Editor’s Note: American Airlines Pilot Kent Fonseca recounts his and his crew’s experiences on Sept. 11, 2001 in this story. Part of this piece is taken from his memoirs of the day. Those sections are in italic. The remainder of the article is based on Fonseca’s responses to questions submitted via email. To protect his and his crew’s privacy, Fonseca requested that all names be but his be changed, and all communications were handled via email.
Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad told investigators he had hoped to field 10 teams of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the 9/11 Commission report published in 2004.
Their job would have been to fly airplanes into additional government targets such as the United States Capitol and the White House as well as certain nuclear power plants and skyscrapers, according to the report.
Mohammad made it sound as if that was the plan until the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui and the decisions to withdraw from the plan by other erstwhile hijackers. Moussaoui may have been among the designated hijackers before his August 2001 arrest for suspicious behavior at a flight school in Minnesota, according to the report.
But what if Mohammad lied to investigators? What if there really were other teams of terrorists on planes that Tuesday morning?
“We have no idea how many planes were targeted that day,” said American Airline pilot Andy Shane said. He added that FBI agents have told him it’s not possible to know how many, if any, additional teams were on board airplanes, waiting for their chance to wrest control of jetliners from pilots and use them as terrorist weapons.
One of Shane’s fellow American Airlines pilots, Kent Fonseca, may have been piloting a targeted plane that day. Certainly, some odd things happened on that flight.
“Brother Fonseca’s story is so cringe-worthy and terrifying,” he said.
Fonseca has written a memoir about that day, and he made a portion of it available for this special 9/11 remembrance story.
Fonseca didn’t hear the stories of his flight attendants until two days later that “four men of interest” were to fly on his Flight 449 from Boston to Miami that Tuesday morning. His aircraft that day was a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 MD-80, configured with two seats on each side of the airplane and four across the middle.
He and his crew from “that day” were sitting down to dinner on Sept. 13 when flight attendant Peter Stephens asked a question (attendants’ names have been changed due to Fonseca’s desire to protect their privacy).
Peter started the story with, “You know how sometimes we fly crews from other airlines on our aircraft?”
I said, “Yes, like deadheading crew members from Federal Express and UPS?”
He said that when he was greeting passengers at the front door as they entered, if he saw another deadheading flight crew (not flying the plane, but riding as passengers), he would always greet them specially. He considered, in his words, that we were all in one big fraternity, that as flight crew members, we had something in common.
That morning four males with dark complexions, some with mustaches, entered our airplane. All four carried black pilot kit bags (book bags to carry their flight publications) with bright green tags on them that said CREW. Two of them had on shirts that said Miami Air, and the other two wore regular civilian clothes.
When Peter was greeting the passengers, he saw them come onboard, recognized them as pilots (or so he thought), and he said to them, “Hey guys, how’s it going today?”
Peter told Fonseca he found the “pilots” behavior odd because none of them responded to him. Fonseca and the other two flight attendants, Jean Glover and Sandra Spivey, agreed that was odd. Usually, other flight crew members were at least somewhat friendly because of their common backgrounds. All three attendants believed the men were Hispanic because of their dark skin and Miami Air shirts.
Fonseca said he agreed it seemed strange the four were not cordial. Jean said, “That’s not all, it gets better.”
The four sat directly behind the bulkhead between first class and coach. Fonseca thought that mean they’d set four across in a single row, but no, Peter told him. They’d sat in the two rows directly behind first class, and each had taken an aisle seat. Seating was plentiful that day because the flight was more than half empty, Fonseca remembered.
Jean noticed as she was hanging up jackets in the aft first-class closet that the “Miami Air Pilot” sitting in the second row back, left aisle seat, had his kit bag in front of his feet as he sat there, not under the seat in front of him, but directly in front of his seat.
As a flight crew member, he should have known that was illegal, that all bags must be secured and stowed under the seat for takeoff and landing. Nothing can be in front of your feet that would impede you in the event of an unscheduled emergency evacuation. As a pilot, he should have known that.
Mary went up to the man and told him, “Sir, you will have to stow your kit bag under the seat for takeoff.”
He did not respond to her but just stared up at her. She then told him two more times and she got no reply. She told me, “Kent, I don’t think he spoke English.”
But as a pilot, he has to know English – if, in fact, he was a pilot. All pilots, worldwide, are required to speak English, especially if you are working for Miami Air that flies in the United States. She told me she, after verbalizing the request three times, finally motioned with her hand to slide the bag under the seat and he complied.
Fonseca told Jean he didn’t think their tale was sounding too good. It had him a little concerned. She responded, “There’s more.”
A few minutes after the pilots took their seats, an unaccompanied minor boarded and took his assigned the window seat next to the pilot who hadn’t seemed to understand English. Once the child sat down, the pilot stood up and moved to an aisle seat two rows back. More concerning was that he left his kit bag when he moved.
Jean, who had moved on up front to serve beverages to the first-class passengers watched as the pilot moved and saw him when he realized he’d left his kit bag. He hopped up to retrieve it. Jean went went over to him and said,
“Sir, if you want to move to another seat, that is fine. We are fairly empty today, but you can leave your kit bag there if you wish. No one will bother it.”
The pilot did not answer. He just grabbed his bag and returned to his seat where he stowed his bag.
“Kent, he did not speak English,” Jean said.
“This does not sound good!” Fonseca said to his crew members. But Jean was not done. She continued her story.
As I sat there at the table, listening to this, they asked me if I remembered the announcement, I’d made to the passengers just before we returned to the gate, telling them they I had suspected there had been a hijacking and to take all their bags into the terminal once we parked. I said, “Of course I did.”
The crew told me that everyone on the airplane knew what was going on as we taxied in that morning, even before I made the announcement. I guess not everyone complies with the turn your cell phones off rule, because phones were ringing off the hook that morning. Or maybe they were like me and just forgot to turn off the phone. The fact that the World Trade Center had been hit twice was a well-known fact among the passengers before we returned to the gate. Jean then informed me of the last particularly alarming event on Flight 449 that morning.
As the passengers deplaned the aircraft, the supposed pilot who sat in the right-aisle seat of the first row behind the bulkhead, got up and started making his way against traffic, against the flow of people moving forward toward the door. He headed toward the rear of the galley carrying his kit bag. He made it all the way to Jean in the very rear of the aircraft, who was standing next to Sandra.
Jean told me, and Sandra confirmed, that he got about 12 to 18 inches from Jean’s face, right in the personal zone, and asked her, “DO YOU SPEAK ARABIC?” Jean who was blonde (and I think she told me at the table) from California or Florida, replied, “Of course not.”
The “pilot” then rattled off about 15 or 20 seconds of FARSI or ARABIC language, then turned away and walked up the aisle. He was the last passenger that morning to deplane the aircraft.
When I heard this I said, “You’re kidding right,” and they both replied that no, it was the truth.
Immediately I said, “Tell me you have told someone about this!” meaning they had talked to some authorities.
Later that night, the entire crew of five, including Fonseca, met with a five-member team of FBI agents at their hotel to be “debriefed/interviewed.” FBI agents talked to each first separately and then as a group. None of the crew members ever heard anything further from the FBI or any other agency about what they saw that day, Fonseca said, adding that he has “heard since the event that supposedly may other aircraft were targeted that day. Maybe my aircraft was targeted. I never heard yes or no, but I am glad we did not takeoff that day.”
Flight 499 from Boston to Miami was delayed for maintenance on Sept. 11, 2001. Its route would have taken the crew and passengers to JFK and then down the east coast over Baltimore, past Washington, D.C. and on to Miami. The flight was scheduled to leave Boston at 8:40 a.m.
American Airlines Flight 11, the plane hijackers flew into the North Tower, left Boston’s Logan Airport only 40 minutes earlier.
But during pre-flight checks that morning, one of the crew found a malfunction in the brake overheat sensors.
“Maintenance elected to not fix the system since it was not required for flight by the MEL (minimum equipment list),” Fronseca said.
The delay meant they pushed off from the gate at 8:55 a.m., 15 minutes late and nine minutes after Flight 11 hit the North Tower.
Fonseca had already taxied out to Logan’s Runway 9 for takeoff. He was in line, just waiting “as a Chautauqua Commuter Dehavilland Dash 8 aircraft landed in front of us on 04R [a landing runway that morning]. The Dash 8 was on about a two-mile final when we took the runway.”
No sooner had the plane started down the runway than an air traffic controller came on the radio.
“American 449,” the voice said, “we are not sure what is going on, but we were just told to stop all departing aircraft.”
We replied, “Roger.” We sat there for two or three minutes when the controller then said to us, “American 449, we just got word that all departures on the East coast have been stopped.”
At that point I told Scott, the flight engineer, I would be off the radio for a few seconds while I made a PA [public announcement] to the people on board. I turned down the volume on my headset and made a quick PA to the passengers telling them that for some unknown reason we were not being released for takeoff. I told them I would either take off soon or would get back to them with more information as I got it.
But Flight 449 did not take off that day, and Fonseca says he will always remember that his plane was supposed to be the next to depart Boston where, just half an hour earlier, two plans, one American Airlines and one United Airlines, “took off and were hijacked violently and flown by terrorists into the World Trade Center.”
He continued, “I was the captain on the second American Airlines aircraft to take off on Sept. 15 from Boston. I remember it was a clear sunny afternoon. I flew with a totally different crew that day to Chicago on a flight to transport 135 passengers with about 35 of those uniformed AA crew members trying to get home to their families for the first time in six or seven days.”
Fonseca said he was never afraid to fly. He thinks maybe it was his military background that had him focusing more on his “mission,” which was to complete each flight safely.
“I do remember taking off to the East over Boston harbor, seeing almost a hundred boats in the water enjoying the day,” he said, “and what was really going through my mind is how easy a target I could have been if some boat had a shoulder-fired surface to air missile onboard (SAM). Of course, this never happened and has never happened, but I sure thought it.”
Even today, when retirement is only a couple of years out, Fronseca says he has never found out whether his plane was a target that day.
“I often wish I could thank the pilots of the other aircraft that were landing and kept me from taking off,” he said.