Touching History

Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11
©2008 Lynn Spencer
320 pages

When the brilliant blue skies over the continental United States became a place of confusion, dread, loss, and death, it was the men and women of air traffic control who knew it first – and when everyone else had begun to etch Tuesday, September 11 into the history books,  for the men of the Air Force the day’s work was just getting started.  Touching History  tells the story of 9/11  through the eyes and ears of air traffic control.  Written by a pilot,  it offers a rare perspective and level of detail unavailable elsewhere. Although its amount of technical detail might frustrate the most casual of readers, for others that same detail is an open door into the increidbly crucial role played by air traffic control – not just on that day, but every day. 

Touching History draws on three pools of witnesses; the air traffic controllers themselves; pilots, aviation administrators, and others connected to the airlines;  and the US military, who scrambled to defend American cities in a way they hadn’t needed since the darkest days of the Cold War.   We experience through them the day as it happened – the first inklings that something was amiss when American 11 suddenly stopped responding, and even more strangely turned off its transponder — the scattered reports that came in from hijacked airlines,  phone calls whose information took precious minutes to percolate into place,  confused reports as authorities realized there were multiple atypical hijackings happening simultaneously – and then the horror as  airliners were turned into missiles. Bit by bit,  the military’s airmen take a greater and greater role in the narrative – as the airlines do their damndest to get every plane in the sky on the ground, safely,  NORAD and various levels of air defense were trying to get their men up, establishing command of the air in large metros with possible targets. 

Experiencing 9/11 in this way is most unusual; most sources put us on the ground, close to the flames, smoke, and destruction. The immediate and sensational overwhelm us.  Here, though, the horror is more removed and abstracted, but the overall effect is greater  as the scope of the challenge is realized.  Somehow, some party has taken control over multiple airplanes at once. How are they doing it?  How many more potential missiles are up there? When will it end? The book makes plain how utterly unprecedented the events of the day were: hijackings had happened before, but they followed a pattern. Nothing today fit that pattern. Even if terrorists were taking over planes, how were they making the pilots steer into buildings? Even with a gun to his head, no pilot would willingly allow his craft to to take life on the ground. Although ultimately there were only four planes – unless there were five – NORAD and the airlines actively believed several other planes had been hijacked, and one flight was grounded in the belief that it was carrying a bomb. The day became saturated with fear – fighters  dogged civilian airliners, and air crews recruited passengers to help them stand guard outside the cockpit.   Spencer also shares information no one reading a traditional 9/11 history would get – like the strong possibility of a fifth target. United 23, a planned morning flight, was delayed by the initial news and later canceled.  Left behind in its unclaimed baggage were “al-Queda documents and box cutters”, very likely belonging to four Arab passengers who, sitting together in first class, had quickly vanished into the crowd when it became obvious they weren’t going anywhere.  

Touching History is one of the better 9/11 histories out there, in a class with The Only Plane in the Sky and The Looming Tower. While its level of detail into air defense and flight control operations might scare some, for me that additional look into air infrastructure made it all the more appealing.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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