Saturday, July 04, 2009

Lynn Spencer spreads misinformation on Delta 1989

Why indeed was Delta 1989 considered a hijack? I have posed this question repeatedly, but there is still no satisfying answer, to put it mildly. Here's Lynn Spencer's version ("Touching History", p. 167):

In the distraction of the emergency ((with regard to United 93)), the crew of Delta 1989 misses the hand-off to the new frequency. The new sector controller for Delta 1989 calls out to the plane several times and gets no response.

News travels fast. Soon, word on the FAA's open teleconference call is that a fifth aircraft is out of radio contact: Delta 1989, a Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles, and the flight is added to the list of suspect aircraft.

Now an ACARS message arrives in the cockpit from Delta's Dispatch: "Land immediately in Cleveland." They've already passed Cleveland, but Captain Werener types in a quick "ok." He won't put up a fight, he just wants to get the plane on the ground.

After a couple of minutes, another message arrives in the cockpit from Delta's Dispatch: "confirm landing in Cleveland. Use correct phraseology."

Dunlap and Werner look at each other quizzically. What the hell is that about? There's such a thing as correct phraseology on the radio, but there is no such thing when typing back and forth with Dispatch on ACARS. Those messages are usually casual.

Flustered, the captain does his best to figure out what "correct phraseology" Dispatch is looking for. He carefully types a response: "Roger. Affirmative. Delta 1989 is diverting to Cleveland."

Dunlap is starting to really worry now. They think something is going to happen to this plane, he thinks to himself. They're trying to figure out if we're still in control!

Meanwhile, the captain calls up the Center controller to request an immediate diversion to Cleveland, and then starts inputting the new destination into the flight computer. Dunlap rolls the 767 into a 30-degree bank back toward the airport and pulls out his approach charts.

The Cleveland Center controllers are not happy that Delta 1989, which was out of radio contact for several minutes, has now made a turn toward the large city. They didn't initiate the diversion and they don't know that Delta Dispatch has done so. An abrupt change of course for a transcontintental B767 out of Boston raises further suspicion, and a supervisor announces the new development on the FAA teleconference.

To sum up this passage:

First, Delta 1989 misses the transfer to the next sector because of the turmoil caused by UA 93. At this time (about 9:40) this must be the hand-off from Lorain sector to Bluffton sector, the super-high sector of Cleveland Center which is adjacent to (west of) Lorain sector. As a result, Delta 1989 is not in radio contact with Bluffton sector for several minutes.

Then, the Delta 1989 pilots get a message from Delta Airlines to land in Cleveland immediately.

Then, the captain of Delta 1989 requests an immediate diversion to Cleveland, being back on the frequency.

At last, Cleveland Center, surprised by the request and unaware that Delta Airlines has ordered the captain to do so, gets suspicious of the flight.

This "Lynn Spencer version" of the diversion of Delta 1989 is completely wrong in terms of chronology and facts and easily disproven by the best imaginable source: the radio transmissions between Cleveland Center and Delta 1989.

9:38:52 (Lorain Radar) roger delta nineteen eighty nine there's traffic for you at eleven o'clock and fifteen miles southbound fourty one climbing looks like he's turning east fly heading three six zero

9:39:00 (Lorain Radar) okay thanks delta nineteen eighty nine

9:40:57 (Lorain Radar) delta nineteen eighty nine fly heading two eight five

9:41:00 (Delta 1989) two eight five delta nineteen eighty nine

9:43:56 (Delta 1989) cleveland center delta nineteen eighty nine

9:44:09 (Delta 1989) cleveland delta eighty nine

9:44:10 (Lorain Radar) delta nineteen eighty nine

9:44:12 (Delta 1989) company wants us on the ground in cleveland

9:44:12 (Lorain Radar) say again

9:44:16 (Delta 1989) the company wants us to divert to land at cleveland

9:44:19 (Lorain Radar) delta nineteen eighty niner roger fly your present heading descend and maintain flight level three three zero expect further vectoring for cleveland

9:44:24 (Delta 1989) delta nineteen eighty nine three three zero present heading

9:44:27 (Lorain Radar) delta nineteen eighty nine roger and contact cleveland one one niner point three two

9:44:31 (Delta 1989) nineteen thirty two

With this transcript at hand, it is easy to show up Ms. Spencer's grave errors:

1 - Delta 1989 does not miss the hand-off to the new frequency. It affirms the Lorain controller's request to change the frequency to 110.32, which is Bluffton sector.

2 - The message of Delta Airlines to land in Cleveland arrives before Delta 1989 shifts to the new sector, not afterwards.

3 - The controllers of Cleveland Center are well aware that it was Delta Airlines who ordered the pilots to land in Cleveland - simply because the pilot told them.

Unfortunately, the source for the misinformation in Spencer's book is not clear. It is absolutely clear, however, that Delta Airlines' diversion order was well known among controllers and not the reason they surmised it to be a hijacking. Therefore, we can also throw another account onto the dustbin of history:

The Delta flight wants to land in Cleveland? And the captain's request comes before he can know that the FAA wants every flight down. On this day, the fact that the pilot requests to be rerouted before he is ordered to land seems suspicious. Why the urgency?

Controllers don't know that Delta officials, also concerned about the flight, have ordered Werner to land in Cleveland. They continue to send messages to Werner. In code, they ask him if all is OK. Yes, he responds time and again. He doesn't know why they're so worried.

Like Lynn Spencer, USA Today is flatly wrong. Controllers were well aware that Delta officials had ordered the pilot to land in Cleveland.

So the question is still pending: Why indeed was Delta 1989 considered a hijack? Why is there so much misinformation going around on this matter?