The Hijacking That Didn’t Happen, United Airlines Flight 23

Adam Fitzgerald
6 min readFeb 29, 2020

Between 8:42 and 8:46am United Airlines Flight 175 was hijacked, just minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 would crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). It is not known who entered the cockpit but it is speculated that Marwan al-Shehhi entered the cockpit with another and piloted the plane. According to the 9/11 Commission report and from the interviews of captured Al Qaeda detainees, al-Shehhi was the selected pilot for this flight. Boston Logan Air Traffic Controller, Pete Zalewiski, would have no idea that he would be directing traffic for a hijack, as well as speaking to UA Flight 175’s captain, Jason Dahl , for the final time, the transmission starts at 8:37am:

Pete Zalewiski: “Do you have traffic look at uh your 12 to 1o’clock at about, uh, 10 miles southbound to see if you can see an American seventy six seven out there please.”

Jason Dahl: “Affirmative we have him, uh, he looks, uh, about 20, yeah, about 29, 28,000.”

Zalewiski: “United 175, turn five, turn 30 degrees to the right. I [want to] keep you away from this traffic.”

Dahl: “We figured we’d wait to go to your centre. We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure out of Boston. Someone keyed the mike and said: ‘Everyone stay in your seats.’ It cut out.”

Flight transmits “Did you copy that?” (controller on land line).

Flight turns towards the south-west with ATC clearance.

At 8.46:18 Transponder signal no longer received.

Zalewiski: “We may have a hijack. We have some problems over here right now.”

At 8:40am New York Center air traffic controller Dave Bottiglia takes over monitoring the flight from Boston Center controller John Hartling. According to the testimony of Rich Miles (Manager of the United Airlines Systems Operations Center), before the 9/11 Commission, the cockpit transmission were not reported to officials at United Airlines. The 9/11 Commission will later add in their final report:

“SOC personnel at United that we talked to had no idea of the extent of interaction of the Flight 175 crew with the saga of Flight 11.” The Commission will add, “We walked down a list of indicators,” but state, “Until we mentioned them, no one we talked to at United Airlines was aware of those occurrences.”

However officials from United Airlines say the misunderstanding is from the protocols not specific instructions. United Airlines officials will say, however, that, “first and foremost,” FAA controllers “communicated directly with airline pilots, not the dispatchers” at the airline. Also that, United Airlines officials who talk with the 9/11 Commission will also recall that “they never received any communication… from the FAA or the air traffic control system advising United to contact its aircraft about the hijackings.” The 9/11 Commission will not offer any explanation for the lack of communication between air traffic control and United Airlines.

At 8:52am…a call is made by United Airlines Flight 175 attendant, Robert Fangman. He contacts, the maintenance office where Marc Policastro gets the call. the call lasts only 74 seconds, but Fangman manages to report that the flight has been hijacked, both pilots are dead, a flight attendant has been stabbed…the line is abruptly cut. The call was made using an Airfone in row 31 at the back of the plane. Another call is made. This time from Peter Hanson. Who calls his father and says, “Oh, my God! They just stabbed the airline hostess. I think the airline is being hijacked.” Despite being cut off twice, he manages to report how men armed with knives are stabbing flight attendants, apparently in an attempt to force crew members to unlock the doors to the cockpit. Meanwhile Otis Air National Guard has two pilots scramble as soon as possible, but according to one of the pilots, Lt. Col. Timothy Duffy, they were not properly informed about the situation, nor were they aware of Flight 175’s hijacking.

According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS itself only receives its first notification about a second possible hijacking at 9:03. Furthermore, it is not until after 10:30 a.m. that the two pilots will learn that Washington has also been attacked, when a controller informs them of this in passing, but does not elaborate further. The pilots head toward Long Island, but by then it was too late. At 8:55am, Air Traffic Controllers from Boston Center give new coordinates to the two Otis Air National Guards, this time they head toward Manhattan, the new information is based on instructions just received from NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS).

At 9:03am United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the South Tower of the WTC.

It is not until 9:21am that United dispatchers are told to warn their flights to secure cockpit doors. United Airlines flight dispatcher Ed Ballinger, in charge of monitoring all United Airlines flights, takes the initiative to begin sending a warning message to the flights he is monitoring.

“Beware any cockpit intrusion… Two aircraft in NY hit World Trade Center builds.”

Meanwhile at JFK Airport, United Airlines Flight 23 a flight scheduled to depart to Los Angeles (LAX) at 8:30am. However it was late in pushing back from the gate.

Flight 23 captains, Carol Timmons and Tom Manello have heard a report over their radio that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. They then receive an ACARS message, An ACARDS message is a digital datalink system for transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via airband radio or satellite. The message is from Ed Ballinger,

“We have gone to heightened security. Do not open cockpit doors. Secure the cockpit.”

According to Lynn Spencer, author of “Touching History: The Untold story of the drama that unfolded from the skies on 9/11.”

Timmons starts barricading the cockpit door with their suitcases while Mannello grabs the crash ax for protection. Mannello calls the plane’s lead flight attendant to inform her of the threat, and tells her not to open the cockpit door under any circumstances. Soon afterwards, she calls back and informs him:

“We [the plane’s flight attendants] just think you should know this because we think it is unusual. We have four young Arab men sitting in first class this morning.”

Minutes later, the pilots receive a radio message from ground control, announcing, “All aircraft, be advised that the airport is now closed.” A subsequent message announces the airport is being evacuated. Mannello decides to move his aircraft back to the terminal. Soon after the flight attendant tells the passengers that the flight has been cancelled, the Arab men become abruptly agitated and the argument becomes so heated that she called airport security to the gate.

When the plane doors opened to let the passengers leave, the Arab males hurriedly left. Investigators will interview the plane’s crew nearly half a dozen times. But no information about the suspicious Arab passengers is ever released to the public.

Authorities will later check the men’s unclaimed baggage and find box-cutters, copies of the Koran, and al-Qaeda instruction sheets. On September 14, it is reported that investigators believe at least one of these passengers was among a number of individuals taken into custody at JFK and LaGuardia Airports the previous day. On September 13, New York authorities take into custody ten people of Middle Eastern descent at JFK International and LaGuardia Airports, reportedly fearing they intend to hijack aircraft and commit another suicidal terrorist attack on a US target.

According to the New York Times:

“Law enforcement officials said one of those held was carrying a false pilot’s identification.” Furthermore, several of the detained men “showed up at the airport with tickets for flights canceled on Tuesday [September 11] and tried to use them.”Investigators say they believe one of the men had been among a group of passengers that behaved suspiciously and became aggressive after their aircraft — United Airlines Flight 23 — had its takeoff canceled on the morning of 9/11. Some of the detained had false passports, knives and one even tried to board a flight dressed as a pilot.”

The incident would not make national headline, nor would it be remembered in the minds of those affected by the day’s events itself. It became lost in time, due mainly to the innumerable conspiracy theories that dominate the spectrum even to the present day.

However in 2004, Representative Mark Kirk (Illinois) will say the suspicious Flight 23 passengers were never found and are likely still at large.

And so the mysteries and actual anomalies from the September 11th 2001 attacks go unnoticed and unresolved.



Adam Fitzgerald

Geo-political scientist/researcher into the events of September 11th 2001.