 years and was therefore unprepared to respond adequately should one occur.

Around March 2001, he notified other managers at his airline that he intended to run a surprise exercise to address the problem. “One of these days, I’m gonna come in here and I’m gonna do a no-notice drill,” he told them. [1] (A “no-notice” drill is an exercise that is conducted without its participants being given any formal advance notice of when it will occur. [2])

Studdert ran this no-notice drill on August 30, 2001. [3] Only two people, apart from him, knew about it in advance: a pilot and a colleague of Studdert’s who Studdert has only referred to as his “safety guy.” (This “safety guy” may well have been Ed Soliday, United Airlines’ vice president of safety and security.)

After he arrived at work, Studdert told his “safety guy” to call the pilot of a United Airlines Boeing 747 that would be flying to Australia that day and tell him to simulate an emergency. Based on Studdert’s instructions, the pilot was told to call in during his flight and say his plane had experienced an “uncontained number three engine failure, rapid descent, decompression.” He was told that halfway through the word “decompression” he should stop talking and then remain silent. He was also told to turn off his plane’s transponder around the time he stopped talking to ground personnel. [4] (A transponder is a device that sends an aircraft’s identifying information, speed, and altitude to the radar screens of air traffic controllers. [5])

The exercise took place in the afternoon. At around 2:00 p.m., Studdert’s secretary rushed into Studdert’s office and said a Boeing 747 had lost contact while flying over the Pacific Ocean. In response to the news, Studdert ran to the United Airlines operations center. [6] The operations center, located in a building adjacent to the headquarters building, was a room about the size of a football field in which a few hundred people worked, tracking planes and pulling up information relating to the airline’s flights. [7]

United Airlines’ normal procedure when there was a crisis involving one of its planes was to isolate that aircraft and move the handling of it to the crisis center, so as to avoid disrupting operations in the rest of the system. Located just off the operations center, the crisis center was “a terraced, theater-like room that resembled NASA’s Mission Control,” according to journalist and author Jere Longman. On one of its walls, a large screen displayed the locations of United Airlines’ flights. Other screens showed CNN and other television news channels. [8]

After reaching the operations center, Studdert opened the crisis center so his personnel could respond to the simulated emergency from there. [9] This was a major action. “Opening a crisis center in an airline is the single most significant thing you do,” Studdert has commented. When the crisis center was opened, Studdert said, everyone at United Airlines had “a second job, and that second job is to either run … the rest of the airline or act to support the crisis.” It meant 3,000 employees were “put on an immediate activation.” [10] Once the center had been opened, a representative from every division of the airline’s corporate structure was required to report there and carry out specific predetermined duties. [11]

Around the time Studdert opened the crisis center, employees in the operations center genuinely thought one of their planes had crashed. They presumably believed hundreds of people had died in the catastrophe. Some of them were extremely upset. “There [were] people throwing up in the hall; there [were] people crying; there [were] people just staring out the windows,” Studdert recalled.

And yet, despite this disturbing response to the simulated crisis, Studdert let his employees believe one of their planes had crashed for 30 minutes. He then went on the crisis center’s communications link, which, he described, “has got 170 stations and people all over the country, all over the world,” and revealed that the apparent catastrophe was just simulated. “This has been a no-notice drill,” he announced. “There is no event. Everything’s fine.” [12]

There was a furious response to what Studdert had done in the following days. The exercise was deemed inappropriately intense and emotionally damaging. “I had the board members calling; I had the unions demanding I be fired; I had people telling me I’m the most evil person in the world,” Studdert recalled. [13] Some airline employees “wanted to kill me,” he said. [14]

Studdert’s exercise must surely have been unprecedented in how realistic and intense it was. It seems unlikely that the exercise would have elicited such a severe response if United Airlines had conducted anything like it before. How curious it seems that United Airlines personnel were subjected to such a dramatic simulated emergency less than two weeks before September 11, when they had to respond to a genuine emergency involving two of their aircraft.

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