An Analysis of New Evidence about Onboard Phones
David Ray Griffin and Rob Balsamo
Prefatory Note: When we, in this jointly authored article, need to refer to only one of us, the appropriate initials—DRG or RB–are used.
06/26/07 – Did American Airlines 77—the flight that, according to the official conspiracy theory about 9/11, struck the Pentagon—have onboard phones? This question is relevant to the possible truth of the official theory, because Ted Olson, who was then the US Solicitor General, claimed that his wife, Barbara Olson, called him twice from this flight using an onboard phone.
He did, to be sure, waver on this point. CNN, which mentioned in a story posted just before midnight on 9/11 that Barbara Olson had used a cell phone to call her husband, reported in a more extensive treatment, posted at 2:06 AM (EDT) on September 12, that Ted Olson had told it that his wife “called him twice on a cell phone from American Airlines Flight 77.”1 But on September 14, Olson said on Hannity & Colmes (Fox News) that she had called collect and therefore must have been using the “airplane phone”—because, he surmised, “she somehow didn’t have access to her credit cards.”2 On CNN’s Larry King Show later that same day, however, Olson returned to his first version. After saying that the second call from her suddenly went dead, he surmised that this was perhaps “because the signals from cell phones coming from airplanes don’t work that well.”3 On that same day, moreover, Tony Mauro, the Supreme Court correspondent for American Lawyer Media, published an account saying that Barbara Olson “was calling on her cell phone from aboard the jet.”4 Two months later, however, Ted Olson returned to the second version of his story. In the “Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture” delivered to the Federalist Society, he said that she used “a telephone in the airplane to [make] those two telephone [calls].”5 This second version was repeated in March 2002. “[C]alling collect,” he told the London Daily Telegraph, his wife “us[ed] the phone in the passengers’ seats.” She called collect, he again surmised, because “she didn’t have her purse” and hence her credit card.6
This revised version of his story has evidently gone virtually unnoticed in the American press. A year after 9/11, for example, CNN was still reporting that Barbara Olson used a cell phone.7 Nevertheless, Ted Olson’s statement to the Federalist Society and the Telegraph—that she called collect using a passenger-seat phone—was apparently his final word on the matter.
The claim that she must have called collect because she did not have her credit card, however, does not make any sense, because a credit card is needed in order to activate a passenger-seat phone.8 If she did not have a credit card, therefore, she could not have used a passenger-seat phone, whether to call collect or otherwise.9
By settling on this version of his story, nevertheless, Olson at least appeared to make defensible his claim that the calls occurred. We say this because of the extremely strong evidence that her reported calls could not have been made on a cell phone, given the cell phone technology in 2001. Cell phone calls from an airliner were, as DRG has argued extensively elsewhere, generally possible only if it was flying slowly and low,10 but Barbara Olson’s first call, according to the 9/11 Commission, occurred “[a]t some point between 9:16 and 9:26,”11 when the plane was flying too fast and too high for cell phone calls to have been possible. According to the Flight Data Recorder information released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the plane at 9:16 would have been over 25,000 feet, which is far too high (as well as too fast: 281 knots [324 mph]), while at 9:26 the plane would have been flying at 324 knots (370 mph), which is much too fast (as well as still too high: almost 14,000 feet).12 By settling on the claim that his wife used an onboard phone instead of a cell phone, Ted Olson avoided this problem.
But was a call from an onboard phone even possible? In 2004, Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan, having asked American Airlines whether their “757s [are] fitted with phones that passengers can use,” received this reply from an AA spokesperson: “American Airlines 757s do not have onboard phones for passenger use.” To check on the possibility that Barbara Olson might have borrowed a phone intended for crew use, they then asked, “[A]re there any onboard phones at all on AA 757s, i.e., that could be used either by passengers or cabin crew?” The response was: “AA 757s do not have any onboard phones, either for passenger or crew use. Crew have other means of communication available.”13
Henshall and Morgan then found this information corroborated on the AA website, which, while informing travelers that telephone calls are possible on AA’s Boeing 767 and 777, does not mention its 757.14 On the assumption that the AA spokesperson and this website were talking about AA 757s as they had been for several years, not simply as they were at the time of the query (2004), Henshall and Morgan concluded that, in the words of an essay written by Morgan, “Barbara Olson’s Call from Flight 77 Never Happened.”15
DRG, interpreting the information in the same way, wrote in the first edition of his book Debunking 9/11 Debunking: “[G]iven the evidence that Barbara Olson could not have called from Flight 77 using either a cell phone or an onboard phone, we have very good evidence that the calls to Ted Olson, like the call to [flight attendant] Renee May’s parents, were fabricated—unless, of course, he simply made up the story.”16
Correcting an “Error”
Later, however, DRG received two items suggesting that, although AA 757s did not have onboard phones in 2004, they probably did in 2001. One item was a 1998 photograph, said to show the inside of an AA 757, revealing that it had seat-back phones. The other was a news report from February 6, 2002, which said: “American Airlines will discontinue its AT&T in-flight phone service by March 31, a spokesman for the airline said Wednesday.”17 This report, DRG realized, did not specifically mention 757s, so this notice did not necessarily imply that AA 757s had had onboard phones up until that date. However, by taking into consideration this article, the photograph, and the realization that the letters from AA in 2004 were couched entirely in the present tense, DRG concluded that the claim that AA 77 had not had onboard phones was probably an error. He published an essay, “Barbara Olson’s Alleged Call from AA 77: A Correction About Onboard Phones,”18 which contained a section entitled “My Error.”
DRG made clear, to be sure, that even if AA 77 did have onboard phones, this did little to make Ted Olson’s story believable, because all the other problems remained. Five such problems were mentioned: (1) The incredible idea that although all the passengers and the crew were herded to the back of the plane, Barbara Olson was the only one to grab a phone from a passenger seat to make a call (an idea that was made even more incredible by the report that flight attendant Renee May was the only person on the flight to make a cell phone call19). (2) The equally incredible idea that three or four short, slight men armed with knives and box-cutters would not have been easily overpowered by these 60-some people—led perhaps by the pilot, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, a former Navy pilot whose brother said, “they would have had to incapacitate him or kill him because he would have done anything to prevent the kind of tragedy that befell that airplane,” and whose sister said, “We want to tell his story so that people who had loved ones on that flight will know that he would have sacrificed himself to save them.”20 (3) Ted Olson’s oscillations on whether his wife had used a cell phone or an onboard phone. (4) Rowland Morgan’s point that, having settled on the claim that the calls were collect calls from a passenger-seat phone, “Ted Olson could . . . shut his critics up by simply producing the Department of Justice’s telephone accounts, showing a couple of hefty reverse-charges entries charged from Flight 77’s Airfone number at around about 9:20 AM on 11th September, 2001.”21 (5) Morgan and Henshall’s point that, if the Department of Justice had actually received these calls, the FBI, which is part of the DOJ, could have easily produced the records, and yet, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, the FBI’s report about this issue, which is entitled “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” makes no mention of any DOJ records.22
DRG concluded, however, that although the idea that the calls occurred was highly implausible, they could not be ruled out as strictly impossible, because the claim that AA 77 did not have onboard phones was erroneous in a twofold sense: not only in the sense of being based on inadequate evidence but also in the sense of simply being wrong, at least probably.
Correcting the Correction
The publication of DRG’s retraction, however, set off a process that has led us to correct this correction, because we discovered three new pieces of evidence supporting the contention that AA 77 did not have onboard phones.
The Chad Kinder Email: One piece of evidence was brought to our attention by a member of the Pilots for 9/11 Truth forums who goes by the alias “Kesha.” Using one of these forums, “Kesha” reported that the following email exchange had been posted February 17, 2006, on a German political forum. A person using the alias “the Paradroid” had sent this email to American Airlines:
Hello, on your website . . . there is mentioned that there are no seatback satellite phones on a Boeing 757. Is that info correct? Were there any such seatback satellite phones on any Boeing 757 before or on September 11, 2001 and if so, when were these phones ripped out?
This was the reply received by “the Paradroid” (except that his real name has been crossed out):
Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:
Thank you for contacting Customer Relations. I am pleased to have the opportunity to assist you.
That is correct we do not have phones on our Boeing 757. The passengers on flight 77 used their own personal cellular phones to make out calls during the terrorist attack. However, the pilots are able to stay in constant contact with the Air Traffic Control tower.
Mr. XXXXXXXX, I hope this information is helpful. It is a privilege to serve you.
Chad W. Kinder
This exchange, if authentic, would provide very strong evidence for the conclusion that Barbara Olson could not have called her husband, as he claimed, from a passenger-seat phone. But was the exchange, which came from a second-hand source, authentic? We received three types of confirmation that it was.
In the first place, DRG, after obtaining from RB the email address of “Kesha,” asked the latter if he could “vouch for the authenticity of the letters” to and from Chad Kinder. In an email of June 2 (2007), “Kesha” replied: “I am able to vouch for the authenticity of the mentioned correspondence; the person who initiated it in February 2006 is reliable. I know ‘Paradroid’ from endless debates in our German 911 forum. His opinions are strictly based on facts.”
In the second place, after locating the correspondence between Kinder and “the Paradroid” on the German forum in question,23 DRG read several other contributions by “the Paradroid,” thereby seeing for himself that he is a serious, well-informed student of 9/11.
In the third place, RB, after some difficulty in discovering whether American Airlines actually had an employee named “Chad Kinder,” was able to contact him by telephone on May 31 (2007). After reading the two letters to Kinder, RB asked if he had indeed written the reply. Kinder answered that he could not specifically recall having written it—he writes so many letters, he explained, and this one would have been written over a year earlier. But, he added: “That sounds like an accurate statement.” Kinder indicated, in other words, that it was a letter he might well have written, because what it said—that AA 757s in 2001 did not have onboard phones, so the passengers on AA 77 had to use cell phones—was, to the best of his present knowledge, accurate.
The 757 Aircraft Maintenance Manual: Besides learning about and confirming this letter from Kinder, we also obtained another piece of evidence supporting the conclusion that passengers on AA 77 could not have used onboard phones. One of RB’s colleagues sent him a page from the Boeing 757 Aircraft Maintenance Manual (757 AMM) dated January 28, 2001. This page states that the passenger phone system for the AA 757 fleet had (by that date) been deactivated.24 According to the 757 AMM, in other words, the onboard phones had been deactivated at least seven and a half months prior to 9/11.
This information is relevant to the earlier-cited news report from February 6, 2002, which said: “American Airlines will discontinue its AT&T in-flight phone service by March 31.” As we pointed out earlier, that report did not mention 757s in particular, so it does not necessarily indicate that the 757 fleet had any in-flight phone service to be discontinued; the report may have referred only to other types of AA airplanes. But if American’s 757s did still have passenger-seat phones in September 2001, these phones, according to the information from the 757 AMM, would have been deactivated. If so, one of them could not have been used by Barbara Olson on 9/11 (even if she had a credit card).
A USA Today Report: Henshall and Morgan’s conclusion, to recall, was that although AA 777s and 767s had onboard phones in September of 2001, AA 757s did not. That conclusion is given some support by a 2004 USA Today story that stated: “Several years ago, American installed seatback phones, which could be used with a credit card, on many of its planes but ripped them out except in some Boeing 777s and 767s on international routes.”25 This statement by itself would not show that Flight 77 had no onboard phones, because it does not indicate exactly when the phones were ripped out. But it does show that the previously cited photographic evidence, showing that there were seat-back phones in AA 757s in 1998, does not prove that these phones were still present on September 11, 2001.
This report in USA Today appears, moreover, to have influenced the email sent by “the Paradroid” to American Airlines, which, as we saw, asked: “Were there any . . . seatback satellite phones on any Boeing 757 before or on September 11, 2001 and if so, when were these phones ripped out?” Kinder’s reply did not explicitly respond to the question as to when, if 757s had passenger-seat phones prior to 9/11, they were “ripped out.” Implicitly, however, Kinder’s reply said: With regard, at least, to the 757 that was AA 77, the seatback phones were ripped out prior to September 11, 2001.26
United States v. Ted Olson
In the course of doing research for this article, we learned, to our amazement, that even if, contrary to our evidence, Flight 77 did have functioning onboard phones, the US government has now said, implicitly, that Ted Olson’s claim about receiving two calls from his wife that morning is untrue.
As we mentioned earlier, the FBI report on phone calls from AA planes on 9/11 does not cite records from the DOJ showing that any calls from AA 77 were received that morning. Instead, the FBI report refers merely to four “connected calls to unknown numbers.” The 9/11 Commission, putting the best possible spin on this report, commented: “The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of [these four calls] represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office.”27 That is, it must be said, a very strange conclusion: If Ted Olson reported receiving only two calls, why would the Commission conclude that the DOJ had received four connected calls from his wife?
That conclusion is, in any case, starkly contradicted by evidence about phone calls from Flight 77 presented by the US government at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in 2006.28 Far from attributing all four of the “connected calls to unknown numbers” to Barbara Olson, as the 9/11 Commission suggested, the government’s evidence here attributes none of them to her, saying instead that each of them was from an “unknown caller.” The only call attributed to Barbara Olson, moreover, is an “unconnected call” to the Department of Justice, which was said to have been attempted at “9:18:58” and to have lasted “0 seconds.” According to the US government in 2006, in other words, Barbara Olson attempted a call to the DOJ, but it did not go through.29 The government itself has presented evidence in a court of law, therefore, that implies that unless its former solicitor general was the victim of two faked phone calls, he was lying.
It may seem beyond belief that the US government would have failed to support Ted Olson’s claim. We ourselves, as we indicated, were amazed at this development. However, it would not be the first time that the FBI—surely the agency that prepared this report about phone calls from the flights30—had failed to support the official story about 9/11. We refer to the fact that when Rex Tomb, the FBI’s chief of investigative publicity, was asked why the bureau’s website on “Usama bin Laden” does not list 9/11 as one of the terrorist acts for which he is wanted, he replied: “[T]he FBI has no hard evidence connecting Bin Laden to 9/11.”31
In any case, an interesting question about the government’s claim concerning the four “connected calls” from AA 77 is whether they were supposedly made from cell phones or passenger-seat phones. The government’s Moussaoui-trial evidence does not explicitly say. We can, however, make an inference based on its evidence for phone calls made from United Flight 93.
Although it had been generally believed that there had been approximately ten cell phone calls from UA 93—including the four widely publicized calls reported by Deena Burnett from her husband, Tom Burnett—the government’s document on this flight identifies only two calls as cell phone calls: those made at 9:58 by passenger Edward Felt and flight attendant CeeCee Lyles. One might conclude from this information, to be sure, that the government simply remained neutral on some of the other calls that had been thought to be cell phone calls, such as the Burnett calls, leaving open whether they were from cell or onboard phones. But that is not the case. A reporter at the Moussaoui trial wrote:
In the back of the plane, 13 of the terrified passengers and crew members made 35 air phone calls and two cell phone calls to family members and airline dispatchers, a member of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force testified Tuesday.32
The government explicitly said, therefore, that only two of the calls from UA 93—which were identified in the government’s report on this flight as being from Felt and Lyles33—were cell phone calls.
We can infer, therefore, that because these calls from Felt and Lyles are the only two calls from all the flights that are identified as cell phone calls, all the calls from the other flights are now said by the government to have been made from onboard phones.34
The distinctive thing about the calls from Felt and Lyles is that they reportedly occurred at 9:58, after United 93 had descended to about 5,000 feet. By limiting the cell phone calls from all four flights to these two from UA 93, the government is no longer, even implicitly, supporting the view that high-altitude cell phone calls from airliners are possible. The government has thereby implicitly overcome, by conceding the point, one of the 9/11 movement’s main arguments against the government’s conspiracy theory.
This is a rather amazing development. Much of the official story about 9/11 has been based on the assumption that high-altitude cell phone calls were made. The film United 93, for example, portrayed five cell phone conversations. The 9/11 Commission Report, discussing UA 93, said: “Shortly [after 9:32], the passengers and flight crew began a series of calls from GTE airphones and cellular phones.”35
Four cell phone calls from UA 93 were, as mentioned earlier, supposed to have been made by Tom Burnett.36 His wife, Deena Burnett, repeatedly said Tom used his cell phone. She knew this, she said, because the Caller ID identified his cell phone as the source.37 Her testimony has been repeated countless times in the media. For example, a special segment about her on CBS’s Early Show said: “Tom Burnett made four cell phone calls from Flight 93 to Deena Burnett at home, telling her he and some other passengers were going to ‘do something.’” In a letter published in the National Review, Tom’s father spoke of “Tom’s four cell-phone calls from Flight 93 to his wife, Deena.”38
The government’s evidence presented in 2006 at the Moussaoui trial, however, implies that she was mistaken, even though, given her statement that she saw her husband’s Caller ID number, the government’s new position means that she was either lying or, as we believe, the victim of a faked call using a device that, besides morphing her husband’s voice, faked his Caller ID number.39
However, although the government has undercut much of the basis for the official and popular accounts of 9/11 by denying the occurrence of any high-altitude cell phone calls, it has, by paying this price, protected itself from the 9/11 truth movement’s charge that the official story is falsified by the fact that such calls are impossible.
We come now, in any case, to the implication of the government’s Moussaoui-trial evidence about phone calls for the government’s position on whether AA 77 had onboard phones. According to this evidence, there were five connected calls from AA 77: one from Renee May and four from “unknown callers.” Given what we have learned from the government’s evidence about calls from UA 93—that all calls not identified as cell phone calls are said to have been made from onboard phones—we can conclude that, by virtue of not identifying any of the five “connected calls” from this flight as cell phone calls, the government is implying that this plane did have onboard phones. It does not, therefore, support our view on this issue.
Nevertheless, whether one accepts our evidence, which indicates that there were not any onboard phones on AA 77 from which calls could have been made, or trusts the government’s evidence presented at the Moussaoui trial, the conclusion is the same: The two conversations reported by Ted Olson did not happen.
The implications of this conclusion for the credibility of the official narrative about 9/11 are enormous. Surely one of the most well-known elements of this narrative is that Barbara Olson, while on the plane that was soon to hit the Pentagon, called her husband. If people learn that this is a lie—whether because Ted Olson was a victim of faked phone calls or because he deliberately told a false story—most of them will probably be led to wonder if the whole official story is not a fabrication.
The strongest reason for considering false Ted Olson’s claim about two passenger-seat phone calls from his wife would be proof that such calls simply could not have occurred. It is important, therefore, for researchers to continue the quest to determine positively whether Boeing 757s in September 2001 had functioning onboard phones. Although we believe our evidence that they did not have such phones is very strong, we cannot yet claim to have proof; evidence to the contrary might still emerge. Finding proof one way or the other, however, should not be impossible, if others join in the task.
If further investigation should reveal that Flight 77 did, after all, have onboard phones, Ted Olson’s story would still be extremely implausible, for many reasons. Five of those reasons, mentioned in DRG’s previous essay, were summarized above. Three more have been added in this article: the absurdity of Ted Olson’s claim that his wife called collect because she did not have a credit card, the US government’s apparent endorsement of the view that high-altitude cell phone calls from airliners are not possible (thereby foreclosing the possibility that Ted Olson could return to the claim that she called from a cell phone), and the US government’s implicit rejection of his claim that the DOJ received two calls from AA Flight 77 that morning.
For those eight reasons alone, we would be justified in concluding, from simply this aspect of the official story, that the entire official story about 9/11 was a fabrication. This conclusion is greatly strengthened, however, by the almost definitive evidence that, besides the fact that Barbara Olson’s alleged calls could not have been made from a cell phone (which the US government now appears implicitly to have acknowledged), they also could not have been made from an onboard phone.40
David Ray Griffin is the author of five books about 9/11, most recently Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory, a revised edition of which is appearing in July 2007.
Rob Balsamo is co-founder of Pilots for 9/11 Truth (www.pilotsfor911truth.org) and producer of Pandora’s Black Box (a DVD series).
40 We wish to thank Matthew Everett, Tod Fletcher, Ian Henshall, Rowland Morgan, Elizabeth Woodworth, and Aldo Marquis along with a couple of people who wish to remain anonymous, for help with this essay.