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There are, by my count, four different conspiracy theories that seek to explain what happened to United Airlines Flight 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001. In no particular order, these four theories are as follows:

  • Flight 93 plowed into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after control of the plane was lost during a struggle between hijackers and passengers.
  • Flight 93 landed safely at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, though the fate of the passengers remains something of a mystery.
  • Nothing happened to Flight 93 because there never was any Flight 93 that day.
  • Flight 93 was shot down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, most likely after passengers gained control of the aircraft, or while they were attempting to do so.

The first theory on the list, sometimes referred to as “the official story,” is the best known and most widely accepted of the Flight 93 conspiracy theories, even though it is, by any objective standard, a textbook example of the type of undocumented, crackpot theories that give all conspiracy theories a bad name.

The crash theory is so asinine that it barely merits discussion here, but let’s quickly run through some rather elementary observations about airplane crashes: airplanes that crash into the ground do not leave debris spread over an eight-mile-long strip of mountainous terrain; airplanes that crash into the ground do not produce a crash site with no visible signs of aircraft wreckage; airplanes that crash into the ground do not shower a lake two miles away with a concentrated cloud of pulverized debris; airplanes that crash into the ground do not shed parts as they are passing over people’s farms; airplanes that crash into the ground do not usually make explosive noises before they hit the ground; airplanes that crash into the ground are not usually being shadowed by unmarked white jets; airplanes that crash into the ground do not vaporize all human occupants; airplanes that crash into the ground do not leave the soil and groundwater miraculously free of jet fuel residue; and airplanes that crash into the ground cannot simultaneously burrow into the ground and explode into shrapnel-sized pieces.

The authors of this particular theory have not even bothered to do what many other conspiracy theorists are frequently accused of doing – bend some of the evidence to fit the theory. Instead, they have opted to use the time-honored technique of simply ignoring any evidence that doesn’t fit, which in this case means that they have pretty much ignored all the available evidence. One might think that such a theory would be difficult to sell to the masses, but the crafty theorists have employed a brilliant but rather controversial strategy that calls for focusing on media control rather than presentation of evidence, and the strategy has paid off handsomely, with the theory flourishing despite the obvious absence of corroborating evidence.

Since this theory has obvious shortcomings for all but the most undiscerning of readers, we must look elsewhere for an answer to the question of what really happened to Flight 93. The second theory on the list was first proposed by someone working under the pseudonym “Woody Box” (although it should be noted that Mr. Box’s unusual use of the English language seems to bear a striking resemblance to the literary stylings of Nico Haupt). Mr. Box’s rant, entitled “The Cleveland Airport Mystery,” has been in circulation for several years and can be found posted at various sites on the ‘net. As best I can determine, Woody’s theory remained a relatively obscure contribution to the skeptics’ movement until it was popularized in the widely viewed 9-11 film, “Loose Change.”

The Cleveland Airport theory does, I must admit, present skeptics with a compelling mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery is not whether UA Flight 93 actually landed safely in Cleveland; no, the real mystery here is why so many people seem to have embraced this hopelessly contrived theory.

The Cleveland Airport theory revolves around the fact that on the morning of September 11, 2001, a passenger jet made an unscheduled landing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport amid semi-panicked reports that it may have had a bomb and/or hijackers on board. The plane was identified as Delta Flight 1989, a Boeing 767 flying out of Boston Logan Airport bound for Los Angeles with some 69 passengers and nine crew members on board. Though fears about the plane proved to be unfounded, there was a perfectly valid reason for the initial suspicions (which Woody neglects to mention): Flight 1989 was Delta Airlines’ version of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175; all three airliners took off from Boston Logan Airport at approximately the same time, all following the same Boston-to-Los Angeles route, and all three were Boeing 767 aircraft carrying a heavy load of fuel for the cross-country flight. And since both the American and the United flights had been commandeered and crashed that morning, suspicions naturally ran high about Delta 1989.

Woody would have us believe that there were actually two passenger planes in possible distress that landed at Cleveland Airport that morning, based on his contention that “for every aspect of the incident there are two different versions. Not one or three or four versions, but two.” As it turns out, this is a patently untrue claim. There were, in fact, at least three versions of the passenger count to be found among Woody’s sources (with none of the three coming close to matching the number of passengers on Flight 93), and among those same sources, there was one and only one description of the plane (as will be discussed later).

To be sure, there were two (or more) different versions of the landing time, the passenger count, and the manner in which the plane and its passengers were handled after it was on the ground. But it is certainly not the case that each version is “supported by two independent sources,” as Mr. Box boldly contends. That much should be quite obvious to anyone who has taken the time to actually read through Woody’s source material.

The initial information about the bomb scare at Cleveland Airport was released by Cleveland Mayor Michael White at a press conference convened at around 11:00 AM on the morning of September 11. At that time, details of the incident were still quite sketchy and some of the information provided by White proved to be incorrect. It was, nevertheless, duly reported as fact by various local media outlets. As more accurate information became available, some of the initial details provided by White were corrected in later reports.

It was White, for example, who provided the initial passenger count of 200, a detail that made it into a handful of local media reports. So while it is true that all five of the media reports that Woody cites did indeed include that erroneous detail, all five explicitly attributed that information to Mayor White’s press conference – which means, quite obviously, that there weren’t five independent sources for this information; there was exactly one source, and that source later corrected himself. As we continue down Woody’s list, it becomes painfully obvious that the same is true for each of the “parameters” for which there are supposedly “two different data.” Three sources are cited for the apparently erroneous landing time of 10:45 AM, for example, but all three of those sources attribute that tidbit of information to White’s press conference. In the same vein, Woody cites no fewer than four sources for a reported evacuation time of 11:15 AM, but all four of those sources were, once again, merely repeating the words of Michael White. And so it goes.

In reality, what we have here is not two different versions of the story, each of which has various elements that are supported by multiple independent witnesses, as Woody explicitly claims. Instead, what we have is one early version of the story, disseminated through various media outlets but traceable in every case to a single individual who later acknowledged that some of the early information was in error, and a later version that contained more accurate information. As far as I can see, there doesn’t appear to be any great mystery here at all.

What Woody and the makers of the “Loose Change” film don’t bother to mention is that several aspects of the story remained the same throughout all the reports. Specifically, all of the articles cited by Mr. Box, without exception, described the very same plane. In building his ephemeral case, Woody cites seven local news reports and one Associated Press dispatch, as follows:

  • NewsNet5 (Darlene Dunn “Plane in Cleveland Being Checked for Bomb,” September 11, 2001)
  • 9News (Liz Foreman “Plane Lands in Cleveland: Bomb Feared Aboard,” September 11, 2001)
  • Associated Press (Paul Singer “Plane Makes Emergency Landing,” September 11, 2001)
  • Athens Post (Paul Singer “No Explosives Found On Cleveland Plane,” September 11, 2001)
  • Cleveland Plain Dealer (Patrick O’Donnell “Plane Diverted to Cleveland Triggers Alarm,” September 12, 2001)
  • WCPN Spotlight (a Cleveland NPR affiliate) (“Cleveland Reacts to the Terror,” September 12, 2001)
  • Akron Beacon-Journal (Mary Ethridge et al “Chaos Spreads to Ohio: Boeing Jet Makes Emergency Landing,” September 11, 2001)
  • Akron Beacon-Journal (Kymberli Hagelberg et al “Chaos, Fear Land at Airports in Region,” September 12, 2001)

A quick review of these reports reveals that seven of the eight identified the type of aircraft; all reported that it was a Boeing 767, consistent with Delta Flight 1989. United Flight 93, of course, was a Boeing 757. Similarly, six of the eight identified the city of origin; all listed it as Boston, again consistent with Delta Flight 1989. United Flight 93, needless to say, flew out of Newark, New Jersey. Finally, six of the eight reports identified the airline; five identified the plane as a Delta flight (two specifically identified it as Delta Flight 1989), while one lone outlet (9News) identified it as United Flight 93 – though in that very same report the plane was described as a “Boeing 767 out of Boston.”

None of Woody’s sources mentioned a second plane and, apart from the single incongruous identification of the aircraft as UA Flight 93, there was unanimous agreement that the one and only plane involved in the incident was Delta Airlines Flight 1989. I realize that this may come as a shock to some readers, but not every correction signals a cover-up. Sometimes, particularly at a time of unprecedented confusion in the air and at America’s airports, people simply make mistakes, as Mayor White obviously did in his initial release of information.

Both Woody Box and the makers of the film “Loose Change” point accusing fingers at the fact that the Cleveland Airport was closed and evacuated around the time of the unscheduled landing of the supposed mystery plane, implying some nefarious purpose such as covertly disposing of the passengers of Flight 93. But wasn’t closing and evacuating the airport an entirely predictable and justifiable course of action given the fears that Flight 1989 may have had a bomb aboard? Woody and friends are surely not unaware of the fact that during the timeframe that these events at the Cleveland Airport were playing out, chaos reigned supreme at all the nation’s airports. For the first time in aviation history, all of the airspace over the United States was declared a ‘no-fly’ zone. At the time, there were reportedly around 4,500 planes in the air, virtually all of which had to be rerouted to the nearest airport that could accommodate them. As one of Mr. Box’s own sources notes, Cleveland Airport was indeed shut down that day amid the chaos, “along with all others in the United States.” (Darlene Dunn “Plane in Cleveland Being Checked For Bomb,”, September 11, 2001) In fact, if I remember correctly, America’s airports remained closed for several days thereafter, with all air traffic grounded.

What Woody Box and the “Loose Change” crew have done is to take the situation at Cleveland Airport on the morning of September 11 and portray it as something uniquely sinister, when the reality is that it was essentially no different than the situation that existed at all of the country’s major airports on that most unusual of mornings. All the nation’s larger airports were shut down and all were scrambling to accommodate unscheduled landings in an atmosphere of intense fear spawned by the prospect that more planes could be carrying explosives or hijackers.

In the final analysis, the so-called “Cleveland Airport Mystery” is much ado about nothing. There does not appear to be any evidence at all that supports the theory that more than one plane in possible distress landed in Cleveland, nor that the one plane that did land there amid reports of a possible bomb threat was Flight 93. What we have here is little more than a case of journalistic sleight of hand. What we have is a supposed 9-11 skeptic shouting: “Hey, look at this! I have four independent sources who all say that there were 200 passengers on board that plane,” when the reality is that he has four sources who all say that Mayor White said there were 200 passengers on that plane – a subtle difference that Woody seems to have failed to grasp.

With that out of the way, we can move on now to the third theory on the list, which posits that there was no United Flight 93 on September 11. What really happened in Pennsylvania, according to this theory, is that a fake plane full of fake passengers faked crashing into the ground, although for some reason that has never been satisfactorily explained, evidence was left behind indicating that the fake plane may have actually faked an explosion in the air, as if it was faking having been hit by a fake missile, before it faked a crash into the ground.

This theory, I must confess, has never made much sense to me. If Flight 93 did not exist, then why would it have been included in the official 9-11 script at all? What would the point have been of faking the crash of a fake plane into an empty field far removed from the primary crime scene? If Flight 93 did exist and was part of a 9-11 plot gone awry, as has been hypothesized on this website, then it naturally follows that it would have had to be disposed of in some manner. But if it never existed at all, then there would have been no point in faking a crash to explain its disappearance. The only reason for including Flight 93 in the storyline, I suppose, would be to create the subplot of ‘the flight that fought back.’

Like the theories concerning the phone calls, this theory assumes that Flight 93 was never meant to strike a strategic target and that the sole purpose of including it in the 9-11 script was to create the ‘ordinary citizens as American heroes’ storyline. It is difficult to believe, however – for this skeptic at least – that faking the crash of an airplane in rural Pennsylvania as an anticlimactic postscript to the attacks in New York and Washington was a deliberate act. The fact that the ‘crash’ was not faked well enough to really fool anyone would seem to argue against it having been a scripted event planned well in advance. So too does the fact that it appears to have taken Washington several days (as will be discussed later) to figure out how to spin the events in Pennsylvania, which would seem to indicate that the script was being improvised on the fly to account for unforeseen events.

To be fair, there is some support for the ‘Flight 93 never existed’ theory in the fact that there clearly was no aircraft wreckage or human remains at the alleged crash site. But that fact alone does not allow us to conclude that Flight 93 did not exist; it tells us only that Flight 93 did not crash into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But certainly there was something that blew up in the Shanksville area, leaving behind an eight-mile trail of debris. Scores of local residents reported gathering that debris from around their homes and farms and dutifully turning it over to the FBI, as instructed. Some of it, such as burning seat cushions, was reportedly identifiable as aircraft debris.

The total amount of debris collected was nowhere near enough to account for the disappearance of a 100+ ton commercial aircraft, and only a fraction of the human remains were reportedly recovered, but there appears to be little doubt that some type of passenger aircraft blew up in the skies over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Some reports made mention of the recovery of “a piece of fuselage the size of a dining-room table,” (John Carlin “The Mystery of Flight 93,” Independent, August 13, 2002) which would appear to be what is on display in the government exhibit to the left. Aside from a portion of an engine and the two ‘black boxes,’ that fuselage section and the one to the right are the only recognizable pieces of aircraft debris in the government photographs introduced at the Moussaoui trial.

Could these few bits and pieces have been planted? That certainly is a possibility, though the real question here may be: how far from the alleged impact point were these pieces recovered? Did they come to rest near the lake, two or more miles from the ‘crash’ crater? Or were they even further away than that? Were they found four miles away? Eight miles? From the photographs, alas, it is impossible to make that determination.

If we choose to believe that there was no airplane involved in the incident in Shanksville, then we must disregard numerous early reports from both witnesses on the ground and air traffic controllers of a passenger aircraft approaching the area at a fairly low altitude. We must also embrace either the notion that some unnamed party covertly scattered explosive debris over a fifteen-square-mile patch of Pennsylvania, or that all the area residents who reported recovering such debris are liars and/or government plants. And, of course, we must warmly embrace the notion that all of the participants involved in the phone calls either do not actually exist or are also liars and/or plants.

Having now looked at various versions of what didn’t happen to United Airlines Flight 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001, we will turn our attention in the fifth and (possibly) final installment of this series to what most likely did happen to Flight 93.