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.

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.

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 –

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?

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

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

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.’

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.