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April 2006
United 93: An Interview with National Operations Manager Ben Sliney

United 93: An Interview with National Operations Manager Ben Sliney
By Tonisha Johnson

Ben Sliney was in for one hell of a first day at the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, September 11, 2001. One can fathom reliving that day. But replaying yourself reliving that day? That's just what Sliney did as he talks about his surprise role in the film United 93. Sliney reveals that the first person for the job wasn't working out and he was called in to finish the job.

9/11 was your very first day on the job.

Ben Sliney: You got it! 9/11 was my very first day on the job. It was a promotion. It's misleading in that I first started Air Traffic Control in 1964. But for about 18 year hiatus to practice law I've been involved in aviation off and on since that time. When I retired from law; when my secretary retired from law because I could not work without her, she was 72, named Betty, she's passed now, God rest her but I wasn't going to continue. I didn't like law anyhow, it paid well, but it's very demanding in terms of time. I maintained my friendship of course with people in the FAA. The person in charge of the command center asked me, when I would complain about the law to come back to the FAA and I did.

You hold a lot of the responsibility to tell the story. Do feel extreme pressure?

Ben Sliney: No. We shot the scene. It's like a one hour take from start to finish. You do it all at once. All it is a recreation of the actual events of that day. We do it 7 different ways. I don't think we did it the same way twice.

Do you think there's too much emphasis on what happened that day as oppose to the truth?

Ben Sliney: I think that in order to tell the story which is a [reenactment] of the events of United 93Šand not far fetched. I think its dead on that they were coming to that cock pit door and the sub-admissions that you'd get, of course, there'd be naysayers, people who wanted to act right away. They were getting information that plans struck the building and they were going to die anyhow. I think anyone of us would try to take an active in role to take that plane. None of them know actually what's going on, on the ground. The way I look at it, they tried to tell the story of the events of 9/11 thru the FAA people as those events in real time, transpire on the plane. I thought it was very comfortable.

Are you saying there are 7 different outcomes?

Ben Sliney. No. We do it 7 times and he emphasizes on a different portion each time. But you don't change the ultimate presentation of fact. I would never swear, you know. He wanted me to swear. After two takes, he came out and say, you know, can't you just swear? I said well, I don't usually swear. Of course, the people who were there from Air Traffic Control, he said, well doesn't he usually swear? No. He never swears. He had me saying Jesus Christ. I was more uncomfortable seeing that on the screen. I'm sure; the people who make movies want to make it more interesting. They don't want just a dry guy. I mean, I was probably very dry on that day. In that situation that day, I was in authority and I felt that to present a calm authoritative person. I took all the information, acted on it. And that's how I played it that day but certainly for the movies, they want to exaggerate the actual events a little bit. But the truth of the events didn't vary. At least in my perception.

But you were in a different persona in real life than the one on screen?

Ben Sliney: As my daughters observed when we first saw it, they said dad, you give a lot of orders. I did give a lot of orders on that day. One of the perceptions of the people who were on that day, they said there was certainly no doubt about who was in charge. I think it's a matter of animation. I certainly can be animated. I tried cases for many years. I wasn't angry with the witness on the stand but, by golly, he thought I was.

You were brought on as an advisory role. How'd it end up with you playing yourself?

Ben Sliney: They hired an actor to play me. And he was having a little difficulty with it. And after two days, they asked me to do it. I got a note under the door. 5 in the morning, I was getting ready to go to the set, could you please bring your suit, tie, shoes. At the bottom it said Śthis is not a test. This is not a drill'.

Was your part always as big as it was in the final cut?

Ben Sliney: I know nothing about that. I didn't realize it was that big. Even now. It's very strange to see myself on the screen. I almost cringe.

Will you be acting again?

Ben Sliney: No.

What are you doing now?

Ben Sliney: Right now I am an operations manager at the New York Radar Approach Control here in NY. It controls all the radar approach for the New York area.

Has what happened that day changed the outlook of your aviation profession?

Ben Sliney: I will never ever look at a plane again, the same way. Their almost routine in my life since the late 60s. Even today, I can't look at a plane flying over my head without thinking some suspicion in my mind. I want to follow it and see what it's gonna do. I had never seen anything like it. And nothing has every effected me as seeing that plane hit that building.

Do you fly any?

Ben Sliney: Yes. I have no presumptions about flying. We (radar approach) track 45 Million flights per year.

Has this changed procedure?

Ben Sliney: Absolutely. The protocols are much more refined than that day. On that day, the protocol was to get other planes out of its way. Cooperate with typically. And I handled many in the 70s when they were all going off to Cuba. They'd go somewhere, land and negotiate. Trade food and passengers. And it would resolve; the event. We would help facilitate the conclusion of the event. I could not believe that an American or any carrier pilot would fly a plane into a building. I don't care what the hijacker was doing. Even if he had several guns to his head. He would have ducked it in the Hudson. He would have done something to avoid the loss of life on the ground. That's there code. That's what they do. Their very conscious of that. I had trouble resolving that in my mind that day. Like, what the hell was going on?

What was the indication that you knew for sure, that this day was going to end bad?

Ben Sliney: It was a very short time. The first thing was, when one of my assistants, on that day, came to me that day and told me that they had an admission that a flight attendant was stabbed. Now it's starting to take a road that we hadn't been down before. It swiftly escalated after that.

Copyright © 2006 Tonisha Johnson


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