On September 11, 2001, every one of us had our world rocked to the very foundation. At the time, I was a captain with United Airlines thus my nation, my company, my career, and my friends were directly attacked.
Luckily, I was at home that day. It was a clear warm day in Kansas too. In fact, I was putting a steel roof on a shop building I had. The days had been quite hot, so I was up at sunrise to work before the sun got too high.
I took a break to get a drink and rest a bit, and turned on the TV to FOX and Friends while I took a seat in our sunroom. They were just being alerted to a fire in one of the towers. Reports were that a small plane had flown into the tower, and as smoke flowed out of the gaping hole I took note of the clear skies.
While these towers are quite tall, that is very low altitude for a plane over a metropolitan area and with unrestricted visibility the likelihood this was some random accident seemed remote. Some witnesses were saying it was a small twin-engine plane; I learned later that it was an American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767.
After awhile, I decided I needed to get back to work. I stood up to leave and watched as a commercial jet flew into the second tower- the fire and debris spewing out the other side. The emotions that went through me at that moment were legion. This was United Airlines Flight 175, another Boeing 767.
Word of other hijacked planes began to circulate. I had visions of dozens of planes being flown into buildings in all the major cities. The phone rang. It was the first of probably 50 calls that day asking if I was flying or at home.
Next, word came that American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 flew into the Pentagon and United Flight 93 had made a U-turn and was flying towards Washington D.C. Would U.S. fighter pilots be called on to shoot down a civilian airliner over U.S. soil?
How would this day end?
I always wondered if the swift action of the administration to ground all flights may have thwarted more hijacking plans. To this day, the thought of dead pilots and flight attendants laying on the floor of United Flight 93 as the operator heard Todd Beemer say, “Let’s roll” and he and his fellow passengers knew what they had to do, brings tears to my eyes. They knew the rules of the game had changed. No longer were planes hijacked for ransom or to fly to asylum; they had become guided missiles.
I did not watch the movie inspired by this event, it is just too close to home.
The nation was in shock for several days. When flights were no longer grounded, I was commuting from my home in Kansas to my base in Los Angeles, changing planes at Denver International when President Bush spoke to the nation. The terminal was nearly empty, but what people were there, all crowded around the TVs and watched silently as he spoke. We were not conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, we were all Americans.
I’ll share two stories I learned in those coming days. A close friend who was also a United pilot told me about his daughter who was a flight attendant for American. She was inbound to LaGuardia airport in New York the morning of the 11th. She was going through the cabin checking for seatbelts and such, when a passenger told her one of the towers was on fire. He pointed out the window and she leaned over to look, and she saw the second plane hit. She told her dad, “It didn’t even look real, it was more like a movie.”
The other story is from a B-727 cockpit crew on that day. They all happened to be former military. They were about half way from Dallas to Denver when they got a computer message from dispatch, “Security OK?” They responded “Yes.” A Moment later, another message, “Are you sure, security OK?” Once again they responded “Yes,” and of course, the three of them began to speculate the reason for the questions. Then a message from Air Traffic Control (ATC) came: “United XXXX, now cleared direct Denver, no restrictions.” The crew looked at each other.
First the questions from dispatch and now this. Clearances like that are never given, and they really did not know what it meant. The captain asked ATC, “Please explain.”
“You are cleared direct to Denver, do not turn, do not slow down, get on the ground as soon as you can.” As former members of the military, they all believed us to be at war, but they assumed it was a nuclear war with Russia, China, or a rogue nation. The reality of what the situation was, never came to their minds.
As I reflect on these events, I am saddened by many things. The loss of life, of course, is first and foremost. The changes to my job, company, and career were dramatic, and many friends were laid off for years. The reaction to growing government in response to the attack- to exchange liberty for security. In the end, we have neither, nor do we deserve them.
However, if I could go back in time, I might choose to go back to 9/12 and those days that followed. We were not defined and divided by presidential candidates or politics. We were Americans, united in purpose, united in sorrow and united in our resolve.
Sadly, it will likely take another catastrophic event to brings us closer to God and each other again.