Thursday 24 April 2008

Husband of Flight 93 Attendant: "Cell Phones Don't Work on a Plane ..."

The husband of a flight attendant on one of the four planes that crashed on 9/11 has, during an interview, revealed his astonishment at receiving a cell phone call from his wife that morning. The reason for his surprise: "because cell phones don't work on a plane."

The interview appeared on the 2006 documentary DVD, Portrait of Courage: The Untold Story of Flight 93. In it Lorne Lyles, a police officer in Florida, described how, at around 9:51 a.m. on September 11, he received a call from his wife, CeeCee Lyles, who was a flight attendant on United 93. She told him her plane had been hijacked and that she and some others were getting ready to "go to the cockpit." Lorne described that, after the call got disconnected: "I looked at the caller ID, and noticed that it was a call, and it was from her cell phone. And I'm like, OK, wait a minute. How can she call me from on the plane from a cell phone, because cell phones don't work on a plane? That's what I'm thinking." [1]

Lorne Lyles' concern was understandable. An article published by the Travel Technologist shortly after 9/11 stated: "[W]ireless communications networks weren't designed for ground-to-air communication. Cellular experts privately admit that they're surprised the calls were able to be placed from the hijacked planes, and that they lasted as long as they did." [2] Wireless Review similarly commented: "Because wireless networks are designed for terrestrial use, the fact that so many people were able to call from the sky [on September 11] brings into question how the phones worked from such altitudes. Alexa Graf, AT&T spokesperson, said systems are not designed for calls from high altitudes, suggesting it was almost a fluke that the calls reached their destinations." [3]

To investigate this matter, scientist A. K. Dewdney conducted a series of experiments using mobile phones from a small propeller aircraft, over the city of London, Ontario in Canada. (He noted that, "not only is the cell phone technological base in Canada identical to its U.S. counterpart, but Canadian communication technology is second to none, Canada being a world leader in research and development." [4]) Dewdney found:

[C]ell phone calls from commercial aircraft much over 8,000 feet are essentially impossible, while those below 8,000 feet are highly unlikely down to about 2,000, where they become merely unlikely. Moreover, even at the latter altitude (and below), the handoff problem appears. Any airliner at or below this altitude, flying at the normal speed of approximately 500 mph, would encounter the handoff problem. An aircraft traveling at this speed would not be over the cell site long enough to complete the electronic "handshake" (which takes several seconds to complete) before arriving over the next cell site, when the call has to be handed off from the first cell site to the next one. This also takes a few seconds, the result being, in the optimal case, a series of broken transmissions that must end, sooner or later, in failure. [5]

A similar concern to that expressed by Lorne Lyles may also have been hinted at by Deena Burnett, whose husband Tom Burnett apparently called her four times from on board Flight 93. In her own book, published in 2006, Deena Burnett described receiving the first of these calls from her husband at 9:27 a.m. on September 11: "I looked at the caller ID and indeed it was Tom's cell phone number." Deena, who during the early 1990s had worked as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, asked Tom: "Where are you? Are you in the air?" She commented in her book, "I didn't understand how he could be calling me on his cell phone from the air." [6]

Later in the day of 9/11, Deena told the FBI that "only one" of the calls she'd received from her husband "did not show on the caller identification." The reason for this was simply that "she was on the line with another call" when it was made. Otherwise, she had been "able to determine that her husband was using his own cellular telephone" on all his calls, "because the caller identification showed his number." [7]

Yet if cell phone calls like these would have been so unlikely from an aircraft in flight, what was really going on that morning? Was it just a "fluke" that these and other alleged passenger cell phone calls got through? Or, alternatively, might the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks have been involved in a sinister and malicious deception, to make the victims' relatives mistakenly believe they had been called from the hijacked flights?

[1] Portrait of Courage: The Untold Story of Flight 93. DVD. Directed by David Priest. Baker City, OR: Grizzly Adams Productions, 2006.
[2] Christopher Elliott, "Will They Allow Cell Phones on Planes?" Travel Technologist, September 19, 2001.
[3] Betsy Harter, "Final Contact." Wireless Review, November 1, 2001.
[4] A. K. Dewdney, "'Project Achilles': Final (Third) Report and Summary of Findings." Physics 911, April 19, 2003.
[5] A. K. Dewdney, "The Cellphone and Airfone Calls from Flight UA93." Physics 911, undated.
[6] Deena Burnett with Anthony Giombetti, Fighting Back: Living Life Beyond Ourselves. Altamonte Springs, FL: Advantage Books, 2006, p. 61.
[7] "Interview with Deena Lynne Burnett (re: Phone Call from Hijacked Flight)." Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 11, 2001.

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