(“A Day Such As This”, originally posted 9/11/2011)
Of the seasons, I’ve always enjoyed Autumn the most. It probably has a lot to do with growing up down South in a home with unreliable air conditioning – by Labor Day each year I was desperate for relief.
Now living in Ohio, I was surprised at how similar late August here can be to South Carolina. I’m not as ready to get it over with, mind you, but I always look forward to those days when the haze finally clears and the sky is blue again.
It was a day just like that when I pulled into the parking lot at our company’s training center for a morning meeting. Sparkling clear, cobalt-blue sky with not a cloud to be found. Ideal weather.
Which turned out to be even more ideal for the truly evil men who were, at that moment, taking over four airliners full of unsuspecting people who were just trying to get on with their day. Some were children who had to experience unspeakable horrors the rest of us can barely imagine.
We found out about the first airplane just as the meeting was getting started. Being aviation people, you can imagine it generated a lot of buzz. How the hell does someone screw up an approach that badly in clear-and-a-million weather?
About the time the buzz died down and we got on with business, we found out about the second plane.
As did every other American, we all came to the same immediate realization: terrorists. There could be no other explanation. We were at war with an enemy that was taking over airplanes and using them as cruise missiles.
And our company probably had at least two hundred planes in the air at that moment.
But for this meeting, I normally would’ve been on the other side of the airfield in our operations center. If you’ve never experienced life in an airline-type control center, it’s a lot like trying to do brain surgery in a casino. I called my shift partner, who confirmed my suspicion that the place had just been turned into a madhouse. And the order had just come over for every single plane in US airspace to land immediately, or risk being identified as hostile.
I said something to the effect of “all right, I’m on the way over.” To which he told me to not bother because they had locked down the facility.
Fortunately, my partner was quite skilled and extremely reliable. He took care of our share of flights and helped out anyone else who needed it. At the time, I managed the international desk so our flight volume was low in comparison to the domestic guys. But we made up for that in complexity: one does not just land unannounced in a foreign country. It takes a bit of coordination.
To this day I am still amazed that so many thousands of flights around the country managed to get safely on the ground within an hour or so.
But as our own relatively minor drama was playing out, matters were getting worse on the eastern seaboard. We learned of the Pentagon strike, and stories began to percolate about a crash in rural Pennsylvania. One of our company’s pilots heard the radio exchange as the terrorists took over United 93.
There’s been a story circulating for years about a fifth airplane that never made it out of the gate. Supposedly another United flight was delayed, and the crew was communicating with their dispatcher when word came about the hijackings. The dispatcher cancelled the flight, and supposedly a half-dozen visibly agitated Arab men stormed off and disappeared into the crowd.
Now, understand the aviation community’s almost as bad as the military when it comes to spreading rumors, but this one sounds entirely plausible. It would’ve made a lot of sense from al Qaeda’s point of view to hit the Pentagon, White House, and Capitol building instead of just two out of three.
I don’t know how much timing played into their plans, how much of a delay they could absorb, but I can say with certainty there’s no way al Qaeda could have pulled off 9/11 if the weather had been anything but crystal-clear throughout the entire northeast corridor. I seriously doubt those numbnuts had the ability to navigate to their targets in instrument conditions. As it is, there’s any number of ways those big airplanes could have gotten away from fairly inexperienced pilots. And I use “pilots” loosely when describing those depraved bastards.
We began an otherwise normal day with no idea that we were about to witness our generation’s Pearl Harbor. Ten years later, I worry that far too many of us refuse to take it seriously. Nothing really bad has happened since, but don’t think for a moment that it’s not because of our efforts. One day, I’m confident that stories will finally emerge about other plans our country managed to stop. Like James Lileks, I fear that something far worse is inevitable given the age we live in.
Until then, never forget. Good people gave their lives trying to save others, others who lost their own lives after just performing the simple act of getting up and going to work. Most of them ended their lives faced with a choice I pray none of us are ever faced with: die in a raging inferno or leap from a hundred-story window. They traded unimaginable agony for indescribable fear as they fell a thousand feet to their deaths.
God rest their souls.
God bless our country and the people who defend it.