Review of Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies over America by Lynn Spencer
The author opens this book by comparing what happened on 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, and I don't think too many people would disagree. The comparison is even more true for those of us who make a living in aviation. Like Pearl Harbor, we all know what we were doing that day when we first learned of the attacks. I happened to be off that day. I heard from a few people who were flying on 9/11, but this book sheds light on the stories that I was not aware of.
I remember as the events unfolded thinking that this was an event that would be covered in numerous books and films. I thought about writing about it myself. As it happened, I was already involved in the research and writing of my own book about another aviation disaster. Besides, I was certain that big name writers like Mark Bowden or Hampton Sides would be the type of writer that would end up telling this story. Lynn Spencer didn't have the same reservations that I had and went forward on what had to have been a long and arduous journey in writing her first book.
The fact that this book was written by a professional pilot lends authenticity to it. I have read numerous books about aviation written by writers with no aviation experience and their lack of knowledge and understanding is glaringly obvious. Only someone with first hand experience could have told this story as effectively as Lynn does here.
The book is written mostly in the present tense, jumping back and forth between the ground and the numerous aircraft that were still flying as the hijackings were taking place. Lynn expertly portrays the confusion confronting flight crews as they received unprecedented instructions from dispatchers and controllers concerning the closure of airspace and airfields. She describes the panic of FAA and airport managers who unnecessarily evacuated airports and air traffic facilities leaving airplanes still in the air vulnerable to further mishaps.
There are numerous stories of pilots and air crews and how they dealt with this unprecedented event. A few that stand out include the crew of Delta Airlines Flight 1989, which became a suspected hijacking because of a missed hand-off between centers. Then there was the story of John Ashcroft and his attempts to fly to Washington in a Gulfstream IV after the U.S. Airspace had been closed. Another interesting story involved the crew of Korean Air Flight 85 that in an effort to show that they were aware of the hijackings decided to squawk the hijack code (very dumb move).
The military response to the attacks is also covered in great detail. I was aware of maybe four F-15s that were launched that day. I had no idea that there were far more than that. I do, however, disagree with the author's contention that pilots who departed with no weapons were prepared to sacrifice themselves if necessary to bring down a hijacked plane. Just as no airline pilot would intentionally fly an airliner into a building, I can't imagine any pilot intentionally flying his plane into another plane, especially a civilian airliner, under any circumstance. They may make that claim after the fact, but I can't see it actually happening.
I remember hearing about the possibility of a fifth plane. I'm convinced that there was in fact a fifth plane that was to be hijacked that day. The flight attendants reported four suspicious Arab passengers in first class. We know that the hijacked planes had teams of five hijackers. The fifth hijacker was undoubtedly Zacarias Moussaoui. The plane, which was scheduled to depart out of Boston on a transcontinental flight, was stopped on the ground before it could takeoff and the passengers were free to go. I have not heard anything that would lead me to believe that these four passengers were cleared or even investigated.
This book required a monumental effort on the part of the author. The end result is a compelling story that will be of interest to anyone who wants to know what was happening behind the scenes in the skies and in the air traffic system on that tragic day.