FAA History

9/11 and the ‘Masterfully Obeyed’ Order to Clear the Skies

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By Ken Zurski

In Simon Winchester’s book The Men Who United the States, the author begins a chapter titled “And Then We Looked Up,” by giving a personal account of driving up the Sierra Nevada near California’s Donner Pass and seeing nothing but the overhead blue of a mostly clear early Autumn day.

Something struck him odd, however.

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“Normally there were at least a few contrails lacing the sky,” Winchester explains.

This would have been noticeable Winchester points out because of the number of transcontinental jets usually waiting to land in Oakland or San Francisco, a couple hundred miles away. But on this crisp, clear Tuesday morning. Nothing. “No contrails whatsoever,” Winchester writes.

Winchester’s observation is understandable given the date: September 11, 2001.

The skies were empty of jets, because the skies across the entire country were emptied of jets.

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How that happened is the basis of Winchester’s chapter and it starts with one man in particular, Ben Sliney, the operations manager at the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Virginia.

On September 11,  2001, at approximately 9:45am EDT, Sliney on his own initiative – and through the collective advice of an experienced staff – gave an order he knew well, but never thought he would ever implement: SCATANA.

SCATANA is an acronym, of course, and stands for Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids. It’s a military and legal enforcement that within its power requires all commercial aircraft to land immediately at the airport closest to where they happened to be. It also required all airports to forbid any flights from taking off. A nationwide Ground Stop, as it is more commonly called.

In essence, it cleared the skies of contrails.

Such a command is rarely ordered in a lifetime and to hear it broadcast over the radio must have given each and every pilot pause. “This is not a drill” was repeated each time the directive was announced.

This is not a drill! This is not a drill! 

Within minutes the nearly 5,000 commercial flights in the air began diverting to the nearest and safest place to land. “It was obeyed, masterfully,” Winchester laments, adding, “Every pilot appeared to cooperate; none of significance appeared to balk.”  The total compliance is even more impressive given the assumption that most of the pilots had no idea why the order was given.

Since it was confirmed that hijacked planes were used like bombs to attack the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and a third plane likely destined for anther location fell from the sky over Pennsylvania, each and every aircraft was regarded as a potential threat. “A weapon of vast power that could be unleashed at any of a score of targets,” Winchester writes.

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Within an hour and half after Sliney had sent the signal, every plane was down – and safely. The intent of SCATANA had been achieved. All but military fighter jets and for a time, Air Force One,remained in American skies.

This likely didn’t sit well with the plane’s passengers who were bound for areas like Oregon or New York and suddenly found themselves on the ground at Lincoln, Nebraska, or somewhere else far from their original destination. Millions were certainly inconvenienced. Once they were in sight line of a television set, however, attitudes likely changed.

Three days later, the jets were back flying again as the country tried to recover and get back to some semblance of normality.

The man at the center of it all, Ben Sliney, seemed to take his role in stride.

In the book, Winchester doesn’t get into Sliney’s life story, only the significance of his actions that day. Sliney in his 50’s at the time was a 25-year vet of the FAA and knew his stuff. He had held various positions in air traffic control supervision before becoming the operations manager for the nation’s top air traffic control hub. It was a job he had worked hard to achieve.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 Sliney was in his first full day at that position.

That day he gave the unprecedented order. SCATANA: This is not a drill! This is not a drill!

And the skies cleared.

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Ben Sliney – courtesy of the BBC