Flying Elephant or Routine Takeoff?
Evidence for Involvement of a Third Jet in the WTC Attacks
Evaporates Under Scrutiny
by Jim Hoffman
Version 0.9 - 2007-02-25
Version 1.0 - 2007-03-15
Version 1.1 - 2007-03-22
"The Flying Elephant:
Evidence for Involvement of a Third Jet in the WTC Attacks"
was published in the
Journal of 9/11 Studies
The premise of the article is that two videos and a photograph
show a jetliner
"orbiting in close proximity to the towers for several minutes
while the North Tower burned and the South Tower was struck."
After asserting, without any analysis,
that jetliners shown in these visual records were close to the Twin Towers,
the article provides several items to support its case that there was a suspicious
third jet circling the World Trade Center prior to the South Tower crash:
- "At 9:04am, Diane Sawyer of ABC News made remarks on-air about the 'circling'
jet she and her colleagues 'all saw' prior to the second strike."
- "... the phenomenon, acknowledged but unexplained by the Commission of the
'phantom Flight 11'."
- "... reports by FDNY personnel that they received a warning about
a third aircraft. Deputy Chief Peter Hayden [...] explained
'We had a report from OEM that there was possibility of a third plane coming in.'"
- "... in the Naudet's documentary 9/11, a firefighter is filmed
explaining what caused the collapse of the South Tower:
'The FBI thinks it as a third plane.'"
- "On one NORAD drill, 'Vigilant Guardian', is admitted by the Commission
to have been in progress but is dismissed in a footnote as being unrelated
to the hijacking scenario..."
The article concludes by highlighting in bold blue text
a theory, posed as a question,
that the alleged third aircraft was part of the military exercises
underway on 9/11/01, and that it was involved in the attack in some way.
Examination of the visual evidence cited by the article
shows that its premise is wrong.
Below, I use simple geometric calculations to demonstrate
that the aircraft shown in the videos are far from the World Trade Center
and probably on normal flight paths.
As for the other items the article uses to corroborate its theory,
each has a simple explanation that doesn't involve a suspicious third aircraft.
Features of Article
The article has several features which are commonly seen
in misinformation that plagues the citizens' investigation of the 9/11 attack,
an appeal to mistaken intuitions,
an illusory cumulative case,
and an appeal to pity.
The article's unsupported claim that the visual records show a plane
close to the Twin Towers is similar to other claims promoted as 9/11 truth
that invite the viewer to jump to conclusions on the basis of fuzzy images.
One example is the suggestion that photographs of the
plane approaching the South Tower show a missile pod
under its fuselage.
Another is the contention that security camera footage released by the Pentagon
shows a missile or Global Hawk rather than a jetliner.
Mistaken intuitions are a staple of flimsy claims presented as 9/11 truth,
such as the idea that large intact pieces of a Boeing 757 should have survived
the Pentagon crash and been visible outside of the building,
or that the crash should have punched a cartoon-like profile of a 757
into the Pentagon's facade.
One needs only study the aftermath of other
high-speed plane crashes to disabuse oneself of such notions.
The Illusory Cumulative Case
The fact that the article adduces five points in addition to the
two videos and one photograph to support its conclusion
gives the impression that it makes a substantial cumulative case
for the involvement of a third plane in the attack on the World Trade Center.
The fact that each of these five points readily admits to an explanation
not supporting the article's conclusion
can be easily overlooked by a reader who has accepted the article's
assertion that the visual records show a plane circling the Twin Towers.
This, again, is similar to the case made by advocates of the Pentagon
no-jetliner theory, whose long list of claims
provides adherents of the theory with a menu of reasons
to avoid re-evaluating their acceptance of the theory.
The article is attributed to "Scholars for 9/11 Truth",
and references a footnote alleging that the author received
"threats against himself and his family for having written this article."
The footnote further states that
"it would be a huge mistake to allow this organization and its journal
to be manipulated by external threats."
Appeals to pity in the form of unsubstantiated claims of threats and censorship
are frequently used to bolster nonsensical theories about the 9/11 attack.
Is this article another example?
Perhaps the allegation of threats is merely a ploy
to compromise the objectivity of the Journal's reviewers.
In this review, I show that the article provides no
"evidence for Involvement of a Third Jet."
However, it is easy to find evidence that the article
has been used as a tool to discredit the
Journal of 9/11 Studies
by providing a target for ridicule and distraction from the Journal's
more substantial contributions.
For example, the
Journal of Debunking 911 Conspiracy Theories, Volume 1, Issue 1
features as its first article a 10-page debunking of the
"Fleas under a Microscope."
The Article's Flawed Premise
The article does not provide any analysis to support its claim that the
aircraft seen in the videos and photograph are close to the Towers --
the underpinning of its alleged evidence of involvement of a third jetliner.
In the following, I'll do the math that the article doesn't,
and show that the apparent jetliners in the videos
are miles from the Twin Towers
and are likely on normal flight paths for jetliner traffic --
traffic that was not disrupted until after the South Tower was hit.
I will examine the three pieces of visual "evidence" that the article
provides to support the idea that a jetliner was flying close to the towers:
The article asserts that the aircraft
"cruises slowly near the stricken North Tower, seemingly unconcerned
its behavior makes it a logical target for these fighters."
Putting aside questions about the veracity of the imagery
in the video segments, what do they show about the flying object or objects?
I'll examine the first video segment carefully,
and extrapolate my conclusions about it to the other video and the photograph.
The First Video
The article provides the following source for the first video:
What can be determined about the position of the plane in the first video?
If the position of the camera and length of the plane is known,
then the plane's position can be estimated using triangulation.
There is enough foreground imagery in the latter part of the video
clip to establish camera's position to within a few feet, if necessary.
But even without going to that trouble,
it's obvious that the video was taken in a residential location in Brooklyn
directly southeast of the World Trade Center, and therefore,
at least 7,000 feet from the Twin Towers.
The video shows a what appears to a be a twin-engine jetliner
like a Boeing 767, 777, or 737, or Airbus 320 or 330.
When the plane first emerges from behind the North Tower,
it appears to be flying on a heading approximately parallel
to the North Tower's southeast face,
so its fuselage is visible almost in profile.
At that point the fuselage is about 25 percent as long as the tower's face.
Even the shortest of jetliners that are reasonable candidates
have fuselages that are more than half of the width of a Tower.
Thus, for the jetliner's fuselage to appear one-fourth as long
as the Tower's width from a vantage point 7,000 feet to the southeast,
the jetliner would have to be at least 7,000 feet to the northwest
of the Tower.
For larger distances of the camera to the Tower
and for jetliners with longer fuselages,
the distance of the plane from the Tower would increase.
More reasonable estimates for the camera distance and jetliner length
are 12,000 feet and 190 feet, respectively.
To compute the distance of the plane to the camera,
we can use the following formula:
4*plane-length*camera-to-tower-distance/tower-width - camera-to-tower-distance
Plugging in the values of 12,000 and 190 feet, we get:
4*190*12000/210 - 12000 = 31428
That puts the plane six miles to the northeast of the Twin Towers.
Newark International Airport is located
eight miles southwest of the World Trade Center.
An aircraft taking off in a northeasterly direction from the airport's main runway
and flying toward Europe could easily pass within 6 miles of the World Trade Center.
The figure below illustrates such a route, and the line of site from
a location in Brooklyn where the camera might have been to the North Tower,
and to the jetliner emerging from behind it on that route.
The article provides no source information for the photograph.
The photograph shows a horizontal patch near the top of the frame
that is about 30 percent of the angular width of the North Tower.
The article asserts that the photograph shows an aircraft
"flying another pass almost directly above WTC2
at an altitude of approximately 2,000 feet, judging by its size
and position relative to the smoke plume,
to which it appears recklessly close."
Given the lack of sourcing for the photograph,
and the fact that editing in the alleged plane would have been trivial,
it has no value as evidence about flights on 9/11/01.
However, even if we assume that the photograph has not been edited
and that it shows a jetliner,
simple geometric calculations would again show that the jetliner
is miles behind the Towers.
The Second Video
The article provides the following source for the second video:
This video, like the first one, was clearly taken from a position in Brooklyn,
though from a slightly closer and more southerly location.
Once again, simple geometric calculations would show that the plane,
if a jetliner,
would be miles behind the Twin Towers.
I have shown that the article
"The Flying Elephant:
Evidence for Involvement of a Third Jet in the WTC Attacks"
is based on the flawed premise
that visual records show a plane flying close to the Twin Towers
between the times of the first and second plane crashes.
I leave it to the reader to evaluate the other "evidence"
that the article cites to support this premise.
I have also shown that the article bears several features commonly observed
in promotions of flimsy claims that have helped to discredit
citizens' investigations of the 9/11 attack.
This does not imply malicious intent on the part of the article's author,
but it does expose a lack of scientific rigor
which makes the article an easy target for ridicule.
The 'missile pod' claim was introduced in 2003 and promoted in the
video In Plane Site.
"ERROR: 'A Pod Was Attached to the South Tower Plane'"
See "ERROR: 'Aircraft Crashes Always Leave Large Debris'"
"Jetliner Crash Debris:
Examples of Jetliner Crashes Leaving Little Recognizable Debris"
See the list of claims listed on page
"Pentagon Attack Errors"
and the presentation
"The Pentagon Attack: The No-Jetliner Claims"
The Journal of 9/11 Studies
amended the "Flying Elephant" article critiqued by Version 1.0 of this review
to indicate that James Fetzer was the author of the footnote
"Fleas under a Microscope:
Evidence there was no third jet involved in the World Trade Center attacks"