The Last on Earth to Know

ALPA Pilots Remember

By First Officer Rick Hayden, United

The 9/11 stories of many airline pilots are filled with first-hand accounts, as they were in and among the goings-on of that horrific day. My story is quite different, as I was one of the last people in the world to learn of the events of 9/11.

At 11 p.m. PDT on 9/10/2001, I boarded a United 747, setting out on what was to be a three-week vacation around Australia. It was a wonderful 14-hour flight, if there ever is such a thing. Just prior to landing, the captain included with his normal arrival announcement that we may notice an increased security presence around the airport, as there had been some sort of terrorist activity in the United States. I looked curiously at one of the flight attendants, who whispered to me that there was not a single aircraft in the air over the United States at that moment. Having heard some doozies from flight attendants in my time, I took it with a grain of salt, yet I became more curious. Nobody had mentioned what the “terrorist activity” was at this point.

Upon arriving at the gate, as each passenger passed the Australian CSR, along with a “G’day” we were handed a sheet of paper with a statement that began, “United confirms that two of its aircraft have crashed.”

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What! Two? One in New York and one in Pennsylvania? With still no explanation, I was even more confused as I exited the aircraft. I wondered if my friend Tom, who was already in Sydney and was to meet me in baggage claim, had heard any of this.

Upon reaching the customs area, I realized that in my confused state, I had left my roll-aboard in the forward closet of the 747. After explaining my way through heavily armed security, retrieving my bag, and being the last to process through customs, I found Tom, who had the BIGGEST expression of relief on his face. I had no idea why.

Tom told me that the World Trade Center had been leveled by hijacked aircraft. Now, Tom has always been a bit of a BSer, and when I gave him a doubtful look, he said, “No, look!” pointing over my shoulder to a large TV monitor.

For a moment I felt as though I had been dropped in the middle of a Tom Clancy novel, but quickly the reality set in—the reality of all the people who must have lost their lives. Were some of them people I had known? Flown with? Loved?

About that time I was approached by an Australian reporter who peppered me with questions. I shared my astonishment with him but politely said that I needed to find a phone to tell my parents I was OK.

Tom and I spent the next hours and most of the next few days popping in and out of Internet cafes trying to learn more of the story. As it turned out, gone were several fine folks with whom I had worked.

One of the more personally touching moments of those days came as we were heading to a local attraction as a diversion. We passed a bank of pay phones, and I asked Tom if he minded if I checked my messages. I ended up standing there for almost an hour listening to the most heart-warming sentiments, prayers, and concerns that so many friends and family had left for me. Many of the messages came from old friends with whom I hadn’t communicated in years.

I ultimately decided that I could not stay and vacation for the next few weeks, so I listed myself on the first United flight headed back to the States, three days after arriving in Australia.

After flying back and getting into my car at Dulles, I turned on the local radio station I always listened to. Rather than their normal programming, they were airing continual updates and stories of what had been going on for the past days. And that’s when it all came down on me like a ton of bricks. It was no longer something on a TV screen from across the globe. This was real. This was local. This was frightening. This was personal. I sobbed most of the way home.

It wasn’t until seven hours into our new reality that I found out about any of it, and it took over three days before it really started to sink in, but like everyone else, I would never be the same.

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

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