Shutting Down the Sky: The Federal Aviation Administration on 9/11

By Megan Dwyre, Special Access and FOIA Program Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

September 11, 2001, began as an ordinary day in the United States’ air traffic control system. A Federal Aviation Executive Summary (NAID 7601772) describes the day as “severe clear,” a perfect day for flying. Pilots exchanged “good days” and “good mornings” with air traffic control.

Washington ARTCC to Aircraft Accident File ZDC-ARTCC-212, Full Transcript; Aircraft Accident AAL77; Washington, DC; September 11, 2001; 1. AAL 77 – (a) Accident Package – 1 AEA 1011 COMPLETED ACCIDENT PACKAGE–FORMAL ACCD PKG ZDC-ARTCC-212 AAL77 B757 REDACT-SEALED.pdf (NAID 759552), Page 82.

By 9:03 A.M., two hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers. Responding to the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first national ground stop in the nation’s history – prohibiting departures for all civilian aircraft, regardless of destination. 

Shortly after a third hijacked plane struck the Pentagon at 9:37 A.M, the FAA began the first ever unplanned shutdown of U. S. airspace, ordering all aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as practical. At this time, there were more than 4,500 aircraft in the air. At 11:06 AM, the FAA issued Advisory 036, which suspended operations in the National Airspace System. 

5. Miscellaneous – (e) Other – 5 DCC 359 ATCSCC ADVISORY 036 REDACT-SEALED.pdf (NAID 34914391).

Air traffic worked quickly to ground flights as the horrific events of the day continued to unfold, with the collapse of the North and South towers and crash of a fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By 12:16 P.M., three-and-a-half hours after the first plane hit, the airspace was clear of commercial and private flights. 

This chart shows aircraft operations before, during, and after September 11, 2001. Executive Summary, 5. Miscellaneous – (e) Other – 5 AWA 199 2_ Executive Summary.doc (NAID 7601772), Page ES-4.

A week later, the Director of Air Traffic Control issued a memo to all Air Traffic Control employees. He thanked the entire Air Traffic team for their strength, purpose, and dedication throughout the critical situation and their work to implement the national ground stop and clear the airspace. He recounts how two days later, “as we were all working through our shock and grief, we restarted the system – a little at a time, in accordance with national security interests.” The memo closes with the assurance that, “[W]e will recover and we will build a stronger and better system.” The events of September 11 changed the world. After the system restarted, air travel would never be the same. 

5. Miscellaneous – (e) Other – 5 A90 32 AT1 Memo to Employees.pdf (NAID 7599585).

All documents are from the series: Open Files Relating to September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States, 2001-2004 (NAID 7419198, Entry UD-10D 1); Record Group 237: Records of the Federal Aviation Administration; National Archives at College Park, MD.

Many thanks to Mary Kay Schmidt and Thomas Haughton for their assistance with this post.

One thought on “Shutting Down the Sky: The Federal Aviation Administration on 9/11

  1. At Boston’s Logan Airport, American Airlines Flight 11 lined up for its scheduled 7:59 am takeoff. The plane is one of aviation’s workhorses, a Boeing 767, a twin-engine, twin-aisle that many air carriers use to bear the burden of heavily traveled domestic and international routes.

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