Skepticism and Flight 93
Today we're going to talk about something that's perhaps still a little too near & dear to the hearts of some: Flight 93, the fourth aircraft on September 11 that crashed in Pennsylvania on its way to a target, taking the lives of all 44 people on board, including the 4 hijackers. I think it's appropriate that the subject be discussed only after acknowledging that it was first and foremost a human tragedy, in which a lot of valuable family people were lost, and that we hold their memory in great respect.
There are two basic theories about Flight 93. The first, which is the government's official version, is that the plane crashed. The competing theory, favored by conspiracy theorists because it's the one denied by the government, is that Flight 93 was shot down by our own fighter planes.
Many discussions of Flight 93 that purport to be skeptical either choose one side or the other, and argue in favor of it, claiming that the competing theory is implausible, and citing all sorts of evidence in favor of whichever version they support. Well, that's not skepticism. Trying to justify a preconceived notion is simply spreading propaganda. Skepticism means to follow a critical thought process, examine all of the evidence, and arrive at a supported conclusion. I like Flight 93 as a skeptical topic, because it reminds us of what Dr. Shermer says: Skepticism is not a position, it's a process.
Flight 93 is an interesting case because the version of events favored by conspiracy theorists is, for once, not wholly implausible. We know for a fact with Flight 93, and we know for a fact that we were prepared to shoot down any passenger jets that we had to on that day.
The National Transportation Safety Board has only the following quote about the cause of Flight 93: "The Safety Board did not determine the probable cause and does not plan to issue a report or open a public docket. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Safety Board provided requested technical assistance to the FBI, and any material generated by the NTSB is under the control of the FBI." And, of course, whatever the FBI has determined is not publicly available, and certainly will not be at least until after their investigation is finished, and who knows when that will be if ever. So, in the lack of an authoritative explanation of the exact cause of Flight 93's crash, we can only do our best to study the available information ourselves. Let's look at four debated points.
1. The mysterious "white jet" circling the crash site
There are reports of an unmarked white business jet circling the crash site. The official version is that controllers asked a nearby Falcon 20 business jet to descend and provide coordinates of the crash. This is corroborated by the pilot of the Falcon 20. Conspiracy theorists concede that fighter jets are not white, but they point to numerous examples of white business jets flown by the military and other government agencies, such as Customs, which they say could have been quickly armed with missiles. They also cite some reports of controllers saying that no other aircraft were in the vicinity, and that the eyewitness evidence of a white jet indicates that those controllers must be part of the conspiracy. The white jet tells us nothing about the cause of the crash.
2. Debris was found up to 8 miles away, fluttering down from the sky
Conspiracy theorists say that this disproves the official version that has Flight 93 crash intact. However, the FBI has not released their official cause of the crash. There are at least two plausible explanations for this that don't require the plane being shot down. First, we know that the terrorists claimed to have a bomb on board. A bomb certainly could have blown a hole in the plane, releasing debris, and causing the subsequent crash. Second, the aircraft could have broken up in mid-air from aerodynamic stresses as it exceeded its maximum design speed (called the VNE). The FBI has said nothing about the cause of the crash; they have not claimed definitively that it was a controlled flight into terrain by the terrorist pilot or struggling passengers. Without access to the FBI analysis, the existence of secondary debris fields tell us nothing about the cause of the crash.
3. There is an alleged 3 minute discrepancy in the times
The published cockpit transcript ends at 10:03 with the voices of the terrorists chanting "Allah is the greatest." The NTSB analysis of the flight data recorder, infrared satellite imagery, and some air traffic controllers agree with the 10:03 crash time. Cleveland air traffic control and some seismologists put the time of the crash at 10:06. My own research was not able to find what the clocks of cockpit voice recorders are synchronized to, if anything; if you know this answer for a fact, I'd appreciate your comments on the Skeptoid.com website or in the forum. However, if a bomb celebrating Allah's greatness went off at 10:03, or if the aircraft suffered structural failure at 10:03, the voice recorder would be no less likely to be stopped as it would by a missile strike. The alleged missing 3 minutes tells us nothing about the cause of the crash.
4. Covering up a shootdown
Think of all the people who must be involved with keeping track of air to air missiles. Obviously the pilot and any other pilots with him, the air boss and all the officers in the situation room, and anyone keeping an eye on the situation with radar, would know if a missile had been fired. This includes civilian controllers as well as military controllers, and anyone standing by the radar screen or at the local civilian airport's control tower water cooler talking to their girlfriend on the cellphone saying "You won't believe what just happened." September 11 was not a day when little attention was being paid to the radar screens. The airmen at the base who are responsible for loading and unloading missiles from the aircraft would know that a missile had been fired, as would their chain of command. The people who view and archive the electronic and video logs of the flight would know. Then you have the people who inventory and store the missiles - they'd know if ten went out and only nine came back. Military and civilian auditors verify these counts. Potentially thousands of people on the ground would have been in a position to see a missile being fired. Hundreds of people were on the ground at the crash site picking up wreckage, possibly including missile fragments, cataloging it, identifying it, and storing it. Let's say you disagree with me that any large number of people might be able to know that a missile had been fired. I ask you, what then is the smallest number? Fifty people at the air force base and through the chain of command? Forty? Nobody on the ground at all, or in the NTSB? That's hard for me to believe, but it's harder still to believe that even such a large number of people as that could be adequately paid off with nobody at any bank knowing it, or could be threatened by mysterious Men In Black, without a single whistle blower — especially when you consider how broadly unpopular the war on terror has become.
For my money, the official version of the incidents is consistent with my own knowledge of aviation and all sounds plausible. I also can't get past what, to me, is the implausibility of covering up a shootdown. Your own mileage may vary. But regardless of your own conclusion, better that you look at the situation with skepticism rather than with a preconceived notion, and don't base your judgment on politics or emotion, as so many people do.
There's one school of thought that says it doesn't matter how Flight 93 ended. The terrorists killed everyone on board, regardless of the details. Ultimately the terrorists are to blame, no matter the cause of the crash. Then there's the viewpoint that whether the government lied has everything to do with it: that if we can't trust our own government, how can we ever feel truly safe under its protection? Deciding what's important to you is a question for every individual to answer on his own. The skeptical process can lead to the truth of what happened, but only you can answer what truths are important.
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