The solar was shining and there have been no clouds within the sky as United Airlines captain Tom Manello went by his pre-flight checks within the early morning of 11 September, 2001.
As he did so, passengers on 4 different flights leaving from Boston, Newark, and Washington DC had been getting ready to execute a coordinated collection of hijackings that finally kill practically 3,000 individuals and ignite twenty years of world warfare.
But for all of the investigations and soul-searching that adopted the 9/11 assaults, there are nonetheless some mysteries we’ve not solved. Chief amongst them: was Manello’s plane additionally meant to be a goal?
“I now believe that it is more likely than not that we were the fifth airplane,” mentioned Manello in a TV interview. “There’s a good chance that somebody was planning to try to use our airplane as a weapon of mass destruction.”
That was the thesis of a brand new TMZ documentary known as 9/11: The Fifth Plane, which aired on Fox, based mostly on interviews with Manello and three different members of his flight crew.
The on-line tabloid investigated longstanding claims that United Airlines Flight 23 may even have had its personal set of hijackers aboard, who aborted their mission when the flight was delayed by pure probability.
But the speculation raises many questions, not least why neither the FBI or the US authorities’s landmark investigation into the catastrophe ever talked about something about United 23.
“It’s definitely chilling,” Henry Harteveldt, a journey business analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group, tells The Independent. “If [these claims] are indeed accurate, it is information that needs to be taken seriously…
“It raises the query: if there might have been a fifth plane, then might there have been much more than that? And would any of these plane be meant to assault different cities within the US?”
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However, he also cast scepticism on some of the documentary’s claims, saying: “I’m involved concerning the accuracy of a few of these assertions.”
United 23 was due to take off around 9am from New York City’s JFK Airport. Like the other planes used in 9/11, it was a cross-country flight – in this case, bound for Los Angeles – which meant that it was fully loaded with highly flammable jet fuel.
“Everything appeared completely regular,” Manello told TMZ. “Everybody was in a very good temper, all people was blissful. It was going to be a enjoyable day.”
While boarding passengers and preparing to taxi to the runway, there were several incidents that struck crew members as strange, although they seemed harmless at the time. Flight attendant Sandy Thorngren noticed a passenger in business class who appeared highly nervous, sweating profusely despite wearing only a T-shirt in the relatively cold airplane cabin.
In first class, the purser – known in the documentary only as Deborah – got into a minor dispute about food with four passengers: a “well-built” man in a tan suit, a young boy around 6 or 7 years old, a man who seemed to be a “bodyguard”, and a woman in a niqab, or full-body covering.
However, Thorngren and another flight attendant, Barbara Brockie Smaldino, became suspicious that the person in the niqab was actually a man, because they had large hands with hair on the back of them. “It was positively a male beneath that [niqab],” Thorngren told TMZ.
The group had said that they did not eat meat, so Deborah spent a long time trying to get them fruit plates. But they were insistent they did not want to eat and wanted to take off as soon as possible, even though it would be a very long flight. One of them also asked if they could visit the cockpit, because the child really wanted to see inside.
Plane hatches found mysteriously open
At 8:46am, the first plane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Reports of the hijackings took time to percolate out through the US air traffic control and military grapevine, so when Manello heard about it over the radio, he assumed a small plane had accidentally crashed while “attempting to do one thing silly” such as flying between the towers.
However, that day at JFK turned out to be unusually busy, and Flight 23 was stuck in a queue behind 10 or so other planes. Hence, it still had not taken off when a second plane hit the south tower and United’s dispatcher warned all transcontinental pilots to “beware cockpit intrusion”.
Pandemonium ensued as all flights across the US were grounded for fear of further hijackings and JFK Airport was evacuated. Manello and his co-pilot barricaded the door, readied improvised weapons, and taxied back to the gate while passengers frantically called their loved ones to let them know they were safe.
Then came the incident that truly alarmed the crew. Airport workers on the ground observed someone running inside the plane, visible through the portholes – after all the passengers and the crew had left. Staff had already checked the whole plane for stragglers and were quite sure nobody was left on board.
Manello reported this to the airline, and the next day all crew members were interviewed by the FBI. Investigators found that one of the hatches in the plane’s floor, leading down into electronics compartment, was open – which could not have happened before the passengers disembarked because they are bulky and block the whole aisle when raised.
“When I used to be speaking to the FBI, they usually informed me these ground hatches had been open, I could not breathe. I attempted to determine how these hatches may very well be opened, except there was any individual down within the electronics space, they usually opened it after we left the plane,” said Deborah.
Worse, airline staff later found boxcutters – small knives used in at least two of the 9/11 hijackings – concealed in a seat-back pocket of another plane that had been sitting next to Flight 23. Its tail number was 6001, very close to Manello’s 6002.
Joining these dots, the crew now believe that these boxcutters were planted ahead of time by an undercover terrorist, perhaps working for the airport or one of its private contractors. They were meant to be used by the hijackers, but through a simple mistake, they were put on the wrong plane.
Then, when the plot failed, someone – perhaps the same person – snuck on board Flight 23 in an attempt to remove the evidence, explaining the person seen running and the hatch left open. According to TMZ, it would have been easy enough to access the electronics compartment via a hatch on the plane’s belly, before climbing up into the cabin through the inner hatch.
Asked by TMZ whether he could think of another rational explanation for these events, Manello said: “Honestly, no. I can not consider one more reason why any individual would try this.”
‘There’s little or no doubt in my thoughts’
There has lengthy been hypothesis that the 4 planes hijacked on 9/11 weren’t the one targets. In 2004, the US authorities’s 9/11 Commission reported that Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed initially hoped to seize ten planes.
After the assaults, boxcutters had been additionally discovered on two long-range Delta Airlines flight and an American Airlines flight. An FBI report made public final yr mentioned that the seat the place they had been hidden had been occupied by a Saudi Arabian pilot who had beforehand attracted suspicion from the company (15 of the 19 hijackers had been Saudi Arabian, as was ringleader Osama bin Laden).
As early as 2011, Manello’s co-pilot Carol Timmons, who later turned the primary feminine common within the Delaware National Guard, raised the query of whether or not the 4 individuals in top quality had additionally been hijackers. Manello additionally informed his story to The Florida Bulldog in 2022, and the United dispatcher mentioned he was informed that the 4 suspicious passengers by no means claimed their baggage and that “incriminating” objects had been discovered inside.
In TMZ’s documentary, aviation security skilled and 9/11 historian Lynn Spencer mentioned: “During my research, it was made very evident to me from the highest levels of our government… that there were more than just the four planes.
“United 23 would have turn into airborne proper concerning the time of the opposite hijacked plane on September 11, and there is little or no doubt in my thoughts that United 23 was the fifth airplane.”
Haarteveldt, however, does have doubts. He points out that lots of people are nervous when they fly; that small children frequently ask to be shown inside the cockpit, and are often allowed to; and that we must be “very cautious about not resorting to cultural biases” in casting suspicion on Muslim passengers.
About the dispute over fruit plates, he says: “I’ll let you know one thing from expertise working with airways. If you inform individuals that you will need to take a considerable delay for catering, typically, passengers will say ‘we would somewhat go and get to our vacation spot and eat once we get there’.”
As for the report of people running inside the plane, Harteveldt says it is shaky, as they could have been airline crew mistaken for passengers. The boxcutters are harder to explain, but he questions why an infiltrator within the airport staff would not have been discovered before now.
Authorities won’t say what came of their investigation
There is also the fact that the FBI, according to United 23’s crew, investigated all this – but we don’t know what came of the investigation. Asked by The Independent whether it had ever made any charges or arrests in connection to the flight, the agency declined to comment.
“If the FBI missed details about a possible fifth plane, it is embarrassing for the company,” says Harteveldt. “Or in the event that they nonetheless think about it to be a matter of nationwide safety that has not but been cleared for public dialogue.”
The 911 Commission also never mentioned United 23 in its final report. Former staffer Miles Kara told the Bulldog that his analysis of Al Qaeda’s plot “doesn’t have room for a fifth aircraft”, and that if there was one, it was unlikely to have come from “one more airport” in addition to the three already confirmed.
Hence, the truth about United 23 is unclear and may never be known. But the experience of at least seeming to have suffered such a near miss was clearly traumatic for the crew, who said they struggled to work afterwards.
According to the documentary, they were denied compensation by the airline, which argued that they had not suffered any unique stress beyond what all other air crew suffered on that day, until finally being sued and reaching a settlement.
“It’s been 21 years, and it nonetheless stays with me,” said Thorngren. “The terrifying, horrific occasions, and the best way I used to be handled by an organization that I used to be loyal to for 30 years. I made a decision I simply mentioned could not do anymore. I retired in 2003.”
“The indifference, and the best way we had been handled, was abominable,” said Smaldino. “So it was time to depart that job that I labored so onerous for.”
United didn’t reply to requests for remark.