Geography of Flight 93’s Crash Between Backbone Mountain and Mount Davis on September 11, 2001

The crash of United Flight 93 into the Alleghenies near Shanksville in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, has highlighted the region’s geography and even given rise to an urban legend (and have impacts on the state highpoints of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia).

The Allegheny Mountains are massively long and narrow mountains that sometimes run for a hundred miles or more!

In the days after September 11, 2001, when the passengers attained hero status by taking on the hijackers, one of the early stories noted that the plane had crashed into a divinely named “Backbone Mountain.”

It turns out this was close but one ridge away.

Three ridges in particular come into play here. Flight 93 crashed into the ridge between the one that forms Pennsylvania’s highpoint and the one that forms Maryland’s highpoint. The three ridges on the Pennsylvania border on the westestern edge of Maryland from left to right are Negro Mountain (Mount Davis), the ridge where Flight 93 crashed and Backbone Mountain

This map (with the outline of the extreme western Maryland) shows the pertinent ridges as they were impacted by the September 11 crash.

The long narrow ridge that goes through the southwest corner of Maryland is Backbone Mountain. It starts well into Pennsylvania and goes in a southwest direction well into West Virginia (actually going to the west of Spruce Knob). The point near the West Virginia/Maryland border is Hoye-Crest which is the name of knob that is Maryland’s highest point. The thick glob on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border is Negro Mountain. The knob on it — Mount Davis — is the Pennsylvania highpoint. Flight 93 crashed into a valley between the two a little further north than Mount Davis (for good measure on this map, Spruce Knob is straight south a little west of Hoye-Crest). In speculating the course of Flight 93 some wondered if it was headed to Camp David which is in the Catoctin Mountains in central Maryland which the the glob of mountains on the right of the map.

The map is from the official 911 Commission Report. The mass just south south west is Negro Mountain/Mount Davis. Those into prominence could debate whether it is in fact part of Mount Davis.

The ridge to the right of the crash site is a source of interest for conspiracy buffs since debris fell on it. The conspirists believe that this debris trail of about 8 miles to New Baltimore, Pennsylvania, was a sign the plane was disintegrating from an earlier explosion (a “shoot down”) rather than cleanly nose diving into the reclaimed strip mine field.

I’ve spent a lot time reading the various conspiracies — probably more time than I should have.

The arguments initially had credibility for me based on the concept that the plane might have been shot down by a massive electronic jamming device and thus not “technically” shot down. This intial argument had noted there were electrical interruptions on the ground with no power lines down. However the appears to have backed off the argument and instead is favoring a conventional shootdown. The intial article and government cover up held appeal because I could see in the confusion following 911 I could understand why there might be a desire to create heros.

However I have some problems with the conventional shootdown argument that has developed. The “debris” that was found at Indian Lakes as well as on the ridge to New Baltimore has never mounted to much more than lightweight small scraps of paper. It doesn’t strike me as inconsistent that after the plane went down at such a high speed (580 mph according to the 911 Report) that paper from it might plume it into the air.

Conspirarists also make much that the plane seemed to have “dissolved.” Again, logically people forget that planes are intended to be light weight and flimsy so it’s not totally out of line for it to “disappear.” Those of who have really gone off the deep end note that little or no trace was found of the physical plane that hit the Pentagon.

Conspirarists also debate the reports of the direction of Flight 93. According to the official version, the plane which was headed in general southeast towards Washington. Just before the hijackers crashed the plane (as witnessed by their comments from the cockpit recorder) it took a “hard right.” Given the speeds involved and the sharpness of this maneuver I can understand why eyewitnesses on the ground could have perceived the plane to be headed west over the ridge when it crashed.

Much like the Kennedy assassination conspiracies, the alternatives to the official story are pretty fantastic and in themselves have problems (some argue all the planes were taken out to sea and passengers killed and drones went sent to New York, Washington and Pennsylvania).

Below is a map of Maryland showing the complete topography.

Click to see a bigger image of the map.

Here’s a map generated from 3dem showing a close up of the ridges.

Click to see a bigger image version of the map.

The mountains around the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania. This photo is from the official NPS Flight 93 Memorial site. Mountains here are dramatic cone shaped summits. Rather they enormously long ridges.
Directions to Site
Map from

Flight 93 Memorial Contest – You will note many of the finalists have a dual meaning for 40 which is the number of people on the flight and the latitude of the crash site (40N).’s photos of site – Great shots showing the surrounding mountains. Undoubtedly Mount Davis which is very near is in the shots and is probably the ridge in the distant peeking over the background. However, since Mount Davis is not distinictive in shape, I cannot categorically say which pictures include it. This site sticks to the argument that the plane was shot down.

911 Commission Report – The report 46 pages in .pdf format explains the official position on what happened. The commission’s website.

Geocache at Flight93 – There is a geocache (you don’t take anything and leave only comments) near the memorial. The site has all the great geographic links and maps for getting you there.

Flight 93 (40.05523N 78.90113W)
Spruce Knob (38.69972N 79.53306W)
Hoye-Crest (Backbone Mountain) 39.2373°N, 79.4856°W
Mount Davis (Negro Mountain) 39.786ºN 79.176ºW

Personal Note:
Flight 93 has become something of a personal obsession for me. We visited Backbone Mountain/Mount Davis in August 2001 — driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near where the crash occurred. Then in turn going back to my home in New York City via the Pentagon and Washington, DC. My golden retriever Zephyr and I had flown out of Newark Airport (source of Flight 93) on Saturday, Sept. 8 to Utah. We were climbing Kings Peak on September 11 and I had no idea of the events on the 2 night/3 day hike until returning to the trail head. So we drove back to NYC rather than flying back to Newark while the airlines were shut down.

Since I had in effect been to all three sites in the month before 9/11 and the fact that the WTC were once the “world’s highest” I thought I had an obligation to do something. When newspaper reports emphasized that artists rather than historians would be deciding what to do with Ground Zero, I felt a need to submit a proposal showing what I thought was obvious — Ground Zero should be a historical site on the scale of the USS Arizona, Alamo or Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome. I was certain this was so self-evident that some flavor of this by somebody would be selected. What has emerged as the master plan is a plan to turn it into an artistic park sanitized of all above ground relics. There’s no sphere. No ruined walls. Just two holes in the ground (with a Performing Arts Center on top of them). So I have set up which is my protest against what is happening. I’m probably on the fringe here but I’m right! 😉

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One Response to Geography of Flight 93’s Crash Between Backbone Mountain and Mount Davis on September 11, 2001

  1. Anonymous says:

    If you can’t afford to go there for real, get Google Earth and install it, go to Shanksville PA, find the crash site, and tilt down to horizontal.

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