ATC Asked Me to ID the Incommunicable Plane

ALPA Pilots Remember

By Captain Bruce Hoppe, Delta

On September 11, I pushed back from Boston three minutes after American and took off right after United on a crossing runway. Over Massachusetts, I listened to ATC vectoring people away from American, as it was off course and altitude and not communicating. Coincidentally, an unrelated strong ELT signal went off, and I remember telling my F/O, Marcus Keene, that “things seem really strange this morning.” We were headed southwest on J75 over Newark when the first tower was hit. I didn’t see the impact, but must have looked down about 10 seconds afterwards, as there was a large cloud of smoke over the building, and I could see the fire climbing up through the tower. I made my “there’s Manhattan” PA and mentioned that the World Trade Center was on fire. Half the passengers got up to take a look out the left side.

Dialing up an AM station on the ADF, we heard that a commuter plane had hit the tower, which seemed odd since the visibility was the best I’d seen that summer in the northeast—clear without any haze. A few minutes later, ATC told us to turn left 90 degrees, then changed that to a hard right with an immediate climb for traffic they couldn’t communicate with. We picked up the traffic and watched him make a left 180 degree turn from south to north in front of us. ATC said he wasn’t squawking and asked if we could ID him. As we crossed paths a thousand feet above him, I rolled left, looked down, and told ATC it was a United 767-200.

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We passed the Pentagon about five minutes before it was hit, and shortly afterwards were told to land. Not being able to get hold of the dispatcher, we picked a field ahead we could make a normal descent into and landed at Columbia, S.C. In an emptied-out airport, we watched the towers fall on CNN. My wife was relieved to hear my voice as the news had reported that a 737, which left Boston the same time as us, hit the second tower. The flight attendants were pretty shook up, so we took them to dinner each night. One never flew again, and another retired within a year.

On the third day, we returned to an empty airport and ferried the plane to Orlando. Someone had hung American flags from the main entrance doors of all the Delta airplanes. Marcus and I took the flag down from our 737, folded it military style, and presented it to the station personnel.

I was in New York three days later on a layover. The smoke was still hanging over the city and it was an empty feeling not to see the Trade Center towers in the skyline. Just north of the Milford Plaza, the 8th Avenue fire station had hundreds of flower bouquets in front of it. Pictures of the 15 men who lost their lives were in the front windows. I remember there were a lot of Irish and Italian names.

Driving from the turnpike to Johnstown, Pa., a decade later, I passed an exit sign for the memorial site. It was an unexpected reminder of those “who gave the last full measure of devotion” and how well we remember September 11.

This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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