casOn Tuesday September 11, 2001 Ben Sliney shut down American airspace and grounded every flight in the nation. On Tuesday April 18, 2006 Ben Sliney sat down in a hotel room on Park Avenue in New York with the reporter from Can’t be making history every day, I guess.

Ben’s pretty cool guy, it turns out. While he has decades of experience in aviation as an air traffic control supervisor, he had left the FAA for a number of years to go into law. Eventually he tired of the legal world and went back to aviation. 9/11 was his first day as the FAA Operations Manager. Quite a welcome.

Sliney was originally brought on to United 93 as a technical advisor, and then was given a small role as an air traffic controller. When the actor playing Sliney wasn’t right for the role, though, director Paul Greengrass turned to the real thing. What you see onscreen is the real man reliving the events of that day – with some crucial changes. For one thing, Greengrass asked him to swear when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. “I would never use language like that,” he explains.

When I met Ben he asked me, in his Massachusetts-meets-New York accent ("Red Sox all the way!") what CHUD was. “Cinematic Happenings Under Development,” I said. “Not Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers?” he asked. “I saw that movie.”

Q: One of the things I want to talk about with you is the topic of the conspiracy theories. Because it drives me nuts.

Sliney: Why don’t you fill me in on it a little bit. Maybe I’m uninformed.

Q: OK, here’s what I want to get your professional opinion on – the idea that, to this day, people think flight 93 was shot down. Based on your personal experience –

Sliney: They were quite a distance. The two interceptors who could have gotten there were quite a distance from where flight 93 ultimately crashed. I’m sure that the conspiracists can find a way to argue that we could shoot a missile a hundred miles and strike a plane – but given the fact that there was no shoot down order, and I’m not even sure those two birds were armed, I have to look at my facts again, but even if they were armed, they wouldn’t fire without the authority to fire. I guess you could argue further, if you’re a conspiracist, that the military isn’t saying that they had the authority to fire. We wondered on that day as they were trying to get interceptors to that plane and to others, which turned out not necessary, we wondered if they really would shoot down an air carrier. I found it hard to believe. If a plane you think is going to strike a building, you’re going to splash it in northwest Washington, and put avgas all over those neighborhoods? To me it was Sophie’s Choice, to make a movie analogy. How the heck could you choose between that?

I don’t know where they draw fuel for that conspiracy. I have heard that argument, that the military shot down 93, but I don’t believe it was possible, one. And two, I know there are missiles that could fire a hundred miles away, but I don’t think that type of missile was on that plane.

Q: And if there was a plane near 93 you would have seen it.

Sliney: Yes and no. From the command center’s perspective, the command center doesn’t see real time traffic. They see a composite of all the computer hosts – each center has a host computer – that from the actual radar returns generates a target on the scope for the controller. The command center gets a composite of all of those hosts three or four minutes later, and there were no planes in the vicinity that we could see that were under our control, and certainly not at that altitude.

Q: The terrorists turned off the transponders on the planes, making it hard for you guys to find the planes amid all the noise of the other flights. Why would someone be able to turn off the transponder manually at all?

Sliney: Given 9/11 that’s a good question. We don’t want the transponders on when you’re on the ground, otherwise the return on the radar from the airport itself would be a lot of confusing data. They don’t flip it on until such time as we need to start aggregating data on it.

Q: Post-9/11 is there some way to remotely turn a transponder back on? Is there a failsafe?

Sliney: Not that I’m aware of. But if there were, I imagine it wouldn’t be for public consumption.

Q: That’s a good idea. [laughs]

Sliney: I’m aware of some that I won’t discuss, but not that in particular. They have a lot of safeguards that we didn’t have on 9/11.

Q: Do you think that 9/11 could happen again, even with the safeguards in place?

caSliney: I have complete confidence that that scenario will never play out again. Could they hijack a sole plane? Yeah, that could happen. I think the airport security is very much heightened. I’ve been pulled out of line, as have many others. The only part that gives me a little pause about flying today is the stuff you’ve been reading about the bags. To blow it up in mid-air would be a lot more accessible based on what I’ve read than to take over the plane again. They’ve hardened the cockpits, don’t forget. You can’t get through those doors. The procedures for entering the cockpits have completely changed. The in-flight rules are completely changed. You can’t be out of that seat during certain phases of the flight.

I have actually seen on a plane a passenger call an attendant over and say, ‘That guy has been standing there by that door for the last several minutes. Why is he up there?’ I think people themselves are much more vigilant today.

Q: My roommate just flew to Australia and at one point in the flight someone who had taken some medication to fall asleep woke up groggy and confused and agitated and people around him restrained him.

Sliney: I think it’s perfect illustration of what I believe happens now. I mean look, if I was on that plane, I’m going for those guys. I don’t care what they’ve got. It’s certainly very difficult to get a weapon on board a plane now. From what I’ve seen – there are some skeptics to this conclusion – but from what I’ve seen at airports, the sensitivity of those metal detectors have been heightened immensely. I think it’s doubtful that a 9/11 scenario would occur. But in the back of my mind I’m always thinking about the baggage.

Q: That was the old-fashioned way of doing it – like the plane over Lockerbie.

Sliney: From what I’ve read in the papers only 10% of the bags are inspected. Draw your own conclusions.

Q: You meet people today who go to the airport and complain about the security. I thank the guys when they pull me aside. I would rather have a hassle right now –

Sliney: Take your time, I tell them!

Q: I want that plane to land where it’s supposed to land.

Sliney: I’m with you 100%. You know what I do? Get there early.

Q: To go back to the conspiracy stuff, maybe this isn’t your exact area, but people claim that the passengers couldn’t have made those cell phone calls. That it would have been impossible.

Sliney: I checked with some of the techs at work about that. At 30,000 it’s highly unlikely. At 5,000 – they were at 5,000 for a long time, and it certainly would work at that altitude.

But they were on the cell phones – don’t we have the families to back that up?

Q: There are a lot of people with some very strange beliefs. It drives me nuts. It denies the reality of what happened. It denies the reality of the heroes on the plane, as well as the heroes on the ground, in air traffic control.

Sliney: I don’t know that anyone in air traffic control were heroes, but they applied consummate skill in getting the skies clear. These were off the wall, these events. These were events that no one had an inkling could occur. I think the air traffic control system reacted, as did the Northeast Air Defense Sector – at least at the operational level – with expediency and great skill. I thought the movie, in a very narrow sense, I was very happycas that the air traffic control system was portrayed in a very complimentary fashion, and they deserve it. That scene where you see those two targets merge – I’ve lived that. And so has many an air traffic controller. You have a guy, for whatever reason, plowing through your airspace, and you’re uncertain as to his altitude or where he’s going because he’s lost his radio or whatever… two targets merging and you don’t know, I’ll tell you, your heart stops until that target comes out the other side. And it’s happened to every [air traffic controller] too.

Q: Air traffic controlling is one of the highest stress jobs.

Sliney: It certainly is. I see it manifested daily. We keep aspirin of every ilk. They’re constantly with the Rolaids. It’s high stress and high pressure, particularly in this area. In a busy area, with a high volume of planes and the density of the air space is such that it’s a stressful job.

Q: How do you deal with it?

Sliney: I think stress is a subjective thing. And I think that if you are inclined to be highly stressful you will be if you’re a toll taker. But I think we filter out through our training processes, we get people who are better able to handle that stress. How each one relieves it is a very individual, subjective thing. For me as an air traffic controller, I took great pride in accomplishing what I accomplished that day. We do not think of those planes as people. You can’t. You’d go crazy. Every time you have something you can’t control for one reason or another the stress level would cause you to burst. And we do have people who – not frequently – but there are people who go out on traumatic leave, as they call it. They have two planes close together and they have to take a few weeks off to gather themselves.

There is stress and each person copes with it differently. We don’t have suicides, but we’ve had people just get up and walk out, saying, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’

Q: This is obviously not the kind of job you take just because it’s advertised in the paper – you have to be right for it. What kind of person is drawn to this job?

Sliney: I would have said years and years ago that it was the type of person who likes games. Who can see things spatially in their head. Who likes super-fast chess. Stuff’s moving at 2, 3, 400 miles an hour instead of the speed of a chess piece. I think the people who do well at it are the people who manipulate those video games. The young guys now are all intense in terms of their off-duty activities. A lot of them are on those computers where you fly planes or have battles; it’s all new to me. We have bicyclists who compete, we have runners. We have people who have outside jobs, even, just to occupy their time.

As much as you can possibly get they’re completely drug and alcohol free. They’re randomly tested for alcohol and drugs. There is the solace of the bottle, I guess, if you want to forget what you just dealt with on a busy thunderstorm night with planes all over the sky that won’t fly the way you want them to fly because they don’t want to go into the weather. It would be easy to go home and have a couple of pops, but these gentlemen and ladies find other outlets for it.

Q: I’m someone who flies frequently and I hate it. I am terrified of it. What can you tell me to make me feel better?

Sliney: I can tell you that we work 45 million flights a year in America and do it pretty successfully. Statistically, based on accidents per passenger mileage, it’s safer than walking. I think the track record of the aviation system has to be very encouraging for a person who doesn’t like to fly. The only two phases of the flight really where if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen on landing and take off.

Q: Those are what kill me.

Sliney: I think you’re like most people. I bury my nose in a book and I pull it out when I land.

Q: Now I have this device where I can watch movies.

Sliney: Forget it, Jet Blue, that’s all I want to fly. I put the headphones on and I’m lost. Universal flew me over to England on Virgin, and it was amazing – big seats, TV sets. I’ll tell you, they treat you well, these movie people. If they’d just pay you. I’ve said I’d rather negotiate money with a hundred lawyers than one producer. But I love them all! They’ve been great to me, and it was a very novel experience in my life. This is my 61st year – who expects to get involved in the movie industry.

Q: And you’re one of the leads of the film.

Sliney: I don’t understand that. I don’t feel like one of the leads of the film. The way I see it is that the Air Defense Sector and the FAA are setting the events in the proper sequence for the events on the plane so the viewer knows what’s transpiring at the same time as they’re coming to the conclusion that they have to rush the cockpit.

Q: But you’re the guy who walks us through the film.

Sliney: I was a vehicle, the way I saw it as. But I didn’t see it as a leading role. As I say, maybe I should go back and talk to them about the money. Although [producer] Lloyd [Levin] when I saw him in the corridor said, ‘I have no checks on me.’ I had some fun with him.

Q: Lloyd’s a really nice guy.

Sliney: I love him. Lloyd’s an imp. He has the most delightful personality and he has a sense of humor where you have to look to see if he’s kidding.

Q: Paul said they got help from some places, but the FAA didn’t help. Didn’t anyone in the FAA ask you not to get involved?

Sliney: No one has spoken to me about 9/11 from the FAA at all.

Q: Really?

Sliney: I find it a bit strange, but it’s the government. I don’t know. I chided them for not participating in an opportunity to portray the air traffic control system in its finest moment. They should have helped these people get it right.