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False Sept. 11 hijack signal put Air Force on alert
ALASKA: Lt. Gen. Norman Schwartz was prepared to order Korean plane shot down.
By Zaz Hollander Anchorage Daily News
(Published: September 29, 2001) An erroneous hijacking signal emanating from a Korean Air passenger jet on Sept. 11 led to the short-lived order to evacuate downtown Anchorage and the pipeline terminal in Valdez, military officials disclosed Friday.
The Air Force in Alaska, suddenly under high alert about four hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sent two armed fighters to intercept the jetliner as it approached the mainland. Lt. Gen. Norty Schwartz was prepared to order the Korean plane shot from the sky before it could destroy an Alaska target.
Schwartz, discussing the incident with reporters in a briefing at Elmendorf Air Force Base on Friday, found himself in an almost unbelievable situation that day, sitting behind the glass windows of his command center, watching the airmen below as they tracked the jet on their green radar screens.
It wasn't a Soviet military plane in the cross hairs, but Korean Flight 85, with nearly 200 passengers on board.
"It would be one thing to shoot at enemy aircraft, or bombers, or a Cruise missile inbound to the United States intent on doing harm," Schwartz said. "It is another matter, of course, to engage a civilian airliner."
As it turned out, the F-15s made visual contact with the plane and flight controllers were able to determine the hijacking message was a mistake.
But the incident ushered in a new role for the commanding general at Elmendorf, in which a new kind of threat -- civilian aircraft as guided missile -- has become something to defend against.
President Bush on Wednesday announced that Schwartz is one of two mid-level Air Force generals and only five men in the country with authority to order shot down commercial airliners that threaten American cities.
The chain of command now authorized to OK shooting down commercial airliners is the president; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command; Schwartz or Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, a two-star officer at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida with authority over the Lower 48.
For Schwartz, a 28-year veteran, the new role is unsettling, one that must be approached with great caution.
"All of us, all of us, from the most senior people in government to the air crew at the tip of the spear, would execute that with care and diligence," he said.
If a plane appears to be under the control of hijackers, Schwartz said, he will follow a graduated response.
Officials will first try to communicate with the flight crew. If that fails, the general will send fighter planes to intercept the plane. The pilots will observe the flight crew and try to communicate again with hand signals.
If it becomes necessary to shoot down an airliner, the general said, he'd also weigh the risk to civilians from falling debris and other factors.
Previously, regional officials needed clearance from the president to take such a drastic step.
The Korean Air flight was the only passenger jet that officials intercepted that day or since, according to Federal Aviation Administration regional spokesman Mike Fergus.
The Korean jet was headed from Seoul to New York with a stopover in Anchorage when U.S. airports were shut down following the attacks in New York and the Pentagon. Federal air controllers told the Korean pilot to divert to Whitehorse in the Yukon.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the plane's transponder, which had been broadcasting the plane's identification, location, altitude, and other routine data, suddenly emitted a "7500" alarm -- the international code for a hijacking.
With the 7500 code flashing on the radar screens at Regional Air Operations Center at Elmendorf, two F-15 fighters rocketed into the air. Two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18s also took to the sky.
An officer at Elmendorf telephoned the emergency numbers at the Alaska National Guard command center at Fort Richardson and the city emergency operations center just outside downtown Anchorage to relay the alerts, Schwartz said.
Just before 9:30 a.m., police in Anchorage began evacuating a swath of the city's downtown in case the plane plowed into the heart of the city. An evacuation of the Valdez pipeline terminal also began.
At 9:45 a.m., the North American Aerospace Defense Command contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to warn them that Flight 85 was being treated as a possible hijacking, according to Cpl. Al Lucier, an RCMP spokesman in Whitehorse.
A few minutes later, the evacuations were called off. The Korean plane flew a steady course to Canada and made no threatening moves. The U.S. planes tailed the jet to Whitehorse, where it landed and rolled as directed to a secluded spot on the tarmac.
A lone RCMP officer walked up the plane's steps and asked to speak with a member of the flight crew. The first officer emerged alone. He was escorted off the plane at gunpoint.
The pilot and first officer both seemed calm.
"Certainly they weren't despondent," Lucier said. "They handled their aircraft and dealt with it very well."
Police escorted passengers off the plane in small groups. Investigators interviewed the pilot and crew both in English and in Korean through an interpreter, he said. The plane left Whitehorse on Sept. 13.
Officials didn't relax entirely until the plane landed and it became clear that no hijacking had occurred, said Eric Gonzales, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Anchorage.
Federal Aviation Administration officials are now investigating why the false alarm was issued.
The military says muddled communications between air traffic controllers and the flight crew aboard the plane triggered the alert.
Korean Air, however, says the pilot of the airliner believed he was directed by air traffic controllers at the FAA's Anchorage flight control center to send out the hijack signal.
"Our captain was following their instruction," said Michael Lim, a Korean Air administrator in Anchorage. "They even told the captain to transmit code 7500, hijack code. Our captain, who realized how serious it is, they were just following instructions."
Korean Air officials in Anchorage declined to make available a tape recording of conversations between the pilot and KAL officials on the ground in Anchorage.
The FAA won't discuss any details of the case, spokesman Fergus said.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 29, 2001