By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Nearly 22 years after al Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed four U.S. passenger jets in the worst attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the FBI has disclosed that it is actively investigating an apparent attempt to hijack a fifth plane on 9/11.
The plane, a wide-bodied Boeing 767, was operated by United Airlines. At 9 o’clock that morning Flight 23 was scheduled to make a nonstop transcontinental trip from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles. Aboard were about 160 passengers, eight or nine crew members and more than 50,000 gallons of jet fuel.
That Flight 23 in 2001 is not mentioned in the final report of the 9/11 Commission, even though commission records show that its staff was well aware of it.
Florida Bulldog reported the little-known story of Flight 23 last September, which included information provided by pilot Tom Mannello that he and other crew members were interviewed by the FBI the next day.
The Bulldog filed a Freedom of Information request for FBI records about UAL Flight 23 last summer. The FBI recently responded by acknowledging that it has records about Flight 23, but that they are exempt from public disclosure.
RECORDS RELEASE COULD ‘INTERFERE WITH ENFORCEMENT PROCEEDINGS’
“There is a pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding relevant to these responsive records, and the release of the information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings. Therefore, your request is being administratively closed,” wrote Joseph Bender Jr., acting section chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section.
The letter does not elaborate. But given the passage of so many years, it seems plausible that the FBI’s probe is approaching a decision point as to whether to bring a criminal charge.
It is well known that 19 al Qaeda jihadists – including 15 citizens of Saudi Arabia – engaged in four coordinated hijackings on 9/11; two jetliners crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, another rammed the Pentagon, the fourth dove into a field near Shanksville, PA as passengers fought to gain control.
Those hijacked flights originated out of airports in Boston, Newark and suburban Washington, D.C.
Capt. Mannello was preparing United 23 for pushback from JFK’s Terminal 7 when he got his first hint that “something wasn’t quite right.”
“The guy doing the pushback asked me if I’d heard anything about a fire at the World Trade Center. I said, ‘no’ and thought nothing more of it,” Mannello told Florida Bulldog last year.
Cleared to taxi to a runway, Mannello and his co-pilot, Carol Timmons, got in line behind about 10 other planes that were lined up; nobody was taking off. A report soon arrived that a plane had crashed into the trade center. Mannello charged it off to somebody “in a Cessna doing something stupid.”
AL QAEDA ATTACKS
In fact, at 8:46 a.m. terrorist Mohamed Atta had rammed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the south face of the South Tower. Both aircraft were Boeing 767s, like Flight 23.
At 9:20 a.m., United’s Aircraft Communications and Response system sent out a warning: “Beware any cockpit intrusion…two aircraft in NY hit Trade Center Blds….”
Mannello and Timmons, who a decade later became the first woman general in the Delaware Air National Guard, reacted immediately. Mannello grabbed the plane’s crash axe. Timmons wedged their suitcases between a metal bulkhead and the cockpit door.
Then Mannello heard “the strangest radio call I’ve ever heard in my life. New York ground controllers in the tower said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen the airport is now officially closed. We’ve been ordered to evacuate this facility. You are on your own.’”
Mannello notified via intercom the flight attendants and told them not to try and enter the cockpit. One flight attendant quickly replied, “We’ve got these four weird young Arab guys sitting in first class. It’s unusual.”
As Mannello taxied back to the gate, he took a route with a view of Manhattan. He and Timmons could see thick black smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center.
Parked at the gate, Mannello and Timmons, who died in August 2020, shut down the engines as passengers, including the four “Arabs” deplaned. When they were ready to leave, Mannello looked through the cockpit door’s peephole and saw a mechanic waiting. “He says, ‘You gotta clear out. I’m ordered to lock up the airplane,’” Mannello said.
FBI NOTIFIED ABOUT FLIGHT 23
Mannello, now retired, went to the chief pilot’s office and described what had happened with the Arabs. The chief pilot called the FBI. Agents questioned the crew at length the following day.
An agent told Mannello that “there were actually seven Arabs or Muslims who might have been Saudis on the plane. Three were a couple with a two or three-year-old baby. ‘We’re looking for the other four gentlemen,’ the agent said.
Last March, TMZ Investigates broadcast a program about Flight 23 that took the story further. Two flight attendants said the four Arabs in first class were two men, a young boy and a woman in an enveloping burqa who all they believed was actually a man posing as a woman. The men were impatient to take off.
One flight attendant noted there was also a man in business class wearing a T-shirt and sweating profusely even though the plane was fully cooled.
The flight attendants also stated that after everyone was believed to have deplaned, it was discovered that the floor hatch behind the crew cabin, and under carpeting, had been opened – leading to an electronics compartment and another hatch that opens out on the underside of the plane. Mannello did not observe it, but speculated it may have been used by someone on the ground to enter the plane to retrieve weapons, like box-cutters.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT CONTACTS FLORIDA BULLDOG
Yet another flight attendant that day who was not on the program recently contacted Florida Bulldog. She agreed that the four Arabs in first class were two men, a boy and a person in a burqa that she also believed was a man posing as a woman. She said she took their tickets and saw their passports, but could not recall the country.
The flight attendant said that after the plane returned to the gate, and people began deplaning, she watched a passenger agent come on board and say, “We don’t know if there are bombs on board. We’re going to move these airplanes away from the gate so it doesn’t affect the terminal. The mechanic is going to come on board and drive the airplane, you know, away from the gate. I heard all that.”
The woman, who asked not to be named, said she and her colleagues searched the plane to make sure everyone was off and that no packages were left behind. She said the mechanic had entered the cockpit and she was the last crew member to step off the plane when she decided to go back to grab a bottle of water.
“The four [Arab] passengers in first class were gone. All passengers were gone, all crew members were gone. There was a mechanic in the cockpit and I stepped on alone,” the flight attendant said. “And at that moment, two men came out of hiding. They were on board our airplane, in the back galley,” she said. “They looked at me dead in the eye and turned their backs to me. Everything in me said run. I grabbed a bottle of water and I got off that airplane.”
The flight attendant said she doesn’t know how the two men came to be there. She doesn’t think they were United kitchen workers or mechanics. “I will tell you now, I’m convinced they were hiding in a meal cart.
“What I was told by an FBI person is that they came forward, the mechanic confronted them and when he said what are you doing, they pretended that they didn’t speak English. He went in the cockpit. He locked the door and called for security. They ripped the carpet up off the floor and opened to the wheel well, they went down through that, an electronic room. I thought it was a wheel well. I guess they have access to the wheel well, but it’s all the electronics there. And they escaped off the tarmac.”
9/11 COMMISSION TOLD ABOUT FLIGHT 23
What did the FBI make of all this? And why is it actively investigating the matter more than two decades later?
The bureau isn’t saying. We know, however, that the Chicago-based dispatcher in control of all of United’s coast-to-coast flights on 9/11 – a total of 16 jetliners, including ill-fated flights 175 and 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers fought with the hijackers – told 9/11 Commission staff about Flight 23 during an interview on April 24, 2004.
According to a 10-page memorandum for the record, Ed Ballinger stated that he’d been told by United personnel that the “Moslems” on Flight 23 “never claimed their baggage and in their baggage was significant information of an incriminating nature.”
The memorandum goes on to say that Ballinger, who issued the “Beware any cockpit intrusion” warning, believes that communication may have prevented the hijacking of Flight 23.
Ballinger repeated his story in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
BOX-CUTTERS FOUND ON JETS
There is evidence that more plane attacks were planned. For example, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Justice Department officials told reporters that agents conducting security sweeps had found box-cutter knives – like those carried by the 9/11 hijackers – on two Delta passenger jets scheduled to fly that day. At the time, it was not known how box-cutters got there, and the matter quickly faded away.
A Sept. 24, 2001 FBI report made public in March 2022 said a box-cutter was found under the seat of an American Airlines plane that flew from San Diego to JFK as Flight 160, and back again on Sept. 10. The jetliner was scheduled to fly to JFK again on 9/11 but never left San Diego because of the shutdown of the nation’s airports. FBI agents later determined the seat on Flight 160 “was occupied by NAME REDACTED, one of the 13 Saudi Arabian pilots previously reported on by San Diego (FBI).” At the time of the report, agents had not yet identified the occupant of the seat on the return flight on 9/10.
Two weeks after 9/11, CNN reported that officials had said that searches while all flights were grounded turned up two small knives on a scheduled Delta flight out of Boston, and a box-cutter was found on an Atlanta-to-Brussels Delta flight. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller confirmed to CNN that box-cutters were found on some planes, but provided no further information.
“Investigators increasingly believe that the weapons may have been prepositioned by accomplices for use by others. As one U.S. official told Time magazine, ‘These look like inside jobs,’” CNN reported.
Flight 23 contains a twist on the box-cutters angle.
According to Mannello, United personnel reported finding box-cutters stashed on a United jet at JFK while all the nation’s planes were grounded. He got a call from the chief pilot of one of the flight managers who asked the tail number of the plane he’d been on. Authorities wanted to know if it was Mannello’s plane.
Flight 23’s tail number ended in 6002. It was parked near another plane with the number 6001. “They found the box-cutters on 6001,” said Mannello, who wondered whether they were placed there, on the wrong plane, by mistake.