American Airlines Flight 77 is the plane that is commonly believed to have crashed into the Pentagon. It was a Boeing 757-223 on a scheduled flight from Dulles to Los Angeles, with 58 passengers, four flight attendants, and two pilots.
At 8:20 AM, Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport, 10 minutes after its scheduled departure time. At 8:46, Flight 77 veered severely off course. At 8:50, the last radio communication was made from the pilots and air traffic control. At 8:56, the jet’s transponder was shut off. The pilots’ last transmission was “ah direct FALMOUTH American seventy seven thanks.” No radio communications from the flight indicated distress.
The NTSB report on Flight 77 describes the plane’s maneuvers in detail. It began to turn to the south at 8:55, and by 9:00 it was headed east. Shortly thereafter it began to descend from its altitude of 35,000 feet. The autopilot was engaged and disengaged multiple times. At 9:29 the plane was 35 miles west of the Pentagon flying at 7,000 feet. At 9:34 it was about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon and started a 330-degree descending right turn, bringing it to an altitude of about 2000 feet four miles southwest of the Pentagon.
According to NORAD’s September 18th timeline, the FAA didn’t notify NORAD that Flight 77 was a possible hijack until 9:24, thirty-four minutes after the loss of radio communications. Press reports couch the notification as of a “suspected” hijacking despite reports that the plane was flying toward Washington, DC with its transponder off twenty-one minutes after both towers had been hit.
There were two reported phone calls from Flight 77: a cell phone call from flight attendant Renee May to her mother; and a cell phone call from passenger Barbara Olson to her husband, US Solicitor General Ted Olson. Ted Olson related to Newsweek:
‘Barbara was calm and collected as she told him how hijackers had used boxcutters and knifes to take control of the plane and had herded the passengers and crew to the back. “Ted, what can I do?” she asked him. “What can I tell the pilot?” Then, inexplicably, she got cut off.’
At about 9:38 AM, a twin-engine jetliner flew into the Pentagon and exploded, according to numerous eyewitnesses on the ground. The NTSB places the time of impact of Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37:45. A Minnesota National Guard C-130 that had just taken off from nearby Andrews Air Force Base followed the jetliner in the seconds before it crashed. The pilot of the C-130, who described the plane as either a 757 or 767, provided the following account.
‘It was like coming up to an intersection. When air traffic control asked me if we had him 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.
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. With all of the East Coast haze, I had a hard time picking him out.
The next thing I saw was the fireball. It was huge. I told Washington the airplane has impacted the ground. Shook everyone up pretty good. I told them the approximate location was close to the Potomac. I figured he’d had some in-flight emergency and was trying to get back on the ground to Washington National. Suddenly, I could see the outline of the Pentagon. It was horrible. I told Washington this thing has impacted the west side of the Pentagon.’
Whether the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon was Flight 77 is the subject of much question and controversy. Human remains of the people onboard Flight 77 were identified at Dover, but there is no public evidence that places the bodies at the Pentagon crash site.
The impact was 83 minutes after Flight 11 first went off course, and 58 minutes after the North Tower impact, and 40 minutes after the South Tower impact, yet the jet was not intercepted as it flew over the (normally) most heavily protected airspace in the United States, and in the world.