Analysis of Flight 77


Flight Path by a Former Air Force Pilot

As a pilot and former Air Force navigator, I was interested in the flight paths of the various aircraft on their way to their targets.  It was fairly simple to find the WTC routes, but I have yet to see a map showing the route flown by the aircraft that was said to have hit the Pentagon.  So I read some of the reports and put together the attached maps.

Nearly all media photos of the Pentagon damage are from Space Imaging While this is an excellent picture, it is misleading in that the Pentagon is oriented with the damaged side to the top, giving the false impression that the attack was from the north.  By comparing the geographic features of the satellite photo with a map of the area ( see WashMap )

 I was able to orient the photo correctly ( see Pentagon 1 ) the yellow arrow indicates the approximate final flight path, based on the blast pattern.

What's surprising is how many news sources got the information wrong.  For example, look at this graphic from Reuters, which has the attack on the wrong side of the Pentagon:

I based my map of the attack path on a description of the attack ( see Pentagon Attack ) which said the plane was initially picked up on radar east-southeast of Dulles ( see WashMap 2 ) heading at high speed toward Washington.  

(WashMap 2)


The description also said the airplane appeared to line up on the White House before making a right 270 degree turn to collide with the Pentagon.  The map I drew ( see Attack Path ) is one which meets all the conditions in the description, and is consistent with what I know about how large airplanes behave at low altitude (I used to do airdrop in a C-141, flying at 300' AGL up to 280 knots). 

The arrowhead on the Attack Path map is aligned with the one on Pentagon 1.  I worked backward from there, assuming there would need to be about a mile of straight flight at the end to get final alignment.

I based the turn radius on a 275 knot airspeed, since I doubt the airplane would have sufficient power and structural integrity to fly at 500 knots at low altitude.  And unless the pilot had a lot of experience flying large airplanes at high speeds low to the ground, he would have avoided making a steep bank, so I based my turn radius on a 30 degree bank angle. 

The 270 degree right turn had me puzzled, until I realized that it would provide a simple set of landmarks for the pilot.  Just intercept the Potomac River north of town, follow it south until you see the Washington Monument or Capitol.   We used to use white country churches to navigate low-level over North and South Carolina, since they stand out clearly against the green or brown background. 

Upon passing the Washington Monument, the plan may have been for the pilot to make a right turn and dive into the building.  A right turn at this point would have led the airplane to hit Pentagon on the Potomac River side where the Secretary of Defense has his office.

But being unfamiliar with flying large airplanes at high speeds, the pilot wouldn't have taken into account the large radius required to make the turn.  This would explain the circuitous 270 degree turn that was made to the impact point.

When he rolled out, he'd simply point the nose of the airplane at the center courtyard of the Pentagon and dive toward his target.  What he wouldn't know without experience is that when you dive, you accelerate the airplane and the lift increases.  This causes the nose to rise,  which would cause him to overshoot the target.  In a panic, he would push forward on the controls and overcompensate, which would account for eyewitness descriptions of the airplane striking the ground short of the Pentagon.

Of course, this is all speculation, not facts.

I started this analysis because I was curious about why at 9:40 a.m. on a clear day in the Nation's Capital and major tourist destination, there is not ONE photo or video of the airplane at any point in this route.  None of the excuses (no cameras, not near any landmarks, etc.) make any sense hell, there were both photos and video of the Concorde on fire, and that wasn't anywhere near a tourist spot.

Moreover, I'm surprised that I haven't seen this map or ANY map of the Pentagon airplane's approach.  Given all the information that we were deluged with in the weeks after the attacks, it surprises me that this graphic was omitted.

Anyway, that's my contribution to the effort to try to make sense of an insane event.  I don't know if it adds clarity or static, but it seems a part of the puzzle that has been missing.

Analysis by 
Steve Koeppel
Palm Springs, CA





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