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ORD AA Flight Goes Lost Comm - Intercepted by F-16's

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ORD AA Flight Goes Lost Comm - Intercepted by F-16's

Old 19th Sep 2001, 19:40
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Arrow ORD AA Flight Goes Lost Comm - Intercepted by F-16's

It's a different ballgame in U.S. airspace these days...


Warplanes tail commercial jet after pilots lose radio contact

57 aboard return safely to O'Hare

By Jon Hilkevitch
Chicago Tribune transportation reporter
Published September 19, 2001

A pair of F-16 warplanes raced across the Midwest sky to investigate an American Airlines plane whose pilots did not respond to calls from air-traffic controllers shortly after takeoff Tuesday from O'Hare International Airport, authorities said.

It turned out to be nothing more than a radio problem, but the 51 passengers aboard American Flight 1555 got a startling view of the fighters just beyond the wingtips of the Boeing 737-800 until the glitch was sorted out.

Officials said the F-16s escorted the passenger jet back to the apron of the runway at O'Hare, then peeled away.

The problem began when the flight, bound for Los Angeles, experienced radio failure and intermittent difficulty turning, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said.

The FAA immediately asked the military to send up the Air National Guard fighters for a close look, after the controllers' radio instructions were met by silence, officials said. Adding to the concern was that the aircraft had arrived at O'Hare from Boston's Logan International Airport, where two of the four airliners hijacked Sept. 11 began their ill-fated flights.

Although the pilots of Flight 1555 could not receive or transmit voice communications, they did punch a numerical beacon code on the aircraft's transponder, indicating their communications radio had failed and the passengers and six crew members were OK, officials said.

But FAA and military officials took no chances, in part because the hijackers last week were pilots and had disabled the transponders aboard the hijacked aircraft to prevent officials from tracking the speed, altitude and identity of the planes.

The pilots' difficulty in turning the plane might have added to the concerns, sources said.

"The F-16s were winged on each side of the aircraft for the entire trip back, and the crews were able to communicate with hand signals," one official said.

Military officials declined to comment. Sources said F-15, F-16 and E-6B warplanes, accompanied by KC-135 refueling aircraft, have been patrolling commercial air lanes in the Midwest around the clock since the terrorist hijackings.

While en route back to O'Hare, radio contact with the American flight was restored but then lost again, officials said.

If the nation's airline and air-traffic system were not on a state of high alert because of the hijackings, Tuesday's radio problem would not have prevented Flight 1555 from going on to Los Angeles International Airport, FAA officials said.

According to contingency procedures, the pilots would continue on their planned routing and choose a runway for landing. A "Nordo" code sent from the aircraft--slang for "no radio"--alerts controllers to get other planes out of the way.

Officials said the American pilots and controllers at several FAA facilities were able to communicate by using the numerical code system. In addition, the 737 and F-16 pilots were able to talk briefly between the intermittent radio outages on the American plane.

During the plane's final approach to O'Hare, radio contact was again restored. The plane landed at 9:51 a.m., less than an hour after departure. The passengers were transferred to other flights, FAA and American officials said.

Authorities declined to identify the fighter wing to which the F-16s belong. It is believed that they are part of either the Illinois or the Indiana Air National Guard.
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