As the 15-year anniversary approaches, I was asked by one of my Civil Air Patrol squadron-mates to write out what 9/11 was like for me.
I was a four-and-a-half year First Officer with Southwest Airlines, on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was flying with Captain Larry Kline, one of the finest Captains I have ever flown with, and we were both based out Phoenix at the time. We had finished the previous night’s flying in Spokane, WA. Spokane was one of my favorite overnights - a beautiful city, with our hotel right on the mighty Spokane River that flowed right through the center of town. I awoke that morning looking forward to taking a nice long run around the river park. We were not scheduled to report to the airport until later in the afternoon.
When I turned on the TV around 7:30 that morning, I thought initially the channel was tuned to a movie channel, and I was watching a scene from “Die Hard V”, or some other B-grade action movie. I flipped to another channel and was confronted by another newscaster with the same background footage of the North Tower collapsing, which had happened only a few minutes prior. Slowly, almost unbelievingly, it began to dawn on me - this was no movie. This was real.
The phone rang in my hotel room. It was Larry. He had just gotten up as well. “Do you have your TV on?”, he asked.
“Yeah, I can’t believe what I’m seeing”.
“I know. We won't be going anywhere today, so just stay put, and I’ll get back to you when I’m able to get through to Crew Scheduling. Right now the phone lines are all clobbered.”
I went back to the TV, trying to grasp the enormity of what had happened. Time seemed suspended, as the same video footage and stories were repeated over and over again. Like most Americans, I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV, with my emotions cycling between shock, horror, and anger. Later that morning I got a call from SK1 Patrick Early, one of my enlisted men in my USN Reserve squadron, of which I was the Executive Officer at the time. He wanted to know where he needed to report, figuring rightly that we were now at war. I let him know that this would all be worked out soon enough. Suddenly, being being a Reservist had a lot more meaning.
After 12 continuous hours in front of a TV, I needed to be in contact with my fellow crew members. A lot of hotels that cater to airlines will have what is called a “hospitality suite”. It is usually a large room set up with a stocked fridge, TV, and a computer, that serves as a private gathering place for crews that have just spent the better part of 12 hours in the public eye. A little after dinner time I wandered down to the suite, just needing to be in contact with other human beings. There were other crew members there, but quite honestly, none of really knew how to act around each other. A beer or a glass of wine might’ve been consumed, but everybody spoke in quiet, hushed tones, as if to be normally vocal would somehow be disrespectful.
The National Airspace System was shut down until further notice. The only aircraft that were flying were military, emergency and law enforcement, and the Civil Air Patrol. All of us wanted to get back in the air ASAP, but the country and her leaders needed time to figure just what the lay of this strange new land was. In assessing the threats at the time, an airliner was the world’s most effective cruise missile. We were told that we would be staying put for at least a week, maybe longer.
During the time we spent cooped up in that hotel, three big questions went through my mind. One, did I know anybody onboard those four airplanes? The aviation community is fairly small, and chances were good that I would know somebody who made up those crews, or more probably - somebody who was killed or injured at the Pentagon. Two, as a Reservist, where was I headed? I remember on August 2, 1991 (the day Iraq invaded Kuwait) - I knew exactly where I was headed, but this was a somewhat unknown enemy (at the time). I knew we were going to war, but didn’t who I would be fighting. A very strange feeling, to say the least. Three, I also knew my industry had just taken a swift kick to the nether regions. Would I be furloughed? Being a Reservist, I knew that I could find ready employment (especially now), but would I have a job to come back to? Sitting around, doing nothing but waiting and wondering, was the worst.
Finally, after six days we were given the go-ahead to fly. We were to fly one leg, from Spokane to Oakland, after which we would be released from any further flying until our next rescheduled trip. At least were headed home. I remember just being happy to be at the airport again, to do a preflight, and the smile Larry gave me when he looked at me, raised two fingers, and said “turn two”. There was significantly less radio chatter on the ATC frequencies (GA and corporate aircraft were still not allowed to fly), although you could feel the relief in all our voices that we now had a job to concentrate on. I don’t remember much more about the flight, except that I could hear applause both when we got airborne and when we touched down. When I got home that night, it felt like I had returned from a 6-month cruise in the Navy - it was surreal.
In epilogue, my Reserve squadron did not get mobilized. We augmented the S-3 Viking training squadron, and since we flew regularly with them already, we simply stayed put and just flew a lot more. Five of my sailors did get cherry-picked to mobilize to active duty and deploy, and they served to augment already-deployed squadrons at sea or units on the ground in Afghanistan. They were the best of our squadron, and I was so proud of them. For those of us left behind, we all felt great to be doing something - really anything - to participate in the defense of our country and help deliver the payback to those that would do us harm. I really think that we Reservists proved our mettle and value during that time.
The airline industry was decimated. In the time before 9/11, the airlines had already started to hemorrhage money as the .com bubble had burst. Luckily, I was at Southwest Airlines and we rode out the economic downturn fairly well, but I had plenty of friends at other airlines that were furloughed, or had to absorb cuts in pay/benefits/retirement. It was ugly. Some airlines didn’t make it. Some of my friends had pretty good airline careers going, but had to start entirely new careers after getting furloughed. Thousands of lives were upended.
Those of us fortunate to hold on to our jobs realized that, post-9/11, the response to a hijacking was forever changed. Before, the training was to go along with the hijacker, try not to provoke them, and hope that the trained professionals would bring about a peaceful resolution. Not any more. People ask me all the time “After 9/11, are you scared it could happen again?”. Truth is, it could always happen again. But I tell them no, there are bulletproof/bombproof doors going to the cockpit nowadays; that pilots can now carry self-defense firearms; and that Federal Air Marshals routinely fly with all airlines. But what else gives me security? Well, on a 737, it’s the 180 personal bodyguards, also known as passengers, that are now there in addition to the crew members that will fight to the death to keep a hijacker from having their way with the jet. We all know there is nothing to lose. The courageous passengers and crew members of United Flight 93 taught us that.
My 9/11 experience was very benign - safely on the ground in a hotel room. My fellow pilots, who were airborne at the time, will tell you of the absolute chaos that took place in getting every single aircraft on the ground as quickly as possible. To me, it is a real tribute to their airmanship and the professionalism of the Air Traffic Controllers that there were no mid-airs, or otherwise bent airplanes when the full gravity of what was happening became evident on that horrible day. I also can not imagine the thoughts of those fighter pilots sent aloft that day, with the very real possibility that they might be ordered to shoot down a civilian airliner, with hundreds of innocent lives aboard, so that they might save thousands of lives on the ground. Finally, my thoughts go to the aircrew in those four airliners. How could they possibly have known the evil that would soon be visited upon them when they pushed back from the gate that morning?
There, but for the Grace of God, go I.