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Korean Air - 9/11 - ygbsm!

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May 16, 2002
Korean Air jetliner may have narrowly missed disaster.

ANCHORAGE -- A string of miscommunications Sept. 11 led to a jarring incident over Alaska that convinced controllers the military might shoot down a Korean Air jet.
Pilots on Korean Air Flight 85 mistakenly issued a hijack alert at 1:24 p.m. ET as they neared Alaska on the way to Anchorage. Military officials, who had ordered two F-15 fighters to tail the jet, told Anchorage air traffic controllers that they would shoot it down if it did not turn away from populated areas, several sources told USA TODAY.

During the next 90 minutes, officials on the ground launched evacuations in Anchorage, at the Trans Alaska Pipeline and in Whitehorse, the capitol of Canada's Yukon Territory. The jet, a Boeing 747 with 215 people aboard, eventually landed in Whitehorse.

The events illustrate how tensions and suspicions on Sept. 11 spawned misunderstandings that threatened to spin out of control.

Problems began shortly after the attacks, in a Maryland office park. There, ARINC, a company that airlines pay to transmit text messages to and from their jets, began a search for more hijacked flights.

Scanning every communication it transmitted that day, it found something suspicious sent by the Korean jet. The Seoul-to-New York flight was headed for a refueling stop in Anchorage. In a message sent at 11:08 a.m. ET to Korean Air's base, the pilots included the letters ''HJK'' -- a code for hijacked.

Korean Air's operations chief, David Greenberg, said in an interview that the message was innocent, part of a routine discussion on where to divert the flight after airspace in the United States had been closed. The pilots had used the abbreviation to refer to the hijackings that day, he said.

But ARINC officials feared the message was a coded plea for help. Shortly before noon, they passed that suspicion on to the Federal Aviation Administration, which notified Anchorage controllers and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

At that point, Flight 85 was still hundreds of miles from mainland Alaska over the North Pacific. There had been no distress call or anything unusual about the flight except for the message that included ''HJK.'' But as it had done with at least a handful of flights that morning, NORAD sent fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage to shadow it.

When the Korean jet reached Anchorage's airspace about 1 p.m., controllers radioed coded questions to the pilots to learn whether they had been hijacked. Controllers and pilots are trained how to respond to such messages, but something failed that day.

Instead of reassuring controllers, the Korean pilots declared themselves hijacked at 1:24 p.m. They set their transponder, which transmits information about the flight to radars, to the four-digit universal code for hijacked -- 7500.

Suddenly, more than an hour after the skies emptied over the lower 48 states, a routine flight became a potential new attacker.

To this day, no one is certain why the pilots issued the alert. Airline sources say that exchanges between pilots and controllers were tense that morning. Some pilots objected to orders to reroute their planes. The Korean pilots may have misinterpreted the controller's comments as an order to reset the transponder.

Whatever the reason, the Korean pilots' response set off a frenzy of activity. Within minutes, Alaska's governor launched an evacuation of large hotels and federal buildings in Anchorage. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered tankers out to sea at nearby Valdez, Alaska, where they had been loading oil from the Trans Alaska pipeline.

FAA officials refused to discuss what happened next, and the details remain murky. But USA TODAY pieced together these details:

The scene at the Anchorage air traffic control center was edgy and confused, several sources said. The military insisted to controllers that the jet must veer away from Anchorage and oil facilities at Valdez.

But FAA officials near Washington, D.C., advised the center's controllers over the phone not to turn the jet. In spite of the transponder code, it wasn't clear this jet had actually been hijacked.

With two F-15s tracking Flight 85, NORAD officers told officials at the Anchorage center that they would shoot down the airliner if it continued, the sources said. Air traffic officials ordered the jet to turn wide of Alaska's largest city.

NORAD officials have insisted in recent weeks they never threatened to shoot down the jet and that the event was handled smoothly. But Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, commander of the NORAD group that responded to the Korean jet, told reporters last year he was prepared to order the jet shot from the sky before it could attack a target in Alaska.

It's not clear whether NORAD officers ever sought approval to attack the 747. Under the rules of engagement in place on Sept. 11, the president or vice president would have had to approve an attack. Shortly after Sept. 11, President Bush granted such powers to a group of generals that included Schwartz.

After the jet turned away from Anchorage, new concerns arose over whether the jet had enough fuel to reach Whitehorse, more than 500 miles beyond its original destination.

Canadian air traffic officials agreed to let the jet land there, but its approach set off a new wave of evacuations.

Flight 85 landed safely in Whitehorse at 2:54 p.m. ET. Its transponder emitted the hijack code for the entire 90 minutes. Only after the co-pilot stepped off the jet at gunpoint and was interrogated did officials confirm that the jet had not been hijacked.
I was in Anchorage that day and witnessed the downtown federal building being evacuated. There was so much else going on, the media never picked up on it.

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