Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Occam's Razor and the No-Planes Theory

Of all "alternative" theories to September 11, the one presented in Loose Change is probably the best known and most complex. Producer Dylan Avery proposes that none of the four planes actually hit their targets. The Twin Towers were hit by substitute planes. The Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile. The passengers the four planes were actually transferred onto Flight 93, which did not crash, but landed in Cleveland. (The crater in Pennsylvania was dug to simulate a crash). The passengers were taken from the plane and have not been seen since. All four planes may still be in service.

Occam could wear out several razor blades shaving off the needless complications here. On September 11, 2001, four planes deviate from their courses and stop responding to radio. Two of the planes broadcast messages from apparent hijackers. People who have never met, in completely different locations, simultaneously begin receiving calls from family members on board reporting the planes have been hijacked. Two planes are filmed flying into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Numerous witnesses see another plane fly into the Pentagon. The fourth plane vanishes, leaving behind a crater and debris. None of the four planes or the people on board have been seen since. What is the simplest explanation? Why, that that three hijacked planes hit the targets and the fourth one crashed!

Consider the problems with Avery's scenario. When were the substitutions made? Presumably not before boarding. Preventing the passengers from boarding the planes would have attracted attention. Not between boarding and takeoff. Switching planes on the runway would also have attracted attention. So the substitution must have taken place in the air, where there would be no witnesses except the air traffic controllers. But problems appear here, too. Air traffic controller track planes in two ways, by tracking each plane's unique transponder signal, or by radar. The transponder is more accurate because radar does not indicate the plane's altitude or identity. Air traffic controllers tracking the four planes on September 11 noticed that they failed to respond to instructions and turned off their transponders or changed transponder codes and that the planes deviated from flight paths. On Flight 93 the air traffic controller even overheard the takeover. But they did not observe any decoy flights. Avery makes no attempt to explain how the air traffic controllers were failed to notice the substitution. Other conspiracy theorists have proposed that all four planes were warned of a terrorist attack and commanded to turn off their transponders, maintain radio silence, and land at a military base. Before each of the planes landed, a decoy was sent up to match its flight path, either above or below it, so as to fool air controllers into thinking that the decoy's radar blip was from the original flight.

Decoys would have been needed, not only to hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but to allow Flight 93 to sneak off to a hidden rendezvous unnoticed. After hearing the takeover of Flight 93 at 9:28, air traffic controllers continued to follow its transponder signal until 9:41 and to follow the radar blip until around 9:53. Even after radar contact was lost, other aircraft saw Flight 93 in the vicinity of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. At 10:08, they saw black smoke rising. So, if Flight 93 was meeting the others in an unknown location and then heading to Cleveland, something else would have to take its place. And someone would have to set off a smoke bomb within minutes of its apparent crash. Not to mention the question of how the conspirators managed to dig the crater where Avery says the crash was faked without leaving any tracks of earth-moving equipment.

I will admit to not knowing enough about air traffic to say for certain that it would be impossible for controllers to miss hearing secret commands or seeing the decoys' radar blips converge with and then diverge from the four planes. Nor can I say with certainty that the pilots would have noticed the decoy planes paralleling them and reported this anomaly. But it seems far-fetched.
And even if the substitution could have taken place in the air unnoticed, the no-planes theory leaves other unanswered questions. Where did the decoy planes and cruise missile come from? Where did the four hijacked planes meet? (Not Cleveland; that is where Flight 93 went after the passengers were transferred). Why did no one notice the four planes meeting up where ever they went? And what became of the planes and passengers afterward?

Avery attempts to answer only this last question. He acknowledges not knowing what happened to the people on board the planes. As for the planes themselves, he suggests that they are still in use. His evidence for this is that two of their tail numbers are still valid and the tail number of Flight 93 was spotted in Chicago in 2003. That is, however, the only reported sighting of any of the four planes. Furthermore, Flight 93's tail number of N591UA was spotted on a plane whose official tail number is N594UA. Applying Occam's Razor, which is the more plausible explanation, that someone mistook one digit of a plane's tail number, or that the plane has been in use all these years and only one person has ever seen it?

Avery says he originally intended Loose Change as a work of fiction but ended up being convinced that it was true. And, indeed, Loose Change comes across more like a fiction writer trying to be clever than anything that would happen in the real world. A clever enough fiction writer might be able to make up explanations for all the holes in the story -- where the decoys and cruise missile came from, how the air traffic controllers failed to notice the substitution, where the planes met, how they avoided being detected, and why neither the planes nor the people on board were never seen again. But that still leaves one obvious question that Loose Change never even attempts to address. Why would the government conspirators attempt such an absurdly complex plot with so many potential places to fail when flying the planes into their targets would be so much easier?

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