Readers, prepare for a quick takeoff with Lynn Spencer's Touching History, a new account of the experiences of pilots, air traffic controllers and military commanders on 9/11. The book begins with controllers losing radio contact with American Airlines Flight 11 moments before it slams into one of the World Trade Center towers. Weaving in the stories of the three other commercial airliners that were hijacked by terrorists that day, and the accounts of those who tried to prevent the planes from crashing into their targets, Touching History accelerates at a steady pace.
Never mind that readers already know the horrible outcome; the personal interviews and Cockpit Voice Recorder transcripts of conversations between pilots and controllers are riveting. And the tales are not limited to the four airliners lost that day. The book includes the perspectives of controllers trying to piece together what's happening, military pilots trying to track the hijacked planes, other commercial pilots desperately trying to land while worrying whether there is a hijacker onboard their planes, and FAA and Pentagon personnel struggling to communicate.
Spencer, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, has the expertise to understand what was going on in the skies on 9/11. She also clearly did her homework, listening to thousands of hours of taped air traffic conversations, and interviewing dozens of pilots, controllers and military officials who were on the front lines on 9/11. The transcripts provide the book with a sense of immediacy, as though the reader were in the cockpit or control tower, while the interviews offer important background and context.
If there is fault with Touching History, it is that its momentum slows in the final chapters. When the fourth hijacked airliner - United Flight 93 - crashes in a field in Pennsylvania, it reduces the impact of the remaining stories of confused and fearful pilots and controllers still operating in other parts of the country. And Spencer's conclusion that the military was responsive and in control of the skies differs sharply with the opinion of the 9/11 Commission, which concluded that military pilots appeared slow and unsure of the location of the hijacked planes. Indeed, after reading Touching History, some readers might come away with the frightening feeling that the FAA, the Pentagon and the president didn't really know what was happening, had no clear lines of communication and no coordinated plan. Still, Spencer's book is worth reading as a thoroughly researched, clearly written account that offers new insights into that fateful day that changed America forever.
John T. Slania is a professor at Loyola University Chicago.