When We Flew Again
Memories from Sept. 14, 2001
The 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed the U.S. airline industry. But just a few days later, the U.S. aviation system was up and running again, with airline pilots taking back to the skies.
The following accounts (published in the September 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot) are directly from ALPA pilots who flew the line those first days after 9/11—their thoughts, fears, and other emotions. Read additional pilot submissions. Thanks to all who shared their stories. We must never forget.
“When we got to the airport the morning of September 14, it was chaos. We took off for Newark with a full airplane of passengers and deadheading crewmembers trying to get home. We must have been around 15 miles from Newark when the controller cleared us for a visual approach to Runway 4R. This was unusual enough in that even when Newark is quiet, they don’t clear you for a visual approach that far out.
“Almost as an afterthought, the controller said, ‘Before you go, you have traffic at your 12 o’clock, four miles opposite direction, altitude indicates 400 feet above you.’ I asked the controller, ‘What’s their type?’ The controller responded, ‘I believe they’re F-15s.’
“Within seconds, two F-15s flew directly overhead and then were right alongside us. I knew fighter jets were maneuverable, but I didn’t know they could do what I saw them do. The two F-15 Eagles stayed with us down to about 200 feet, staying between us and Manhattan—where at that moment President Bush was standing on a fire truck, bullhorn in hand, at Ground Zero. That was my welcome home on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001.”—Capt. Jim Devaney (United)
“My airline was actually able to get up and flying on September 13. I was at home in Grand Rapids, Mich., but my flight case was at operations in Milwaukee, Wisc. The chief pilot deadheaded to Grand Rapids with my flight case so that we could operate a plane that had diverted here on its way back to Milwaukee. I then flew on from there as captain on the Dornier 328Jet, N357SK, Midwest Airlines Flight 2280 Milwaukee to Washington Dulles.
“My logbook entry from that day has a notation that reads, ‘Some very quiet airwaves.’ Imagine our little airline flying before the rest of the industry started back on September 14; no wonder the radio frequencies were almost silent. I think the word quiet sums up the feeling of that day for me. Quiet—as in the hushed, reverential silences of a funeral. It felt to me as I contemplated this unique ‘quietness’ that I was trying to come to terms with a new reality.
“Returning to Washington Dulles after the overnight, it was a different sight to see the military presence everywhere, with machine-gun-holding soldiers watching the comings and goings. Was this to be the new normal? It reminded me of the security seen in Europe at the time, maybe more so.”—Capt. Dana Mettler (Endeavor Air)
“When flying resumed on September 14, chaos reigned. Planes had landed at the nearest available field, people had made their way by land, and I suspected pilots were needed. Though not scheduled to fly, I called scheduling to see if I could help. The response was emphatic.
“‘Can you get to an airport? Any airport?’ the scheduler asked. I said that I could drive to Cincinnati. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘We’ll have a flight for you when you get there.’
“The plane was nearly empty, but we quickly took off bound for La Guardia. I will never forget the sight as we turned at the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge and flew up the Hudson River that bright, sunny day. The two towers were still billowing smoke.
“I thought of the lives lost, the families left behind, and the profound effect that day had on all of us. I still couldn’t believe someone would do this to so many innocent people. I was dumbfounded, sad, and angry all at the same time.”—Capt. Cathy Jacob (Delta)
“Late Thursday night, United called and said I would be flying one of first flights out on Friday, September 14: San Francisco–Chicago–Newark. They asked if I was okay with that, and I replied, ‘Yup. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.’
“The radio was very quiet; air traffic controllers all offered condolences and wished us well—every last one of them. I switched aircraft to the B-757-200 in Chicago. Same type of flight: quiet.
“But when we arrived in Newark and walked off the jetway, a group of employees had formed two lines and greeted us with flowers, balloons, and hugs. ‘Welcome Home.’ It was very emotional—extremely high yet extremely low at the same time. I thought, ‘I’m almost home, but a lot of my friends and coworkers are gone.’ I will never forget that.
“After the greeting, I got on the employee bus, picked up my car, and began my drive home. I looked to my right and where the Twin Towers had been standing, reflecting in gold, on my ride to work Monday night, I saw a big void with thick smoke still billowing.
“I turned on the radio and ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ was playing. ‘Time to pick up the pieces,’ I thought.”—Capt. Vince Gualtieri (United)
“We diverted into Garden City, Kan., on 9/11 while flying from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles, and Garden City was incredible. Their emergency response was first rate, with the high school gym made into an emergency operations center with the Red Cross and phones and computers for passengers to use. The mayor gave us the key to places like the country club and swimming pool, and businesses provided us free food.
“When we left on September 14, we were met by flag-waving citizens lining the road and airport. Garden City airport was small, so when we left we had to work out the logistics with dispatch and the airport. This required the removal of taxiway signs as well as a pickup in front of us talking to us on the radio keeping us on the taxiway. We only had 30 or so passengers still flying with us; so with a max blast takeoff and light load, that B-757 took off like an F-15 in afterburners, with the tower thanking us for the air show takeoff.
“The radios were eerily quiet, with just two to three jets on the frequency as we flew to Los Angeles. When we arrived, we were met by the chief pilot staff with American flags. For the worst event of my flying life, I got to witness the great American spirit with our crew, the passengers, law enforcement, and all the great people of Garden City.”—Capt. Scott Kinder (United)
“My story of flying on September 14 actually began on the evening of Thursday, September 13. We launched from Buffalo to Newark that evening. I don’t remember saying anything special to the crew; we were pretty silent and on edge the whole flight. It was a pretty clear night as we were vectored to Runway 4R at Newark. Off in the distance, you could see the lights of Ground Zero and smoke rising from the scene.
“I remember a deep and strong sense of anger about the terrorists and grief for the crews and their families. This was against everything we had ever been told or trained for in a hijacking situation. We focused on the task at hand and getting on the ground safely, yet we couldn’t stop from looking to the northeast toward the scene. It was also eerie with the radio so quiet, especially at Newark. Only the FedEx inbounds were airborne. You could sense a difference in the controllers as well. They were on edge yet found comfort, I think, in their ability to once again do their job.”—Capt. Jeffrey Hanson (FedEx Express)
“I was a first officer on a Continental Express EMB 145. I was sad that day but had no fear, because I knew we would catch the culprit and it would never happen again. I still remember that there was a line of smoke coming from north to south where the World Trade Center used to be. Life has certainly changed since that day.”—Capt. Aqiq Khan (ExpressJet)
“I flew the first flight of the day on September 14; we were one of the first flights out of Atlanta following the airspace shutdown. My wife was understandably nervous and called me prior to pushback. On board that day we had an armed U.S. air marshal, an armed Secret Service agent, and—sitting in first class—the actor Adam West. Yes, the original Batman from television. I told my wife that even if bad guys got past the armed federal agents, no way they would get by Batman. How could a flight be any safer?”—F/O John Schramm (Delta)