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Tuesday, 11 September, 2001, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
Could the planes have been stopped?
CNN shot of plane and World Trade Centre
Air traffic control would have watched the disaster unfold
Security experts are agreed that it would have been very hard to stop the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and other sites - simply because they were so ambitious.

Chris Yates, aviation security editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said it would have been way beyond the reach of ordinary security measures.

"This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that's ever taken place in the world,"

When you get people determined to commit acts of terrorism, it is almost impossible to stop them

Phil Butterworth-Hayes, civil aviation expert

"It takes a logistics operation from the terror group involved that is second to none."

Details are still unclear, but at least two of the planes involved were understood to have been hijacked from US airports on Tuesday morning.

One is thought to have been diverted to New York after take-off from Boston, and one from Washington - both were en route to Los Angeles.

Air traffic control personnel "would have known immediately" when the planes veered away from their normal route, according to Mr Yates.

"They are monitoring the flight paths all the time, constantly monitoring them on screens in front of them.

"The controller would see straightaway that the flight profiles had gone away from the norm."

However, Mr Yates said there is little that can be done if a pilot is determined on destruction.

They will have been frantically trying to contact the planes that have gone off their trajectory

Aviation security expert Chris Yates

"Their first role is to get all other planes out of the way first - to warn any other contactable plane of close proximity and the potential for an accident.

"They will have been frantically trying to contact the planes that have gone off their trajectory.

"But if that doesn't work their only option would be possibly to scramble military jets."

Military planes can go into action "within minutes" in the case of an emergency, he said.

But if the plane changed course only shortly before reaching its target, it would have been too late.

And the military choices would have been limited by the circumstances anyway - with potentially hundreds of passengers on board, and a city centre underneath.

Security 'retrospective'

Mr Yates' colleague Phil Butterworth-Hayes, the civil aviation editor with the Janes information group, agreed that it would have been difficult to prevent such a sophisticated attack.

Terrorists are "always one step ahead" of the institutions that really need protection, he said.

"When you get people determined to commit acts of terrorism, it is almost impossible to stop them," he said.

"Aviation security tends to be retrospective. New measures are only put in place after something has happened.

"Aviation thought that it had sorted out the bombs-in-holds problem after Lockerbie, but now there is a fresh problem to resolve."

BBC diplomatic editor Brian Hanrahan agreed that security experts would have been hard pushed to stop such an extraordinary attack.

"This is something we haven't seen happening in mainstream terrorist attacks in countries like the United States before," he said.

"This is sophisticated, suicidal and there's a degree of ruthlessness which we haven't ever seen in the use of terrorism anywhere in the world before.

"This is quite unprecedented, it's on a different scale and it does require detailed knowledge and organisation, and a degree or sophistication which we would be surprised at, I think."

See also:

11 Sep 01 | Americas
US rocked by terrorist attacks
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