The strange case of the 9/11 cell phone calls
Last month, Qualcomm Corporation issued a press release stating that they had developed a new technology that would finally make it possible to make cellular phone calls from commercial airliners. Using a technology called "Pico Cells", the system will work as a link between the airliner and ground towers. According to the press release, it is currently impossible to connect by cell phone in a plane that is above 4,000 feet.
During the Republican National Convention in New York City last month, Deena Burnett, widow of Flight 93 victim Tom Burnett, spoke of the four telephone calls she received from her husband aboard the doomed airliner on September 11th, all of which were received from his cell phone, one of which lasted 13 minutes.
With the FAA statement that Flight 93 never went below 29,000 feet until its' sudden fatal plunge, these two stories seem to be mutually exclusive. Either it is possible to make cell phone calls from a commercial jetliner in flight at cruising altitude - or it isn't.
If it is already possible to use a cell phone on a plane, why is Qualcomm so excited about their Pico chip? If it is not possible to do so, there's an even bigger problem.
Because there are no survivors of any of the 911 planes, the only "eyewitness" testimony we have is the paraphrased transcripts of phone calls made to family members. This is where we get the descriptions of "Arab looking men" with knives and box cutters, talking about "Allah". It is from these calls we hear the immortal and heroic "Let's roll!".
I decided to investigate as thoroughly as possible whether or not the phone calls from Flight 93 and other hijacked aircraft were possible. First I looked into whether the calls could have been made using the "air phone" service aboard the planes. Burnett's wife reported the calls came from her husband's cell phone. Two calls by other passengers were made from locked lavatories, which would have been impossible to make by airphone. Jeremy Glick spoke with his wife for 20 minutes from his cell phone, according to the 911 Commission. These calls occurred while the plane was cruising at over 30,000 feet according to news reports and the 911 Commission.
Although there were calls made from airphones by Todd Beamer and other passengers, there were also undoubtedly some calls that are claimed to have originated from cell phones. In some cases witnesses said they recognized the family member's number on their caller ID.
So the critical question becomes this: Is it possible to make a cell phone call from cruising altitudes in a jetliner? The answer is disturbing, disquieting, and emphatic.
Alexa Graf, a spokesman of AT&T, commenting in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, said it was "a fluke that the [9/11] calls reached their destinations".
NSA-trained Electronic Warfare specialist Steve Moser goes further, expressing that he has "severe doubt that ordinary cell phone calls were ever made from the aircraft (Flight 93)". Moser explains: "When you make a cell phone call, the first thing that happens is your cell phone needs to contact a transponder and complete a digital handshake. If an aircraft is going five hundred miles an hour, your cell phone will not be able to contact a tower, tell the tower who you are and who your provider is, tell the tower what mode it wants to communicate with, and establish that it is in a roaming area, before it passes out of range. It takes 30-45 seconds to do that. Though it is sometimes possible to connect during takeoff and landing, under the situation that was claimed the calls were impossible."
Independent researcher A. K. Dewdney conducted a series of experiments in February and March of 2003, over Toronto, Ontario. Chartering planes from a local airport, Dewdney's team went aloft with different cell phones licensed by all major providers. The pilots were instructed to fly in a grid that covered the overlapping cellular communication towers of five major carriers in metropolitan Toronto. Team members kept records of calls and results from varying altitudes. At 2000 feet, calls could be made about half the time. At 4,000 feet only an average of one in 4 calls was completed. At 6,000 feet, the average was 1 in 12 calls connected. At 8,000 feet and above there was no connection by any of the phones. Dewdney's report concluded "It may be noted in passing that these experiments were conducted in a radio-transparent aircraft with carbon-fibre construction. Failure to make a call from such an aircraft with any particular brand of cellphone spells automatic failure for the same phone from a metal-clad aircraft flying at the same altitude. A metal skin attenuates all cell phone signals to a significant degree. It may safely be concluded that the operational ceiling for cellular phones in aluminum skin aircraft (passenger liners, for example) would be significantly lower than the ones reported here. It may therefore safely be concluded that cell phone calls from passenger aircraft are physically impossible above 8000 feet, and statistically unlikely below that altitude."
Skytel Wireless, a leading corporate cellular service provider, assures its' customers: "If you're out of range, on an airplane, for example, the system stores incoming messages for up to 72 hours, automatically delivering them when you return to full service."
Finally, I called a friend who works for Jet Blue in New York City as a flight attendant. I asked her if she had ever used her cell phone aboard a flight. "Sure" she said, "but not in the air". I asked her why not. "Well, first of all, it's against the rules. It interferes with the plane's electronics." So I asked her if she turned her phone off to avoid getting calls during flights. "No, we don't have to do that. The phone loses the signal automatically right after we take off. There's no signal, so it won't ring anyway until we land."
Last of all I got in a friend's boat equipped with GPS, and headed out into the Gulf on a clear afternoon. Less than 3 miles out from Galveston, there was no longer any signal on my Verizon Wireless phone, and none on his Nextel. That's half the distance of the flight 93 calls, and we weren't traveling at 500 mph either. Ask any local mariner and they can confirm this.
So, scientifically and technologically, the cell phone calls of 9-11 were impossible. There were definitely some calls made from airphones, and probably from the WTC planes, which were low enough to connect with a tower for a few minutes before impact. But some of the calls that were reportedly made that day are simply impossible, especially aboard Flight 93.
Of course, all of the people who died on that day were heroes who died in an act of war against the American people, no matter what happened. It requires no myth, no propaganda.
What is the truth about the cell phone calls of 9-11? The significance of this mystery is something historians may puzzle over for years to come.