AB9IL.net: My Recollections of Flying on 9/11

Written and curated by Philip Collier / AB9IL. Hey, Trolls: Convicted felon Trump is going to jail; Putin to hell. Say goodbye.
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On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Phoenix, Arizona, on a flying assinment with ATA Airlines. My position then was Boeing 757 first officer, and I had flown in on September 10, from Chicago Midway Airport. My schedule for 9/11 initially included three legs: Phoenix to Midway, Midway to Washington National, and back to Midway. The company, due to light passenger bookings, decided to substitute a Boeing 727 for the remainder of the trip. Without an aircraft to fly, I was advised to simply deadhead back to Midway on September 11. My plan was to ride flight 751 to Chicago, then go to my apartment.

Everything was routine in the Phoenix pre-dawn hours as we crewmembers rode to the airport, quickly traverssed security screening, and went to the airplane. Officially, my status was "jumpseater": a pilot traveling with the captain's permission on the flight deck. If there were any seats available in the passenger cabin, I was welcome to occupy one. Also, a jumpseater is expected to help the crew in any way possible during the flight. On the flight deck, we're expected to watch for traffic, call out any hazards, and maintain situational awareness. If you tell a good joke or bring some good coffee for the crew, you're immediately an asset to the flight!

All was normal during boarding, and Captain Robert Purdy suggested I relax in a regular cabin seat while we were enroute. My experience on this flight was far from relaxing. We passed through the looking glass during climb-out.

While Amtran 751 was climbing into the lower flight levels, the flight deck crew passed unsettling reports of a crash at the World Trade Center to the flight attendants. No one yet knew what airline was involved. When things like that happen, in the small world of aviation, a friend or acqaintance could be involved. Worse yet, it may be your own company involved and multiple people close to you have just died. Soon another crash was reported at the World Trade Center, and Captain Purdy advised that this crew (on Amtran 751) were probably not going to complete the rest of their scheduled trip to Washington that day. The flight attendants were clearly disturbed, and I also felt something was very wrong. We initially didn't believe the news. Either it was a very bad joke or something truly horrible in progress, and I set off to the cockpit to find out.

For the last time in my career, I went to the cockpit door, knocked, and opened it from the cabin side. At that moment Captain Purdy, first officer Matt Perez, and flight engineer Hosie (this was a 727) spun their heads around in alarm. When they recognized me, they asked me to shut the door, sit down on a jumpseat, and don a headset. My help was expected so that the crew could concentrate on completing this flight. I could not believe what I heard on our air-to-ground radios. On COMM 1, Albuquerque Center was sternly advising all flights to pick airports and plan to land, because coordinated hijackings were taking place. ATC suggested all crews make sure their flight deck doors were LOCKED. New York and Washigton DC had suffered deadly crashes, other planes were missing. The military wanted the airspace cleared in preparation for SCATANA. On COMM 2, used to conduct business with our airline dispatcher, there was a sea of interference from other flights calling their own dispatchers. The squeals and heterodynes were so loud they reminded me of CB channel 19. We needed to land somewhere, probably Phoenix, and could not delay going back. But there was more uncertainty for us - we had an armed plainclothes law enforcement officer aboard, and were not convinced of his authenticity. Was he going to be a problem, or could he help us?

Through the interference, we asked dispatch to call the armed passenger's office and verify that he was not an imposter. We wanted on his help in preventing a hijacking. He turned out to be legitimate, and I was asked to return to the cabin to enlist his assistance. Trying to be discrete, I re-affirmed to the flight attendants what was going on, and then told the law enforcement officer that the captain had requested a moment to talk on the interphone. Our plan was for the cop and I to occupy seats near the cockpit and defend against any attempts to take the plane during our 40 minute return to Phoenix. He had one weapon concealed on him, and had another concealed in a backpack stowed where I was sitting. The flight attendants would monitor the passengers, keep them calm, and give no details about the attacks on America. All I said to inquisitive passengers was, "this aircraft is okay; we must turn around due to airspace closures." One passenger, who had been listening to a walkman radio, did mention hearing of the terrorist attacks, but he was instructed to turn off his radio and be quiet until we were on the ground. It was one of those situations where you "do a deerhunter" and say, "it's gonna be al right" when you feel that things could go very badly.

It may seem odd, but I didn't feel outright fear at this time. My thoughts were about watching the passengers, and hoping that they all stayed seated and created no disturbances. I ran a few mental scenarios of going to the backpack, pulling the weapon, and taking down people in the aisle. Us or them. Breathe easy, aim, squeeze off a couple of rounds, breathe easy, squeeze off a couple more rounds. Nobody takes this plane. I don't like being here, but who's asking me? Everyone chill out and stay seated, and there won't be any violence.

By 7:30 AM, local time, we had arrived at our gate at Sky Harbor Airport, and the terminal was nearly empty. There was one coffee shop with CNN on, alternately replaying the collapsing towers, UA175 exploding in a fireball, and flames erupting from where AA77 hit the Pentagon. I turned on my cellphone and spent the next 30 minutes checking in with family members. It seemed that the world had suddenly moved into the surreal, and would not ever return.

The WTC and Pentagon were familiar places to me. As a young man, I went to college in Washington DC. and had been up and down the footpaths around the pentagon and Crystal City. While flight instructing at White Plains, NY, I did lots of scenic flights up and down the Hudson. My passengers / students would look up an awe at those towers as we went by at a mere 800 feet. Sometimes I strolled around the World Trade Center complex on days off, enjoying the crowds and coffee shops around there. As a regional pilot at Business Express Airlines, I was in and out of those cities constantly. Clear autumn days were perfect for flying visually between the Albany area and New York via the Hudson River - you could sometimes see the city from 100 miles, if you had enough altitude. It was distressing to think of these familiar places and people being subjected to destruction on such a large scale. It felt as though someone went on a intense killing spree in my neighborhood, misusing a wonderful airplane type that was designed around the idea of safe and efficient flying. For what? Fighting the inevitable social, political, and economic changes coming to the Middle East? There was the basis of a lot of my rage at what happened on September 11.

The next days were punctuated by eerily quiet skies and a feelng that the next shoe was soon to drop. Wednesday and Thursday, the company instructed us all to be ready to fly, then cancelled the proposed PHX-MDW leg. We finally made it back to Chicago on Friday, in an extremely tense transportation system. There were long slow lines at security checkpoints, and everyone was wary of the next attack. In the following weeks and months, my airline flew nearly empty planes in domestic scheduled service, and planes nearly full of military personnel in charters to the Middle East and Asia. I watched bombers depart Diego Garcia to blast the hell out of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. No doubt my passengers on those charters wiped out a lot of Taliban and Al Qaeda, and I felt justice was being done. Harmful vermin were being exterminated.

As we approach eight years since 9/11, maybe I have a broader perspective on things. I no longer feel the boiling blood rage of those first days after crossing to this side of the looking glass. The war has been long and destructive, but there have been other, more deadly and destructive, wars in human history. Eventually this one will pass, and the badlands will be tamed. Societies that get along with others, integrate, and function will inherit this planet, and the disfunctional societies will certainly become extinct.

Edit (21 years after 9/11): Everything I said in the paragraph above still stands. If you have the same rage that I had, let it go. Islam is not our enemy, nor is it Christianity or any specific ethnicity of people. We are all people; it is our right to believe and practice our religions in the manner we choose. We have allies of all faiths.

I still have not gone to visit Ground Zero. The rage is gone, but I am still not ready.

War against the people who perpetrated 9/11, or sheltered and assisted them, is over. It is shameful, though, that my country abandoned Afghanistan. Maybe they weren't the biggest or richest allies, but they were good allies. Why do we maintain such close ties to murderous (but oil-rich) autocrats in Saudi Arabia? Isis still exists and is lopping off heads in the MENA region. Plus, so-called Christian nationalists are spooling up a facist insurgency in the USA. There is going to be another clash with RELIGIOUS EXTREMISTS, and it will happen soon.

The real conflict of the 21st century is against autocracy. A conflict against people who intend to destroy self-governance and pluralism.

There are billionaires, oligarchs, heads of state, and malicious bastards with influence who reject that we are all created equal. They intend to divide the planet along regional lines by race or ethnicity, then strip the planet. You and I can drink polluted water. You and I can breathe polluted air. You and I can be displaced due to drought or floods. You and I can otherwise die so they may enjoy a morbidly high standard of living. It is tempting and deceptive to some persons; plain and repugnant to others.

Eldridge Cleaver set out the choice, decades ago: If you (or I) are not going to be part of the solution, then you (or I) are part of the problem.

END of Edit.

Stand tall, hang tough, and take care of each other,
Philip Collier

-- Adapted for AB9IL.NET from my submission to the Smithsonian's September 11 Digital Archive.

The TV stations transmitting from One World Trade Center were a favorite long distance TV catch for me in the early 1980s, from Baltimore, MD. Read about my early activities chasing New York TV dx. Loss of the broadcast facilities in WTC1 was a huge shock to broadcasting in New York; read on about the efforts of New York stations to stay on the air after the September 11 attacks.

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