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Controllers' tale of Flight 11

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An American Airlines pilot stayed at the helm of hijacked Flight 11 much of the way from Boston to New York, sending surreptitious radio transmissions to authorities on the ground as he flew.

Because the pilot's voice was seldom heard in these covert transmissions, it was not clear to the listening air-traffic controllers which of the two pilots was flying the Boeing 767. What is clear is that the pilot was secretly trying to convey to authorities the flight's desperate situation, according to controllers familiar with the tense minutes after Flight 11 was hijacked.

The pilot was apparently triggering a "push-to-talk button" on the aircraft's yoke, or "wheel" - a feature that enables pilots to have their hands on the controls while communicating, the controllers say. By doing so, the pilot gave controllers a way to hear much of what was said and other noises in the cockpit. His ability to do so also indicates that he was in the driver's seat much of the way to the plane's fiery rendezvous with the World Trade Center.

"The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York," a controller told the Monitor. "He wanted us to know something was wrong. When he pushed the button and the terrorist spoke, we knew. There was this voice that was theatening the pilot, and it was clearly threatening."

During these transmissions, the pilot's voice and the heavily accented voice of a hijacker were clearly audible. At other times, the transmission was clear, but exactly what was happening in the cockpit was confused.

All of it was recorded by a Federal Aviation Administration traffic-control center. Those tapes are now presumed to be in the hands of federal law-enforcement officials, who arrived at the flight-contol facility minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. The tapes presumably could provide clues about the hijackers - and may become even more important if the plane's "black boxes" are damaged or never found.

Even before those messages were received, though, and even before Flight 11 veered sharply toward New York City from its scheduled path, air-traffic controllers knew something was wrong. They just didn't know how wrong.

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