Editors' Choice: September 11, 2001: Darkest day in the history of aviation

 - May 27, 2008, 11:13 AM

It was premeditated mass murder, almost flawlessly executed, and civil aircraft were the weapons of choice. A civil airplane was also the battlefield for the first retaliatory strike, when the passengers of a United 757 most likely aimed at a Washington landmark took matters into their own hands and fought back, causing the Boeing to fall short of its intended target. The events on that bright, sunny and hellish dark day could turn out to be the beginning of World War III, and a hideous perversion of peaceful aviation was the delivery system for four opening shots not only heard ’round the world, but also watched time after time on every broadcast news network on the globe.

This opening segment of our annual Newsmakers special report by the editors of AIN pays tribute to those who unwittingly found themselves on the front line on that dazzlingly clear, post-frontal late summer morning, and those who labored diligently to get business aviation back in the air in the aftermath.

Civil aviation paid a high and immediate price as government clipped its freedoms, and business aviation was not high on the list when the system started to grind back into action.

But first, back to where it all began, on September 11.

The first airplane to crash into a building was American Airlines Flight 11, a 767 piloted by Capt. John Ogonowski and FO Tom McGuiness and assisted in the cabin by flight attendants Barbara Arestegui, Jeffery Coleman, Sara Low, Karen Martin, Kathleen Nicosia, Betty Ong, Jean Roger, Dianne Snyder and Madeline Sweeney. The crew and the 767’s 81 passengers were flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m.

The names of the 19 hijackers are immaterial for our purposes here. These people apparently sought no recognition in their mortal existence, and they were surely disappointed in their quest for divine rewards in the afterlife.

Aboard the second airplane, United Airlines Flight 175, the 767 that crashed into the South Tower at 9:06 a.m. with 56 passengers, were Capt. Victor Saracini and FO Michael Horrocks, assisted by flight attendants Robert Fangman, Amy Jarret, Amy King, Kathryn Laborie, Alfred Marchand, Jesus Sanchez (off duty), Michael Tarrou and Alicia Titus.

Twenty minutes before the South Tower collapsed, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:38 a.m. Crewing that flight for its 58 passengers were Capt. Charles Burlingame and FO David Charlebois (retired American Capt. Bud Flagg was a passenger), assisted in the cabin by flight attendants Michelle Heidenberger (wife of US Airways Capt. Tom Heidenberger), Jennifer Lewis, Kenneth Lewis and Renee May.

Not a lot is known or has been released about what happened in the cockpits and cabins of those three airliners, and imagining the horrors has been the stuff of sleepless nights for anyone familiar with those places. But an account in Newsweek magazine (December 3 edition), compiled from recordings and cellphone conversations, paints a picture of the nightmare that faced the seven crew and 38 passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the 757 that was likely destined for a target in Washington but which instead crashed in an open field in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

Crewing UA 93 were Capt. Jason Dahl and FO LeRoy Homer, with flight attendants Lorraine Bay, Sandy Bradshaw, Wanda Green, Cee Cee Lyles and Deborah Welsh. Dahl and Homer were among the pilots to have been warned already by United, shortly after 9 a.m., to be on the alert for trouble. “Beware, cockpit intrusion,” the message read. At about 9:25 a.m. the cockpit crew checked in with Cleveland Center. Right after a routine greeting of “Good morning,” screaming and scuffling were heard over the open mike. Then 40 seconds of silence, followed by what is thought to be one of the pilots frantically shouting, “Get out of here! Get out of here!” The CVR’s 30-min loop began at just before 9:30 a.m. Suffice it to say that the sounds it picked up were grim.

Passenger Todd Beamer’s battle cry of “Let’s roll” goes down in history as the start of America’s retaliatory strike. It followed much discussion among the passengers herded into the back of the airplane. A friend of AIN, Safe Flight executive (and son of the founder) Donald Greene, was among those passengers. They knew what had happened in New York and Washington through cellphone conversations with the frightened but relatively safe and impossibly distant world beyond their immediate predicament.

Whether or not the passengers viewed their predicament as escapable is open to speculation, but their storming of the hijackers thwarted a fourth aerial attack on the U.S. The Newsweek article asserts the CVR tapes strongly suggest that the hijackers flew the 757 into the ground under “ferocious assault from the passengers.”

The hijackers’ almost flawless orchestration fell short on UA 93 from the outset. The 757 departed a clogged Newark (N.J.) Airport late, just three minutes before AA 11 hit the North Tower, disheveling what was likely a plan to hit all four targets within the space of a few minutes.

When Bob Lamond, manager of air traffic services and infrastructure at NBAA, first heard of the attacks he was in his car, driving from his home in Northern Virginia to work at the association’s downtown Washington headquarters. Guessing what was to come, he immediately turned around and headed for the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC), located near Dulles Airport.

As luck would have it, Lamond was already familiar with the ATCSCC’s operations through his involvement with the FAA’s “Spring/Summer 2000” plan to cope with bad weather, ATC outages and runway closures. What followed the attacks was the mother of all ATC outages and runway closures as, at 9:25 a.m., all aircraft using the National Airspace System were ordered to land–a process that took more than 4.5 hr.

Everyone with an airplane and a mission was clamoring for information about when the lockdown would be relaxed, and for the NBAA constituency Lamond was the source. His findings were posted on NBAA’s Web site for all to see, and the news was not good for an extended period. The first business aircraft to be allowed back into the air were those flown under Part 135, a differentiation that sat badly with Part 91 operators. The private operators’ reasoning about knowing exactly who their passengers were, and about the security measures they already had in place before September 11, fell on deaf ears as the National Security Council continued to control the skies.

As business aviation remained shackled, NBAA unleashed its full resources on returning corporate America to the skies. But as one senior NBAA staffer told AIN when restrictions eased, “Part 91 business aviation is flying again not because the government recognizes us as good guys, and not because of any political persuasion exerted in the days following the disaster. Business aviation is flying again because of the economy.

“The number-one driver that got IFR Part 91 back in the air is the practical reality that the economy has suffered a huge blow and must be restarted.”

That recognition is a compliment to the importance of business aviation and the role it plays in lubricating the economic engine of the U.S. With a recession now officially upon us, we can only hope that business aviation’s economic importance and its appeal as an alternative to the demonstrated vulnerabilities of public air transportation outweigh its costs.