Point PC-4: Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The Second Official Account

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According to what served as the official account of cell phone usage from the 9/11 planes until July 2004 (when The 9/11 Commission Report was released), more than a dozen calls – from a combination of passengers and flight attendants – were made to people on the ground by means of cell phones.The belief that such calls had been made was conveyed to the public by the mass media, with apparent support by the FBI and (later) The 9/11 Commission Report. According to the first version of the official story (Point PC-3), there were reportedly cell phone calls from passengers and/or flight attendants from all four flights, although most of them were from UA 93.

The fact that the first version of the official story about cell phones had been replaced by a second version became obvious in the FBI’s testimony for the Moussaoui trial, which occurred in early 2006. This second version is also implicit in The 9/11 Commission Report (which appeared in 2004), although this fact did not become obvious until after (a) the FBI presented its report to the Moussaoui trial and (b) a 9/11 staff report of 2004 became available. [1]

The Official Account: Second Version

Most of the phone calls from the 9/11 planes were made from onboard (seatback) phones; only two of them were made by means of cell phones. This was stated at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in 2006, reported journalist Greg Gordon, who was covering the trial for the McClatchy Newspapers. [2] Summarizing this part of the FBI testimony, Gordon wrote: “In the back of the plane, 13 of the terrified passengers and crew members made 35 air phone calls and two cell phone calls to family members and airline dispatchers, a member of an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force testified Tuesday.” [3]

Both of the reported cell phone calls were from UA 93, after it had descended (shortly before crashing) to the altitude of 5,000 feet. [4] The two reported cell phone callers were flight attendant CeeCee Lyles and passenger Edward Felt (who were not mentioned in Point PC-3: “Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The First Official Account.”) The FBI’s reports about the calls from Lyles and Felt are profiled – like the FBI’s reports about all phone calls from the 9/11 planes, whether reportedly made from cell phones or onboard phones – in an interactive computer presentation on the US government website for the Moussaoui trial. [5] Each report consists of a graphic that summarizes the information about the reported call.

The graphic for flight attendant CeeCee Lyles indicates that she made two calls, one of which was a “cell phone call” to a residential number at 9:58:00 AM. [6]

The graphic for the call from Felt, which was also said to have occurred at 9:58:00 AM, says “call placed from bathroom,” from which readers can infer that it must have been made from a cell phone. There is an even more explicit – albeit less accessible – graphic, which says: “9:58 AM: Passenger Edward Felt, using his cell phone, (732) 241-XXXX, contacts John Shaw, a 911 Operator from Westmoreland County, PA.” [7]

Based on the belief that other phone calls from the 9/11 planes were made from cell phones, some people have argued that the reported calls from the 9/11 planes could not have been received, on the grounds that in 2001 cell phone calls from high-altitude airliners were impossible. However, given the fact that the only reported cell phone calls were from UA 93 at 9:58:00 AM, after it had descended to 5,000 feet, there is no problem.

The Best Evidence

By stating this second version of the official account – that the only reported cell phone calls from the 9/11 planes were made from UA 93 at 9:58:00 AM, after it had evidently descended to 5,000 feet – the FBI seemingly avoided the problem created by the fact that cell phone calls from high-altitude airliners could at best connect momentarily in 2001. But five problems remain.

1. The Calls by Lyles and Felt

As stated in Point PC-3: “Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The First Official Account,” A. K. Dewdney reported that he found the success rate of cell phone calls from twin-engine planes fell to zero at 7,000 feet. He also said that the cell phone failure would occur at lower altitudes in airliners, because they are much more insulated. [8] How much lower? According to many anecdotal reports, Dewdney has said, “in large passenger jets, one loses contact during takeoff, frequently before the plane reaches 1000 feet altitude.” [9] The fact that UA 93 was at 5,000 feet does not necessarily show, therefore, that Felt and Lyles could have made successful cell phone calls at 9:58 AM.

Indeed there is evidence that they did not make such calls: The UA 93 phone records for the precisely timed 9:58:00 AM calls by both Lyles and Felt show no cell phone number and no duration – information included on any cell phone bill [10] – in spite of “an exhaustive study … of the cell phone records of each of the passengers who owned cell phones.” [11]

2. The Falsity of the First Official Account

By virtue of holding that all of the reported cell phone calls, except for those of Felt and Lyles, were made from onboard phones, the FBI’s 2006 report implied that one of the chief elements in the story about 9/11 told – or at least allowed – by authorities from the outset – that the presence of hijackers on the 9/11 flights were reported in cell phone calls by numerous passengers – was untrue. The question becomes, then, whether the FBI’s second account is plausible.

3. A Priori Reason to Doubt the Second Account

The 2006 FBI account entails that all of the reported calls that had been presented in the first official account as cell phone calls had actually been – except for those by Felt and Lyles – calls from onboard phones. That is, the calls by seven passengers – UA 93 passengers Mark Bingham, Marion Britton, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick; UA 175 passengers Peter Hanson and Brian Sweeney; and AA 77 passenger Barbara Olson – had been misascribed.

It might be possible that all of these reported calls had involved errors, perhaps due to mishearing, misspeaking, or poor memory (whether by the journalists who reported the calls or the people who received them). The probability of this many errors, all in the same direction, would be extremely low.

Two of the reported calls, moreover, could not be explained away as errors due to mishearing, misspeaking, or poor memory: the calls to Julie Sweeney and Deena Burnett. (The problem of the reported calls from Barbara Olson is a special case, covered in Point PC-2.)

4. The Call Received by Julie Sweeney

As reported in Point PC-3: “Cell Phone Calls from the Planes: The First Official Account,” Washington Post writer David Maraniss said in a discussion of UA 175: “Brian Sweeney called his wife Julie: ‘Hi, Jules,’ Brian Sweeney was saying into his cell phone. ‘It’s Brian. We’ve been hijacked, and it doesn’t look too good.’” [12]

However, Point PC-3 did not include information in the FBI’s interview with Julie Sweeney on October 2, 2001. Having been out when her husband had called, she “returned home to find that her husband had left a message, made from his cell phone aboard the plane, on their answering machine. The answering machine recorded that the message was left at approximately 8:58 AM.” At that time, UA 175 was reportedly at about 25,000 feet. [13]

Given the fact that the 27-second phone call was on Julie Sweeney’s answering machine, one could not argue that her report – that her husband had called from his cell phone – was based on faulty hearing or memory. How, then, could the FBI have later stated that Brian Sweeney left a voice mail message “using a GTE Airfone”? [14]

5. The Calls Received by Deena Burnett

Deena Burnett, a former Delta Airlines flight attendant, told FBI interviewers, shortly after the calls had come, that she had received three to five calls from her husband, Tom Burnett, on UA 93. [15]

  • In the first years after 9/11 (from 2001 through 2006), these calls were described in books [16] and newspaper articles [17] as cell phone calls.

  • These UA 93 calls were allegedly made from high altitudes (35,000 and 40,700 feet [18]), so Tom Burnett could not have called his wife on a cell phone at that time. Even Deena Burnett herself, who had been a flight attendant, later wrote: “I didn’t understand how he [Tom] could be calling me on his cell phone from the air.” [19]

  • When the FBI report on phone calls from the 9/11 airliners was issued in connection with the 2006 Moussaoui Trial, it indicated that Tom Burnett had made three calls, none of which was from a cell phone: All were said to have been made from onboard phones. [20] The FBI report also specified the rows from which the calls were made. [21]

  • This FBI 2006 report, according to which Tom Burnett had called his wife from seat-back phones, removed the problem of how he could have been using a cell phone at flight UA 93’s high elevation. But it introduced a new problem:

  • According to Deena Burnett’s FBI interview on September 11, she knew that her husband had used his cell phone: “Burnett was able to determine that her husband was using his own cellular telephone because the caller identification showed his number, 925-980-3360. Only one of the calls did not show on the caller identification as she was on the line with another call.” [22]

  • This creates a seemingly insuperable problem: If Tom Burnett had really used onboard phones, his cell phone number could not have shown up even once.

  • The FBI’s categorizing of the Burnett calls as onboard phone calls in spite of the FBI’s early interview with Deena Burnet to the contrary is contradicted by the FBI’s opposite treatment of the case involving UA 93 flight attendant CeeCee Lyles:

    • Its summary of her husband’s testimony says: “At 9:58 AM, Lorne Lyles received a call at home from her celular [sic] telephone … Lyles commented that CeCe [sic] Lyles’ telephone number 941-823-2355 was the number on the caller ID.” [23] This account was faithfully reflected in the FBI’s telephone report for the Moussaoui trial.

    • But even though Deena Burnett provided the same evidence – that her spouse’s cell phone number had appeared on her phone’s Caller ID – the FBI’s report for the Moussaoui trial did not reflect her testimony.

    • This difference in treatment may be explained by the fact that, whereas the reported Burnett call was from an elevation that was clearly too high to make cell phone calls, a cell phone call from 5,000 feet might seem plausible.

The FBI claim that the Burnett calls were from onboard phones implied that (1) either Deena’s memory was faulty or (2) she was lying. However, (1a) Deena gave her FBI interviews within hours of receiving the calls [24] and (2a) there would seem to be no plausible motive as to why she would have lied.

The FBI has not explained the contradiction between her 2001 FBI interview and the FBI’s report that surfaced in 2006; it simply ignored this contradiction.

Moreover, the call to Julie Sweeney, cited above, provides additional support for the truth of Deena Burnett’s account.


Whereas the first official account of the allegedly hijacked planes rested heavily on reported cell phone accounts by passengers and flight attendants, the second official account – which was implicit in The 9/11 Commission Report and became explicit in the FBI’s report to the 2006 Moussaoui trial – claimed that all of the phone calls that had been reported in the press as cell phone calls, except the 9:58 AM calls by Edward Felt and CeeCee Lyles, were actually made from onboard phones.

This second official account, if we ignore the problems in the Felt and Lyle accounts, removed the main problem of the first official account, which claimed that cell phone calls were made at high altitudes. But this solution created new problems.

By denying the truth of much of the first account, which had been provided or at least allowed by the authorities, the second account raises a question about its own credibility: Why should the new account by the authorities be trusted?

The idea that all seven of the reported cell phone calls, aside from those by Felt and Lyles, were due to errors is implausible.

Moreover, two of the reported cell phone calls cannot be explained away, because the 25,000′ altitude call to Julie Sweeney was recorded on her answering machine and the calls to Deena Burnett were shown by her Caller ID to have been received from her husband’s cell phone when his plane was above 35,000 feet.

Therefore, the second official account is contradicted by inconvenient evidence: that two of the reported CELL phone calls were received when the plane was far too high to sustain such calls.

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References for Point PC-4
The 9/11 Commission Report disguised, perhaps deliberately, the fact that it was not affirming any cell phone calls other than the reported 9:58 calls from UA 93 by Edward Felt and CeeCee Lyles. Writing about this flight, for example, the Commission said: “Shortly [after 9:32], the passengers and flight crew began a series of calls from GTE airphones and cellular phones” (9/11CR 12). One could easily believe that the Commission had thereby affirmed the occurrence of several cell phone calls (some of which would have been high-altitude calls). But a Staff Report for the 9/11 Commission dated August 26, 2004, by indicating that only the 9:58 calls by Felt and Lyles were made from cell phones (p. 45), made apparent that the only cell phone calls in the Commission’s alleged “series of calls from GTE airphones and cellular phones” were those of Felt and Lyles. The August 2004 Staff Report cited the FBI interviews with the recipients of the calls from Felt and Lyles, which the Commission had cited in its July 2004 Report.
Greg Gordon, “Prosecutors Play Flight 93 Cockpit Recording,” KnoxNews.com, 12 April 2006.
Flight Path Study: United Airlines Flight 93,” National Transportation Safety Board, 19 February 2002.
United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui, Exhibit Number P200054. These documents have been made more readily accessible by 9/11 researcher Jim Hoffman in “Detailed Account of Phone Calls from September 11th Flights.”
A.K. Dewdney, “Project Achilles Report: Parts One, Two and Three,” Physics 911, January 23, 2003; “The Cellphone and Airfone Calls from Flight UA93,” Physics 911, June 9, 2003. For the results of Dewdney’s twin-engine experiments. see Barrie Zwicker, Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-Up of 9/11 (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2006), 375. According to Marco Thompson, president of the San Diego Telecom Council, “Cell phones are not designed to work on a plane. Although they do.” The rough rule is that when the plane is slow and over a city, the phone will work up to 10,000 feet or so. “Also, it depends on how fast the plane is moving and its proximity to antennas,” Thompson says. “At 30,000 feet, it may work momentarily while near a cell site, but it’s chancy and the connection won’t last.” Also, the hand-off process from cell site to cell site is more difficult. It is created for a maximum speed of 60 mph to 100 mph. “They are not built for 400 mph airplanes.” San Diego Metropolitan (backup), October 2001.
E-mail letter of 21 November 2006, to David Ray Griffin. For confirmation of this, see the series of filmed experiments, “9/11 Experiment: Do cell phones work from an airplane?”, Part 1 (of 8) (2010), Part 2, and Part 3 (2011).
The original Flight 93 phone call records are available at scribd.com.
David Maraniss, “September 11, 2001,” Washington Post, September 16, 2001.
See Julie Sweeneys FBI interview, p. 15. The elevation is shown on page 4 of the NTSB Flight Path Study.
See “Brian Sweeney,” Telephone Calls, United Airlines Flight #175.
Interview with Deena Lynne Burnett,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 11 September 2001, INTELWIRE; also available at scribd.com, page 65.
Jere Longman, Among the Heroes: United 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 107, 111; Deena L. Burnett (with Anthony F. Giombetti), Fighting Back: Living Beyond Ourselves (Longwood, FL: Advantage Inspirational Books, 2006), 61.
David Maraniss, “September 11, 2001,” Washington Post, 16 September 2001. This story is no longer available at the Post’s website, but it is available, with the new title “Another Workday becomes a Surreal Plane of Terror” at 911research.wtc7.net. See also Greg Gordon, “Widow Tells of Poignant Last Calls,” Sacramento Bee, 11 September 2002.
The 9/11 Commission Report, 11, 29. According to the FBI’s interview of Deena Burnett, the first call came “at 6:30 a.m. PST [sic; actually PDT]”, hence at 9:30 AM EDT. And at that time, UA 93 was said to have been at 36,000 feet: see “Flight Path Study: United Airlines Flight 93,” National Transportation Safety Board, 19 February 2002.
Deena L. Burnett (with Anthony F. Giombetti), Fighting Back, 61. The calls were alleged to have lasted 28 seconds, 54 seconds, and 62 seconds – durations that in 2001 would have been unsustainable on cell phone calls at high altitudes.
United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui, Exhibit Number P200054. This graphics presentation can be more easily viewed in Hoffman’s “Detailed Account of Phone Calls from September 11th Flights.”
The report (ibid.) indicated that Tom Burnett made these calls from phones located in rows 24 and 25 of this Boeing 757.
FBI, “Interview with Deena Lynne Burnett (re: phone call from hijacked flight),” 9/11 Commission, FBI Source Documents, Chronological, 09/11/01, Intelwire, 14 March 2008. John Raidt of the 9/11 Commission, who interviewed Deena Burnett by telephone in 2004, stated that she believed Tom had called her from first class: “She also thinks this was the one call he placed to her from his cell phone, because she recognized the number on the caller ID.” (9/11 Commission, Memorandum for the Record: Deena Burnett, 9/11 family member … Conference Call, April 26, 2004). This is a strange report, given that in her 2001 FBI interview, her 2006 book, and in all other reports Deena believed that all of the calls came from Tom’s cell phone. It seems possible that Raidt misunderstood her – that she said “only one of the calls did not show on the caller identification” (as she told the FBI in 2001), but Raidt thought she said that only one of the calls was made from his cell phone. In any case, whatever the accuracy of Raidt’s statement, even one call shown to have been made from Tom’s cell phone would be inconsistent with the FBI’s new account.
Interview with Lorne Lyles,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 12 September 2001.
Interview with Deena Lynne Burnett,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 11 September 2001, intelwire.


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