American Airlines Flight 77 Calls

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Two individuals were reported to make calls from Flight 77 on 9/11, with information about the hijacking. The 9/11 Commission presented these in the following timeline.

  • (9:11 a.m. and later) September 11, 2001:

  • (Some time between 9:16 and 9:26 a.m.) September 11, 2001:

  • (9:20 - 9:31 a.m.) September 11, 2001:

Issues and claims

In Debunking 9/11 Debunking and later works David Ray Griffin suggests both of these calls were faked, or perhaps never happened at all. To support this he makes the following points.

  1. Renee May's cellphone call would have been impossible in 2001.
  2. The information about Barbara Olson came from Ted Olson, who was working for the Bush-Cheney administration, and that he testified before the Supreme Court that there are situations in which "government officials might quite legitimately have reasons to give false information out".
  3. Ted Olson gave contradictory statements about how his wife made the call, for example three days after 9/11 saying she "must have called from the airplane phone" on one TV show, then saying she'd used a cellphone on another, before eventually settling on the airphone.
  4. Flight 77 wasn't equipped with the seat-back airphones, therefore Olson's story must be false.
  5. Ted Olson's story has been contradicted by the FBI.
  6. Ted Olson's story has been rejected by Pentagon historians.

Let's consider these in turn.

Renee May

May would have made her call from an altitude of around 25,000 feet (Source). Griffin contends that calls above around 8,000 feet were impossible at this time, but his arguments don't stand up to scrutiny. Read more here.

Ted Olson

Yes, Olson was the US Justice Department's Solicitor General, an important job in the administration, but in itself this is evidence of nothing at all. Certainly not that he'd willingly cover up the murder of his own wife.

The Olson quote about government officials legitimately giving out false information makes considerably more sense when you read it in context:

So we see Olson defines "false information" as "incomplete information and even misinformation", in this example to protect intelligence operations. Is anyone really surprised? We'd be surprised if there's a single country in the world that wouldn't do the same thing. And this statement really doesn't look like it bears any relation to inventing a fictitious story to cover up the murder of US citizens.

Contradictory statements

Let's look at the examples of the contradictory statements supposedly provided by Ted Olson. We believe Dr Griffin picked them up from this CooperativeResearch comment:

Looking at the relevant part of the first transcript gives us this:

Griffin says in the first interview that Olson said his wife "must have called from the airplane phone", however if he's referring to this interview then it's clear Olson was in reality far less sure. He "assumed" it was that, it "probably" was an airphone, but he doesn't know for certain.

Here's the relevant part of the second transcript:

Cooperative Research represent this by claiming that Olson said "that she used a cell phone and that she may have been cut off “because the signals from cell phones coming from airplanes don’t work that well”, however that seems overly definitive, too. Ted Olson did not say prior to this that Barbara Olson used a cell phone. It seems to us that all he's doing is speculating that, if she was using a cell phone, that might explain why the second call was cut off.

And perhaps the key point here is that Ted Olson received two calls from Barbara, and each transcript was referring to a different call. So to say that one might have been on an airfone, while the other could have been a cellphone, isn't contradictory at all.

There are other complaints about inconsistences (follow the CooperativeResearch link to read about them), but none that we find compelling. If anything, they makes it seem more plausible that Olson's explaining what really happened. If this were some pre-planned lie then you'd expect Ted Olson to have "got his story straight", whereas if he were in shock and grieving over his wife's death then confusion, mis-speaking and a little jumbling of memories would be no surprise at all.

Airphones removed

The initial Debunking 9/11 Debunking claim that American Airline 757's don't have airphones is based on an email conversation carried out by Rowland Morgan and Ian Henshall, and reported in their book 9/11 Revealed. Griffin explains that in 2004 they asked whether 757's were fitted with airphones, either for passenger or aircraft use, and were told this was categorically not the case.

End of story? Not even close. It seems that Morgan and Henshall asked precisely that question, "Do your 757's have airphones?", and the American Airlines spokesman gave an appropriate answer for 2004: "no". They didn't ask what the situation was in 2001, and so their emails have nothing to say about 9/11 at all. (Even Griffin would later admit this at 911blogger).

When were the phones taken out, then? It didn't happen in a hurry. Photos of American Airline cabins taken in 2002 and early 2003 both show seatback phones. This doesn't mean they're working -- they might have been deactivated first, and had the phones physically removed later -- but it does show that the removal process was a slow one.

This story from Business Week, dated September 30 2002 also makes it seem like airphones disappeared after the attacks, with some American Airlines flights still having them a year later:

Another report talks of American Airlines scrapping "some" seatback phones, but only at the end of March 2002. If they'd removed any earlier, then it wasn't mentioned here.

An article on this issue presents other arguments, including an email from an American Airlines Customer Relations:

And also purports that the 757 Aircraft Maintenance Manual showed "the onboard phones had been deactivated at least seven and a half months prior to 9/11".

However, the Kinder email is lacking in detail. He doesn't specify when the phones were removed, and may not even know: he'd have to look into the records for that particular plane, not something you'd expect a busy customer relations person to do. We'd suggest it's more likely that he's spoken about what he knows (they have no airphones now), and speculated about the rest (so they must have used their airphones).

Of course our speculation has no particular value, so we asked American Airlines to look into this, and they reported:

Clear enough. And this suggests the maintenance manual doesn't clearly show the airphones were deactivated before 9/11, too, unless of course we're to assume that American Airlines are "in on it", too. The manual issue is still being debated as we write, though. Read more here.

And no examination of these issues would be complete without a look at one of the oldest arguments that's still around, originating with Joe Vialls:

As we've seen, Ted Olson didn't know that "Barbara did not have a credit card with her" - it was just an initial assumption:

As for the idea that you need to swipe your credit card before you can call anyone, where's the evidence that this even applied to your calling the operator? It certainly didn't on the Flight 93 system:

What’s this? Reaching an operator is as simple as pressing zero? And having done that, the operator may well put you through to someone without you spending any money?

Betty Ong on American Airlines Flight 11 apparently reached reservations again by pushing a single number:

And the GTE Airfone instructions as of April 1998, at least, confirmed that if your credit card didn't work then you could call the operator to ask for help:

Airfone instructions.gif

Contradicted by the FBI

One of Dr Griffin's most surprising claims is that the FBI have themselves contradicted Ted Olson's account:

Dr Griffin talks of the Moussaoui trial, but somehow forgets to mention the stipulation about Flight 77, that lists details accepted as true by both the prosecution and the defence:

The Olson calls were presented - and accepted - as true at the Moussaoui trial, then.

The trial did also include an exhibit, a Flash applet providing details on the calls made from Flight 77.

Here's the main page.

Aa77calls all.png

It does indeed show only 1 call. More detail is provided here.

Aa77calls olson.png

One unconnected call, then. So are the FBI saying Olson received no other calls? No. Check the main page again and you'll see 5 calls were listed as "unknown". Here's the detail on that.

Aa77calls unknown.png

The FBI exhibit tells us that only one call made from the plane can be directly attributable to Barbara Olson. However, any of the "unknown number" calls could also be attributable to her. The fact that the number wasn't detailed in the records should be a surprise to no-one, as it was mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report:

This story isn't new, then. It seems to us that the Moussaoui trial exhibit simply reproduces the source document used by the 9/11 Commission, and while listing the calls as to an "unknown number" doesn't corroborate Ted Olson's account, they don't in any way contradict it. In fact when we also consider the trial stipulation that mentions Barbara Olson's two calls, the picture presented seems very similar to that in the 9/11 Commission Report. There's no substantial reason to believe it constitutes a change of story: Dr Griffin is simply incorrect.

Pentagon historians

Dr Griffin tells us that Ted Olson's account of events has not been accepted by Pentagon historians:

There's reportedly evidence to support the claim that Burlingame, at least, was attacked during the hijacking:

So where does Olson say otherwise? The key sentence is this one: "According to Olson, his wife had said that 'all passengers and flight personnel, including the pilots, were herded to the back of the plane by armed hijackers.'" Is it accurate? Here's the original source.

The quote is taken straight from a CNN story: no problems there. It is interesting that this is a summary, though, comments on what "Ted Olson told CNN". What did the earlier report tell us? Here's a transcript from 9/11 (our emphasis):

Now things aren't quite so definitive. The reporter is "presuming" the pilot was in the back of the plane, but doesn't know for sure, and tells us it's also "conceivable there was a co-pilot, who still may have been in the cockpit".

Fortunately there's no need to rely on these second-hand interpretations. Ted Olson was himself interviewed by CNN in December, and discussed the issue here:

It seems that the sole justification for the claim that Olson said "all passengers and flight personnel, including the pilots, were herded to the back of the plane by armed hijackers" is her question "What shall I tell the pilot? What, what, what, what, what can I tell the pilot to do?" Plainly this doesn't necessarily mean he's back there with her, and Ted Olson is not making that claim. He specifically says it's only an "implication" that could apply to "the pilot, or possibly the co-pilot, or a part of the crew".

When we hear Ted Olson's words, then, it's plain that his "story" is not as Dr Griffin said, that "Burlingame and his co-pilot did give up their plane and were in the back with the passengers and other crew members". There is no contradiction between Barbara Olson asking "What shall I tell the pilot? What, what, what, what, what can I tell the pilot to do?" and the Pentagon historians claim that "the attackers either incapacitated or murdered the two pilots", and Dr Griffin's claim otherwise is without merit.


Considerable efforts have been made to throw doubt upon the Flight 77 calls, then, but there's no counter-argument that yet stands up to close scrutiny.

What's more, the opening of the 9/11 Commission records has produced airfone records showing the calls, and an interview with an operator who apparently received at least one of them (see Barbara Olson calls). And so, based on currently available information, we believe the calls were most likely real, and reflected what was happening on the hijacked Flight 77.