The story about NEADS searching for AA 11 is a story about a tracking attempt which ultimately turned out not to be successful.
First, as to Lat/Long tracking, at 08:40:03 EDT, ZBW relayed a Lat/Long to NEADS MCC TK, which is 41:15n/73:46w. ID staff and MCC Nasypany were still searching around this coordinate at 08:43:10 EDT, some three minutes later. While the Tracking Technicians (TT) at AST (Air Surveillance Technician) Op immediately started looking for primary targets, this coordinate was feed into the tracking system at the AST Op for the TT at 08:45:18 EDT, some five minutes after the coordinate was first given to NEADS.
The following picture is a radar snapshot from the RADES data for the time frame 08:40 – 08:47 EDT. It was prepared by 9/11 commission staffer Miles Kara. The green tracking points are transponder signals, the blue ones primary signals, the red X designates JFK airport, which is used as a reference point on the Tapes several times. The little black point in the north designates the coordinate ZBW gave to NEADS at 08:40:03.
At 08:45:04 the TT are advised to search within a 25 miles box around this coordinate. An approximation of this box can be seen in the following picture:
Zoomed in, this would be:
AA 11 was flying 41:15n/73:46w neither at 08:43:10, nor 08:45:18 EDT. AA 11 was flying in a 25 miles scope around 41:15n/73:46w neither at 08:43:10, nor 08:45:18 EDT. At 08:43:00 EDT, AA 11 was at 40:57n, 73:50w, according to the RADES data. This is already outside the 25 miles scope. All other Lat/Longs used for tracking were post-crash Lat/Longs.
Therefore, apparently no one at the ID Op or AST Op was in any position to successfully track AA 11, based on the Lat/Longs that were given, and independently from other problems like ground clutter. (Note: This is how it seems to be, based on the NEADS Tapes. Obviously, the NEADS Tapes do not tell the whole story, as they are just one set of data, and in itself incomplete, as not everything is recorded what is said. So take this conclusion with a grain of salt.)
As to Fix/Radial/Distance Tracking, ID Technician Shelley Watson received two Fix/Radial/Distance (FRD) updates from Colin Scoggins until 08:40:19 EDT, one 40 miles north of JFK, the other 35 miles north of JFK. So the ID Desk had the chance to try to track AA 11 via FRD quite fast. MCC Op tried so, too. Just from the Tapes, the first verifiable tracking attempt via FRD at AST Op happens at 08:52 EDT, well after AA 11´s crash.
Although some people believe that NEADS finally tracked AA 11 shortly before crash, it’s pretty clear from the Tapes that they didn’t. The only possible successful tracker, MSgt. Joe McCain, tracked a disappearing search/primary target, which (i) was east of JFK, where AA 11 never was; (ii) he detected after AA 11 had already crashed. Actually, the dialogue between Colin Scoggins and MSgt. Joe McCain at 08:48:07 EDT is quite interesting. Both seem to locate a target northeast of JFK. However, AA 11 was never east or northeast of JFK. It is pretty clear from the Tapes that Colin Scoggins tracked AA 11 constantly, so he perhaps was looking northwest of JFK, while McCain was in fact looking northeast of JFK (which at least is what he claims to do). Apparently, they both seem to look at the same radar echo or echoes, but in fact don’t.
It’s also pretty clear from the Tapes that there were several possible targets which turned out to be clutter or other planes. I counted at least nine wrong targets, i.e. tracking errors. All these wrong targets were detected after the actual crash of AA 11. I may have overheard other possible target locations in the background. Interestingly, the inability to track AA 11 is communicated differently for the ID Section than for the AST section: The AST Technicians locate wrong targets, the ID Technicians don’t locate anything at all. At least this is how it appears just from listening to the Tapes.
As to the FAA, Joseph Cooper at ZBW made the initial phone call to NEADS and relayed the abovementioned coordinate. He is replaced by Colin Scoggins soon. Scoggins constantly tracked AA 11, but the positional information he gives after 08:46:40 EDT differs from the RADES radar data. While AA 11 is lost on radar, Scoggins still seems to believe he is tracking the flight and/or relays old and wrong information. This may be due to the AA 11 coast track and due to other primary signals near NYC.
Sharon Majeski at ZNY relays first positional information post-crash, and possibly already based on the coast track of AA 11. Remember that the system she uses “simulates where flights may be in conjunction with their situational reports”. The method Majeski used to get the AA coordinate is described in the Jack Jackson MFR:
Huntress received a relatively quick Latitude/Longitude reading for AA 11 from Majeski. Jackson stated that the 0 87 position can pull up data. They put in the call sign AA 11 into her computer, and a data block on AA 11 was established. As far as Jackson knows, this capability is present at all positions. By this point, according to Jackson, the flight was already in R42 airspace. Once a track is established the system correlates that data block throughout the Center’s computer system.
When a data block that is associated to a target is brought up there is usually consistant. In this case, the data block moved along with the target. There is an option on the computer to request the latitude and longitude of any particular point and this option was used by Majeski to pinpoint AA 11, and is the basis for the information she gives to NEADS.
Apparently, ZNY tracked AA 11 in its final seconds more solid than ZBW. When Stacia Rountree from NEADS calls Majeski two minutes after the crash of AA 11, Majeski tells her that AA 11 is a coast track by now, i.e. there is no more radar feed for the flight, just projected data.
2. Radar Sites
AA 11 was constantly flying within the physical capabilities of the radar NEADS was linked to. The radar sites NEADS had access to since 1995 can be checked here. The four radar sites mentioned on the Tapes are J52 (Riverhead, NY), J53 (North Truro, AFS MA), J55 (Remsen, NY), and J56 (Dansville, NY). All these four sites are (and have been on 9/11) Air Route Surveillance Radar (ARSR) sites shared by the FAA and the USAF. While J56 is a ARSR-E1 Longe Range Radar with a range of up to 200 nautical miles, J52, J53 and J55 are ARSR-4 search radars with a range of at least 200 nautical miles and height finding capability.
The J53 radar site was scheduled to go down on the morning of 9/11 to undergo routine maintenance. TSgt Jeffrey Richmond tries to get the site back up immediately after the message of the hijacked plane arrives at the NEADS corners, and as a backup for J52. But he is told that this would be “totally, utterly impossible”.
J53, however, wasn´t needed to track AA 11, as it is overlapped, Richmond himself told the 9/11 Commission. In particular, J53 is greatly overlapped by J52, which, accordingly, has been the radar site which provided the data the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron (RADES) used to determine the flight path of AA 11:
The Riverhead NY ARSR-4 provided full radar coverage of the AA Boeing 767 aircraft that impacted with the World Trade Center (WTC) at 08:46 Eastern Time (ET). Primary search-only data is available for the entire flight.
At 08:37:49 EDT, seconds before NEADS was informed, AA 11 was at Lat 41.4914, Long -73.8249, according to the RADES data. J52 is much closer to this coordinate (and all following ones) than J53 is. So J53 and J52 didn´t even had to overlapp each other. If J53 would have been able to receive primary signals from AA 11, J52 would have been (or was) able to receive them, too. And J52 was.
J53 finally came back at 09:09:10 EDT, according to the AST Op channel.
09:09:10-09:09:20 EDT [min39:55-40:05]
Patty: Uh, [inaudible], 53 came back. They said they got a call from FAA. But they said he’s not guaranteeing anything, and let him know what it looks like.
3. Types of information coming from the ARTCCs to NEADS
(i) There was much accurate and useful information:
- 40 miles north of JFK
- 35 miles north of JFK
- Heading towards JFK
- Primary target
- Last known altitude 290
- Speed decreases
- Speed decreased to fewer than 300 knots
- Flying southwest bound
(ii) There was also accurate, but useless information:
- Original beacon code 1443
(iii) There was one slightly inaccurate, but useful information:
- Lat/Long 41:15n, 073:46w
(iv) And there was some inaccurate and useless information
- 15 miles east of JFK
- 8 miles east of JFK
- 20 miles south of JFK
- Lat/Long 40:39n, 74:03w
Note: “useful” means useful for tracking AA 11; “useless” means useless for tracking AA 11.
All the inaccurate and useless information was relayed after the crash of AA 11, so it wasn’t counterproductive. The Lat/Long mentioned in (iii) is only slightly inaccurate (the corresponding RADES coordinate is 41:15n, 073:48w), therefore useful nonetheless.
Colin Scoggins from ZBW may have or has provided further FRD updates to NEADS, which were not being recorded. I counted four (40 miles north of JFK, 35 miles north of JFK, 15 miles east of JFK, 8 miles east of JFK). The same goes for further possible coordinates, although it seems unlikely to me that they would not be communicated on the Tapes.
Thanks to Miles Kara and Andrew Burfield for useful comments and criticism.