ATC on 9/11:
‘The Single Greatest Feat in All of ATC History’
NATCA members who worked on Sept. 11, 2001 tell the story of what they experienced, in their own words.
Twenty years later, the scope and the gravity of what NATCA members did in service to their country during the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 remains as vivid to them as ever. In this collection of written accounts of their shifts that day, many members express their pride at what they accomplished, and that the heartbreak and horror at what they witnessed will never be forgotten.
On the anniversary of those terrible attacks, NATCA honors our members’ service on that fateful day.
When terrorists attacked the United States with hijacked aircraft, and the order went out to land every aircraft at the nearest airport, controllers guided 700 aircraft to land in the first four minutes, 2,800 in the first hour, and over 4,500 within the first three hours. Over a million passengers landed without incident. “The landing of those aircraft stands as the single greatest feat in all of ATC history,” NATCA President Emeritus John Carr said.
As we get further away from that tragic day, this archive will be a vital way to recount the important role that controllers played in protecting our nation from possible further attacks. We invite any member, active or retired, interested in sharing a statement describing their experiences on 9/11 to send their email accounts to email@example.com.
These NATCA members below share their first-person accounts of working on 9/11:
John Carr, NATCA President, 2000-2006
OUR NATION’S DARKEST DAY; OUR PROFESSION’S FINEST HOUR
I had finally found a cup of coffee, grabbed my briefcase, and settled into a comfortable spot in the lobby of the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown New Orleans just after 7:30 a.m. CDT on Sept. 11, 2001. I was waiting for Ray Gibbons, NATCA Facility Representative of Chicago TRACON (C90), so we could do a teleconference.
CNN droned in the background and I focused on my notes. As Ray crossed the lobby, the announcer cut to New York where there had been some sort of explosion or crash at the World Trade Center. I looked up just in time to see the network TV chopper shot. Through the bubbled window, the announcer shouted to be heard over the background rotor noise.
But the picture. Oh God, the picture. Smoke was roiling out of a tower that looked like it had been whacked with a samurai sword. The anchor said a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. You could plainly see the damage was nearly 10 stories high and almost as wide as the tower itself. My mind raced to make sense of what I saw. My cell rang.
“John? Mike Blake.” Mike was the New England Regional Vice President at the time and was on the boards at Boston Center (ZBW) that day.
“Are you watching TV?” Mike asked. Odd question, I thought, but I told him that I was. “Well, that’s American 11.”
I said, “Mike, what channel are you watching? Something just hit the World Trade Center!” And then the hammer dropped.
“John, that’s American 11 that hit the World Trade Center. We were working him, they hijacked him and he turned around, flew directly south and drove straight into the building.” I said something un-printable that started with, “You’ve got to be…” and then there was a pause. “And John?”
I was furiously writing notes at this point – Ray reading upside down and me pointing at the notes and the TV. Ray was giving me his one-eyebrow-up death stare when Mike said, “John, there’s another one on the way to New York. We lost a second one just like the first, and it’s headed for New York.”
Then Mike said that the sector working the aircraft had heard the hijackers’ voices, and they had mentioned having “some planes.”
“Planes, John. Plural. Planes. We’re pulling the tapes now to check it out.” I told Mike to keep me posted and hung up. Moments later, we sat staring at the scene unfolding as the second tower exploded in a 50-story fireball.
It was 9 a.m. in New Orleans, and time for the second day of our Union’s first five-region combined meeting to begin. I contacted my wife, upstairs and pregnant with our first child, to make sure she was secure. I quickly made contact with Ruth Stilwell, NATCA’s Executive Vice President, and the rest of the NATCA National Executive Board. We started making emergency contingency plans. The Eastern Region was present and their hometowns were under attack.
Information now poured in like staccato machine gun bursts. Fifteen missing airliners. A confirmed hijacked Delta jumbo jet being forced down in Cleveland. East Coast heavy departures streaming towards tall towers in Chicago, Denver, and the West Coast. The Pentagon hit. A jumbo jet missing in Tennessee. A 757 flying inverted, then crashing in Pennsylvania.
I asked the hotel to put CNN on the giant overhead screen, and we announced to the regional attendees that the meeting was cancelled. We would use the meeting space to update everyone on information from the FAA as it became available.
New York Center closed. Nationwide ground stop. Land all planes. Jane Garvey, then the FAA administrator, had departed the night before on a commercial flight, leaving Bill Peacock, head of Air Traffic, to meet with our reps on the second day of our meeting.
We tracked Bill down as he was packing. He was swamped with calls and data. “The airspace is shut down,” he said to Ruth and me. “The Agency is sending the jet down to take me back to D.C. Do you want to go with me?”
I had a brief discussion with Ruth; I had Jill with me, and our next NEB meeting had already been booked for the following week in Cleveland, my hometown. Pat Forrey was also at the meeting and could travel with me. I had a rental car, a commodity becoming more precious by the minute. I also felt responsible for the NATCA members left stranded in New Orleans. I felt I owed it to them to not only try to get them home but also keep them on excused absence while they traveled.
It made sense for Ruth to travel back to D.C., with Peacock. Bill said, “Get your stuff. With the exception of the president, med-evacs, and fighter jets, we’ll be the only ones flying.”
When the order went out to land everything at the nearest airport, 700 aircraft were landed in the first four minutes, 2,800 in the first hour, and over 4,500 within the first three hours. Over a million passengers landed without incident.
The landing of those aircraft stands as the single greatest feat in all of ATC history. You might as well have pulled a bunny out of your scope. I never called the office to check up on them; I never once worried that they were anything but safe and doing whatever needed to be done. I never checked in with the FacReps or any of the facilities to see how the shutdown was progressing; there was no need. It was going perfectly because it had to.
Many in the aviation community, myself included, stand convinced that the grounding of the system that day prevented further attacks. In the rush to disembark passengers, all evidence of box cutters and Mace was likely carried off the airplanes with the would-be terrorists. I suspect that attacks were set to continue like rigid clockwork throughout the day; I think the terrorists assumed that the capitalist West would never shut down the money pipe and put all the airplanes on the ground.
If you think like a terrorist, a day of rolling thunder from sea to shining sea seems possible when you begin your morning by murdering almost 3,000 innocent people.
The rest of the day was a blur as news came in and went out. Sadly, late that morning, I received word that Doug Mackay, a controller at (ZBW), had lost his wife on American 11. She had left the house early that morning and boarded her flight for the West Coast. Doug got up later and drove into work, only to be met at the gate by his co-workers who already knew the horror facing their co-worker and his two young children.
As a union, together we donated enough sick leave to see him to his rightful retirement a year and a half later. I carried a handwritten scrap of paper with the sick leave hours Doug needed in my wallet for almost two years working that issue.
Brad Troy headed up our Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) response, and we were in immediate contact on the morning of the 11th. The FAA was cooperative, and we dispatched teams to D.C., New York, Boston, and Cleveland.
We had a chance to fan out to the other local area facilities as well. I had always been impressed by our CISM program, and when our debriefers finally got to their respective locations they made themselves available to anyone who wanted to meet.
I was very proud of our response to the crisis in terms of helping our members work through their natural responses to the tragedy. The FAA helped us to rush to the aid and comfort of our brethren on the front end. This cooperation kept FAA employees productive and, more importantly, healthy on the back end. I give the FAA a lot of credit for that.
In New Orleans, it took a day or two but slowly small gaggles of rental cars banded together and headed out towards facilities in New York, Charlotte, Seattle, and anywhere a family member could meet us as the convoy drove by. By car, bus and rail, the reps found a way to get out of town and get back to their families and facilities.
In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, Joel Brown, Martin Cole, Mike Hull, Dennis McGee, Don Ossinger, Wade Stanfield, Jerry Whitaker, Ruth Stilwell and Dale Wright manned the Emergency Operations Center at the FAA, rotating through 24-hour shifts much of the time. They saw and heard things most couldn’t fathom.
Missing crop dusters full of anthrax. Cargo ships in the Baltimore Harbor with suspected WMD on the top containers aimed up the Potomac at the Capitol. Student pilots from foreign countries enrolling for more flying lessons. The FAA needed the Emergency Ops to make immediate and binding decisions. This was FBI/CIA/NSA-type stuff that the NEB would need to stand behind forevermore. These professionals were so damn good it’s scary now to remember. They pitched a no-hitter for us, for the system, and for their country.
These folks were pulling 24-hour shifts and sticking around afterwards to help because the work was top secret and critically important. I remember that Mike Hull called me at 10 p.m. one evening sounding like he was 90 years old.
“Johnny, they just rolled the bomb squad for a device they found outside the front door here at FAA,” he said. “While I’m evac’d I’m gonna grab a smoke and something to eat. We’re going to get XYZ signed so they can resume sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon first thing tomorrow. Hey, they found that missing glider. Do you want me to get you a sandwich?” It was like talking to James Bond. “Yeah, Mike, get me a shoe phone.”
All NATCA members – every single bargaining unit – create a unique institution, a guardian of this country’s liberty tasked with public safety. On that September morning, those challenges were answered by the deeds of the strong – deeds that will remain recorded in history books long after the mousy squeaks of yesterday’s critics fade into oblivion.
When someone asks you why you belong to a union, tell them this great nation is only 12 percent union, yet on that infamous day, 20% of her dead were union members. While thousands fled for their lives, hundreds of union men and women ran towards those burning towers, up those jet-fueled stairs, helping others to safety as they marched themselves headlong into their own graves.
The beast did not destroy our nation like it did so many innocents that brilliant, beautiful and sinister day. The treachery of zealots did not extinguish the flame of liberty. On the contrary, it fanned it. The imbeciles who blindly followed Osama “I Met Seal Team Six And All I Got Was This Giant Hole In My Head” Bin Laden did not steal the essence that is true freedom in a democracy. No, my friends, they stole nothing; children still laugh and play in the streets and playgrounds.
Since that morning, America’s military has taken the fight to the enemies’ dingy little corner of the world, chasing gutless cowards across the globe. Over 6,000 of our country’s bravest fighting men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice, paying with their lives for our freedom to live as we choose. As the saying goes, freedom really isn’t free after all.
Our forefathers faced an enemy who approached their shores with overwhelming force and superior firepower and they could have withered. Instead, they stated their intent: “Live Free or Die.” And so they did: both, in great numbers.
On Sept. 11, 2001, a new generation of Americans were branded with that iron, baptized by burning fires in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. And so we did, and so we have, and so we will.
A Partial Final Tally:
Estimated number of children who lost a parent in the attacks: 3,051
Number of children of NYC firefighters who lost a parent: 1,200
Number of families who got no remains: 1,717
Number of days WTC continued to burn after attack: 99
Percentage of Americans who knew someone hurt or killed: 20
Number of body parts found: 19,858
Bodies found intact: 289
Source: New York Magazine
St. Louis TRACON (T75)
Tom Luebbert, retired member
I was in the NATCA office that morning when someone shouted that a plane hit the World Trade Center. Like most of my colleagues, our initial reaction was that an errant pilot messed up.
After watching in horror for an hour, I was called in to split the arrival. The only briefing that we received is that every aircraft in the United States had to land at the nearest airport. I began getting hand-offs from Kansas City Center (ZKC) from every direction and altitude.
When they checked in on my frequency, the only question that they asked was, “What is going on?” We then began vectoring to final at an extreme rate. After about an hour, the traffic began to lighten up and my last hand-off was from an America West B737 ORD-PHX. He came in from the northwest and I told him to expect Runway 24. He said that he was very heavy with fuel and too high to get down fast, but he replied, “We will do the best we can,” with the serious tone of a determined man. I was able to turn him westbound to lose altitude and told my supervisor is was due to sequencing. The sup didn’t reply.
That America West was the last aircraft to land that day and as the week wore on, I saw the B737 at the gate every day. It had the Cardinals football team logo on the tail. The same Cardinals football team that left St. Louis for Arizona 13 years before.
Buffalo ATCT (BUF)
Terry Sweeney, retired member
Sept. 16, five days after the attack, people are gathered in front of a TV at a hockey rink at 9:30 on Sunday morning. Curiosity draws me over me to them. Norman Mineta, Secretary of Transportation, is talking about the events of the previous Tuesday. He’s praising the men and women of the FAA and the extraordinary job they did clearing the skies of over 4,000 aircraft without incident. As I glance at the people intently watching, a smile appears on my face. Maybe my ordeal has meaning. John Carr, president of my Union, NATCA, said it was one of the greatest feats of airmanship in the history of aviation. I can’t help but wonder if those two men would be able to make those statements if not for Jake.
Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, was bright and sunny during my drive to work after dropping my two youngest children at school. On the radio, Gregg Williams, new head coach of the Buffalo Bills, was talking about his first game two days earlier, a loss to the New Orleans Saints. One hundred eighty miles to the east, Mohamed Atta and four accomplices had taken control of a Boeing 767 now heading towards Manhattan.
Entering the radar room at our facility, Buffalo Approach, I was surprised to see only two controllers, bare bones staffing for a weekday. Mike Jarvis who was signed on as controller in charge (CIC) and Arrival Data said, “Get Joe out, he’s coming up on two (hours). A commuter plane hit the World Trade Center.”
A hero would have grabbed their headset and relived Joe as instructed by the CIC. The author (me) went to the break room to make coffee.
The TV was on in the break room, showing the north tower billowing a huge plume of smoke. It could not have been a small plane that did this. Waiting for my coffee, a large twin engine jet slammed into the south tower, creating a huge fireball. The explosion was so powerful I assumed the jet was packed with explosives. It was obviously a deliberate attack.
I walked back into the radar room trying to focus on my job. Being distracted does not go well with controlling traffic. Also, controllers need confidence. Mine was shaken. Every time we plug our headset into a position, we are armed with the knowledge that we’re part of the largest, safest, most efficient airspace in the world. This morning, safety had been compromised.
Normally, we would divide the airspace so two controllers would share the workload. Today, only having three controllers assigned to the radar room, traffic was worked on one scope. Taking over for Joe, things seamed normal at first, then we got the news that the planes had been hijacked and they suspected there would be more. I felt a great sadness. There were people, children on these flights.
A manager from the front office came to the radar room to help. Although he could not work traffic, he could post strips and answer the phone, so Mike took a break. Things started to happen. The first message from traffic management: STOP ALL TRAFFIC TO JFK, LGA, AND EWR. A few minutes later: STOP ALL TRAFFIC TO TRAFFIC TO ZNY AIRSPACE. These are drastic restrictions that will impact the entire National Airspace System.
Joe, a C130 pilot and an officer in the Air National Guard, came back in the radar room. He said he had called the air base they wanted him to report for duty. My thought was yea, go, we need the military to get involved. Had I known what was about to happen, I might have said were going to need you here a little longer.
The tower called, telling me the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) was not working. This means I have to provide information about conditions at the airport to each arrival, increasing my workload. Cleveland Center called, asking how many additional arrivals we can handle; something about a bomb threat they may evacuate their building. The person who was sitting next to me posting strips was now at the back desk on the phone. Arrivals began to appear on my scope. I felt anxiety was taking control of my body. I couldn’t focus, my heart was pounding. This is too much, I thought. What else can go wrong?
Behind me, a voice. It’s Mike. This is not normal at Buffalo. When you get a break after working two hours, you don’t hang out in the radar room. Mike yells to the supervisor, who is on the phone, “Hey it’s getting busy.” The supervisor says “OK, coordinate.” A coordinator would be no use to me in that situation. You use that position when you have two controllers working the airspace, then get a coordinator.
As he grabs his headset, the hero says. “No I’m going to split it.” My briefing was short, something like, “you got it.” Mike had jumped aboard my sinking ship. I’m not going down alone. Fear vanquished, we now had a fighting chance.
The situation had created an arrival rush that will never be equaled. Our procedures irrelevant, they came from all directions and altitudes. The nationwide ground stop, meaningless. Tower had no room to get departures out.
Too busy to track time, don’t know how long it lasted, the tower called and told me runway 14-32 was closed. “Why?” I asked. “The ramp is full. We have nowhere else to park the planes,” was the response. Soon, the traffic was manageable. Mike finally took a break.
The skies were now quiet and would be for some time. Our Union president said we were prohibited from talking about what happened at our facilities that day. It was a matter of national security. I never told the story to my fellow controllers. They never asked. All the better, because as a controller if you fear working, it’s time to retire. The story needs my fear to be truthful, to exemplify what Mike did. Now, 20 years later and 10 years retired, the tale is told. I’m sorry it took so long, Mike. I’m sorry I never said thanks.
Maybe the reader can help thank him for me. He likes to be called Jake.
Newark ATCT (EWR)
Michael Reilly, retired member
I just remember I never got up early at that time in my life but for some reason I heard the garage door closing around 8 a.m. that day and could not go back to sleep. I had some tea and tuned in CNBC and saw the first building burning. They were reporting a small plane had hit the building. My father, who was at Holy Name Medical Center (in Teaneck, N.J., north of Newark) at the time called me and asked my opinion. I told him looking at it that it was not a small plane.
While we were talking, we both saw the second plane hit at which time I told him the world we live in had just changed.
As we discussed this, his doctor came in to talk results on his treatment and said he would call me later.
I was about three months into quitting smoking (gentleman’s agreement with dad) so I went for about a 4-5 mile walk.
When I got home, both buildings were down.
Shortly after I got home, I learned my father’s condition was terminal, with about three months to go. I drove down to see dad on my way to work.
I left Holy Name for work and it took almost three hours to get there. The turnpike was closed. I went 80 to 3 to 17 to everywhere… I was stuck at the intersection of 17 and 3 (near the Meadowlands Sports Complex, between Teaneck and Newark) for half an hour with F-15s flying just over my head which made my heart stop. I watched those planes every day for seven years and they always gave me a chill, but I never expected to see them like this.
As the night went on and the airspace was closed except for military and rescue, we operated under blackout conditions with a dark runway. I was informed a Coast Guard C-130 was inbound and I turned on the lights until the plane landed. The sad part was the plane was dropping off 10,000 body bags.
Leaving work was another bizarre event. Traffic crawling all the way up the turnpike and then a total one hour stop at the Meadowlands as a convoy of ambulances had staged there and were now heading into the city. Again, very sad.
What was strange though was nobody honking their horns, giving the finger or just being impatient. Of course, this attitude didn’t last too long.
It was so eerie the day after. Having been intrigued with planes all my life and watching them fly overhead all the time it was so surreal to hear – or should I say not hear – the silence in the skies over the next few days.
New York Center (ZNY)
Daniel Bohleber, retired member
I was working R86 (Atlantic Sector) behind a developmental. The supe got up from his desk, which was right next the sector, and came to us, pointed to a primary target being tracked by Area B and asked us to pull up the track. It was American Airlines Flight 11 (AAL11) somewhere north of the city along the Hudson River. The supervisor told us to keep an eye on him because they’re pretty sure he is a hijack and would probably be headed our way. There was no transponder so all we had was the primary.
A little while later, we lost the target. Since he might have gone down low we figured we might have lost it in the clutter around the city. Just then I saw the supervisor put his phone down and came over to us and informed us his wife, who was at home watching the news, told him a plane just hit the World Trade Center. I told him, “Well that’s about where I lost the target.”
It was just after that when I started hearing what Dave Bottiglia and my brother, James were dealing with in their area with United Airlines Flight 175 (UAL175). After UAL175 hit the south tower, they started pulling anybody working a position that tracked either aircraft off position. While we were waiting to go get debriefed I went out on the loading dock only to watch Suffolk County Police Department SWAT swoop in and shut down the area around the facility entry gate.
After the debrief it was the feat of clearing the airspace, including the North Atlantic oceanic airspace.
I grew up in Brooklyn across the river from lower Manhattan. I watched them build the towers. The ribbon cutting ceremony was on my birthday, April 4, in 1973.
Timothy Canter, retired member
I recently retired (July 2020) after 33 years at New York Center Area C. I was working the Elmira High radar position that morning when my supervisor, Charlie Alfaro, came up to me and my handoff assistant and said “Boston Center is working a hijack.” He gave us the call sign of AAL11 and we were able to pull up the data tag. A primary target with a reported altitude of flight level 290 was still in the data block, heading south approximately 35 miles north of the Kingston VORTAC (VHF Omni-directional Range/Tactical Air Navigation). Someone speculated that it appeared they were heading for New York-JFK.
There was a brief discussion of stopping the departures out of the New York metropolitan area until it was determined what American Airlines (AAL) Flight 11 was actually doing. (United Airlines, UAL, Flight 93 was still on the ground at Newark.) This was quickly squashed from management, saying that will be approved or disapproved at traffic management.
At this point I was offered a break, having just worked an hour and a half with the morning departure push, I accepted. Having watched the track of the aircraft, I walked over to Area B and stood behind the East Texas high sector being worked by Dave Bottiglia. The AAL11 data tag at this point was 10 miles north of JFK when another controller had received reports that the World Trade Center was on fire. The supervisor in Area B, Paul Thumbser, said, “Handle one problem at a time, where is the AAL?” He received an answer from someone that the aircraft was still heading south. The data tag had jumped onto another target, giving the appearance the aircraft was still airborne.
At this time Dave had noticed that UAL175 was in his airspace and off course. He tried several times to raise the aircraft and received no answer. He speculated that with all the excitement of Boston Center working the hijack, someone overlooked a heading and communication transfer. I got the call sign from him and went back to the supervisor desk in Area C. I called United Airlines dispatch and asked them to send an ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) message to UAL175 to go to frequency 128.42. The dispatcher’s response was “We are having problems with that aircraft, but will send the message.” They did not elaborate any further and the call ended. I went back to let Dave know I contacted UAL dispatch and a message was being sent.
At this point, UAL175 had started a slow banking left turn which caught Dave’s attention immediately. At this point he speculated that there was the possibility of a second hijacked aircraft. I inquired if they had a 55 landline to McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey. I was stationed there from from 1983-85 and was familiar with its operation. UAL175 was in the vicinity of Allentown VOR (Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range) and if McGuire had anything in the pattern, my thought was to get that aircraft on a heading to intercept. No call was made to McGuire and I exited Area B and headed for the cafeteria, where the news coverage was already reporting the World Trade Center on fire with the possibility of an aircraft colliding with it. Within five minute of that, UAL175 came into the picture and the news station made the comment of a replay of the north tower. Then someone on the news station noticed that it was a live feed with the aircraft hit the building.
At this point I went back to work in Area C. By now, word had gotten around of the second aircraft being hijacked, but I had to let my area know it went into the south tower. The rest of my work day is kind of a blur. We were notified of ATC Zero with the Pentagon being struck by American Airlines Flight 77. Any aircraft airborne was instructed to land at the nearest usable airport. Then we were notified that Cleveland Center was working a fourth aircraft, UAL93. The same UAL93 who was on the ground at Newark when we wanted to shut off the New York City metro departures. It came to our attention much later, a TMU specialist had called the Command Center to stop the departures (when AAL11 was still well north of New York City), and was overridden to keep the departures flowing.
I retired this past July and typing this has been therapeutic. I see that even if a phone call had been made to McGuire AFB, nothing would have stopped UAL175 from hitting the south tower. Stopping the departures may have saved UAL93, but we will never know. It takes approximately 3-10 mins for New York TRACON to effectively stop departures with the amount of phone callers needed to be made to the control towers, and that information being given to the controllers in a timely manner.
Mark DiPalmo, retired member
When I was invited to speak at a dedication event on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was asked to give a perspective from “before the attacks.” The more that I thought about this, the more I realized that for the air traffic controllers that were on duty that morning, this would be a very difficult thing to do. You see, from the view that we had that day, the attacks did not start at 8:46 a.m., the moment that American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Instead, they started about 30 minutes earlier when air traffic controllers began to get the first indications that something was wrong.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I reported to work at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) for what looked like would be a routine day. That day started as a great one for flying in the Northeast. No adverse weather conditions meant it would be easier to accomplish the normal everyday tasks that an air traffic controller must do thousands of times a shift. However, those excellent conditions would be short-lived. When word first came that we had lost contact with American Airlines Flight 11 (AAL11), the controllers of Boston Center (ZBW) and ZNY began working tirelessly to regain contact with the flight. Then the unthinkable: we began receiving reports that the World Trade Center appeared to be on fire. Some said it was an explosion and others said a small plane had crashed. Although we were unsure of exactly what had happened, we knew that we were missing an aircraft and the World Trade Center was on fire. While trying to sort out this information, another aircraft – United Airlines Flight 175 (UAL175) – lost contact. Although we could still see the flight on radar, we had no voice communications with the flight. It was when UAL175 made that final turn towards Manhattan that the realization of what was going on was solidified in our minds. Our world and lives would never be the same again. While the rest of the world still thought that we were dealing with a horrible accident, we had a front row seat to the first major attack on U.S. soil since December 7, 1941.
In the minutes that followed, the professionals at work that day used every tool at their disposal to regain contact with the second aircraft, but that was not to be. As we all now know we lost radar contact over New York City with that flight also. We did not know where the flight had impacted but within moments we got the news that it had struck the south tower.
At ZNY, virtually everyone on duty had someone close to them that either worked in the World Trade Center or within a stone’s throw of it. But there was no time to think about them. You see, there were reports of more confirmed hijacked aircraft. At this point, the only way we had to minimize the threat was to clear all of the airspace, so the call was made to do so, first around the New York area and then throughout the entire country. Over 4,300 flights were airborne at that time and had to be put on the ground. Additionally there were many more en route overseas that needed to be turned away. A monumental task yes, but the men and women on duty that day were up to it even in light of their uncertainty as to the fate of their loved ones in lower Manhattan.
Just before 10 a.m. while the bulk of this task still lay before us, about 75 percent of the flights still remained airborne. We received word of the collapse of the south tower. It was around this time that we also heard the reports of the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes. Still, the controllers on that day stayed at their posts and continued to work to get every plane on the ground. At that juncture, every time a pilot failed to respond the first time they were called (a fairly normal occurrence before that day) became a heart stopping event. You would think, “Oh NO, is this the next one?” Every unanticipated move by an aircraft drew the same response. But we kept working.
By 11 a.m., there were less than 1,000 planes left in the skies over America, and by early afternoon they too would be grounded. As we now had time to think about what happened and what we had accomplished, we also had time to let our emotions grab hold. These men and women who had held the system together for hours and cleared the skies had done so with nerves of steel but now were faced with the task of checking on family members. My own brother, Brian, a New York City firefighter, was to be on duty until 9 a.m. that morning. However, at this point, I found out that nobody had been able to get a hold of him. Some initial reports said as many as 500 firefighters had perished in the towers’ collapse. I would later find out that my brother had been relieved that morning and was not injured but was back in Manhattan helping with rescue efforts. The crew that relieved him at his firehouse that morning was not that fortunate; seven of them had perished when the south tower collapsed.
Again, I was asked to give the perspective of “before the attacks” but the “before” of everyone else was the “during” for the controllers working that day. All of us were given a front row seat to the terror that was unfolding before us. However we responded when called upon and did the job that needed to be done.
On 9/11/02, the first anniversary, I had the opportunity to speak with former NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw in depth about that day and he was able to sum up our feelings in one sentence: September 11 was at once the blackest day in our profession, and the proudest. The controllers that worked on September 11, 2001 are the finest air traffic controllers in the world and I am happy to have been one of them.
Greg Lemieux, retired member
I was working a 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. shift in Area D. I was on my breakfast break in the cafeteria and the TV was on ESPN, as it usually was. Someone came in and changed the channel to one of the local New York network affiliates, and we all saw the first tower with smoke billowing out of it. Reports were unclear at that point. No one even knew for sure that it was an aircraft that caused the damage. Right about then a trainee approached the table and said the supe needed one controller back because sector 73 (Philipsburg, Pa.) was beginning to crank up with the westbound departures headed for the Midwest and West Coast out of LaGuardia (LGA), Newark (EWR), and Philadelphia (PHL).
I went, and the supe told me to work the handoff position (commonly referred to as the D side everywhere else in enroute ATC). I sat down, did a quick survey of the airspace and asked the radar controller if he needed anything done right away. He told me to point out two PHL departures and a EWR departure awaiting climb clearances. As I started to make those calls I heard the radar controller switch United Airlines (UAL) Flight 93 (UAL93) to Cleveland Center (ZOB). When I called sector 39 to make the pointouts, I could hear by the background conversations that they were dealing with some unknown chaotic confusion and the handoff controller at that sector unabled my point outs, not needing to add anymore aircraft into the airspace at that moment.
Later on, I found out it was because UAL175 had gone rogue at that point and they were trying to control an uncontrollable situation by tracking just the primary target with no transponder information. The time line gets fuzzy for me at this point, but I clearly recall someone coming into the area and telling us about UAL175 crashing into the south tower that the whole cafeteria witnessed live on TV. Somewhere around this same time we learned that UAL93 had been hijacked in ZOB airspace and had disappeared from radar coverage as well. I recall that all the supervisors were summoned to the watch desk for a roundup and when ours returned he went sector to sector telling us that the facility was going ATC Zero and that we needed to clear the airspace ASAP and land all known traffic at the nearest airport regardless of origin or destination. I can still remember the complete disbelief by the ZOB controller when I called to tell him we could not take any traffic and that we were going ATC Zero.
Over the next two hours, every facility in the nation got every aircraft on the ground successfully, a feat of cooperation I had never witnessed before or since. After the airspace was sterilized, every area went to midnight combinations but three controllers sat staring at the one scope scanning for “fast moving primary targets.”
Those of us not watching at any given time were busy trying to get in touch with family and friends which was made almost impossible by the rudimentary cell phone technology at the time and the fact that there were cell towers on top of both WTC towers that had now both collapsed. That was the most scary time for me personally. My parents and in-laws were trying frantically to reach us, but were not able to get through. Over the next week or so myself and the radar controller both had to listen to the voice tapes and give written statements about what we recalled, etc. Really there wasn’t much to tell since UAL93 wasn’t even hijacked until roughly 30 minutes after he left our frequency. I worked another 17 years after that but will never forget the sick feeling we all had that day. Always remember.
Patrick Shanahan, retired member
It was a beautiful morning, with cold, crisp, and clear skies. I was scheduled to work a 3 p.m. – 11 p.m. shift when my phone rang, and John Hoffmann (area B controller) asked me to come in as quickly as possible. I was out the night before and had not turned on the TV. Because I was one of the few NATCA representatives that were not in New Orleans for the multi-regional meeting, I thought there must have be some reason they needed a NATCA rep.
I took a quick shower, jumped in my car and headed to New York Center (ZNY). I live just a few miles away and realized something was seriously wrong the moment I pulled up. The gates were closed and there were National Guardsmen with rifles pointed at my vehicle. I parked in front of the gate, held up my badge and was positively identified by a member of management. They opened the gate and let me in.
Upon arriving in Area B at ZNY, the airspace directly above New York City and surrounding areas, I was given a full briefing on what was happening and offered my help in any way possible. The supervisor (Paul Thumser) asked me to take over at sector 56, known as the Kennedy Sector and work the airspace directly over the New York City area and I agreed.
My arrival at ZNY was somewhere around 9:30 a.m. and the controllers who were working during the first attacks were no longer on position. The sector was quiet except for departures from PHL that were evacuating high profile individuals from the country. My job as it was explained to me was to watch for intruders and alert the military who had fighter jets ready to intercept. The chaos of the situation made for some difficult decisions because the military was talking to the two fighter jets in my airspace, and I was talking to the PHL departures heading north over JFK. Talking with Giant Killer (who were talking to the fighters) we worked out some rules to keep separation, but I continued to request the fighters monitor my frequency. By the next day we had created an airspace reservation for them to work in.
There were rumors of attacks and at points possibly up to a dozen aircraft possible hijacked, but this was all going on in the background. I could not take my eyes off the scope and could not be distracted, there was still too much at stake. News had just come that the first tower had collapsed. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I took a glance. The facility manager was standing next to me watching the scope and that is when I asked the question, “are they cleared to shoot an aircraft down?” He did not answer but just gave me a look. I already knew the answer and said a little prayer that no unauthorized aircraft would show up.
Many other controllers came in that day when they received the same call, and most asked if I wanted a break. I did not. I stayed on position until just after noon when it appeared that there was no more imminent threat. Knowing that the controller at the sector may be responsible for giving intercept instructions, leading to the loss of a commercial aircraft, was not a burden I wanted to place on someone else.
The supervisor needed controllers to work the midnight shift and I volunteered, so at that time they got me up and sent me home to rest.
My small contribution pales to the great work done by my fellow controllers across the country who cleared the sky of all aircraft, the People of Gander, Newfoundland, in Canada who welcomed in strangers, the crew and passengers who were lost and the first responders who gave everything including their lives.
I want to make a special remembrance of a great friend and wonderful controller, David Bottiglia, who was working two of the hijacks and was the first one to really understand what was going on. His actions avoided two possible midair collisions, telling a Delta flight to take “any evasive action necessary.” His quick thinking and calm in this moment saved lives. David died of a heart attack on Aug. 30, 2013, while we were attending a Yankee game. He was bigger than life and is deeply missed.
Christopher Tucker, retired member
It really was a remarkable day. I remember stopping on the sidewalk on the way into work to just look at the sky. It was crystalline and incredibly blue. Beautiful. I stepped into my place of business, a large room about the size of a football field, very dark with the constant hum of electronics and various sections filled with radar scopes. I work at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (NYARTCC) or New York Center as we say (ZNY). I had no idea that this day would turn out to be the most terrible and memorable day of my career. I had been lucky so far, dodging bullets by not being on duty when Avianca 52 went down in Great Neck, Long Island, or the explosion of TWA 800 or the suicide/mass murder of EgyptAir 990. But not today. The pilots were particularly chatty that day, constantly commenting on how nice the city looked, how clear it was. It was a CAVU day. Ceilings And Visibility Unlimited.
I was plugged in and working sector 55, a radar departure sector that encompasses airspace to the southwest of New York City from 14,000 feet to 28,000 feet. I was working quite a few JFK departures westbound, several New York Metro departures southwest-bound and some arrivals into Washington National ATCT (DCA), and Baltimore-Washington ATCT (BWI) that had to be descended through the climbing departures. I was getting a bit busy and asked the controller working with me to “point out” an aircraft to the sector above us (sector 42) so I could climb the flight into his airspace and basically get him out of the way. My coworker called and then hung up, incredulous, saying sarcastically “He won’t take the point out, he says he has a hijack.” As the controller working the sector above us had a flair for drama we didn’t take him seriously and I remarked, “Get a real controller over there.”
But it was true. American Airlines Flight 11 (AAL11) had turned off its transponder and had turned south over the Hudson River toward New York. The transponder transmits a four-digit code along with altitude and position information so our computers can track the flight and we can see its altitude and speed. Although the flight had turned off the transponder, we still had a very solid “primary” (radar reflection) target visible on the scope. So we could still see what we believed was AAL11 heading south toward New York, but we had no idea what its altitude was.
At some point I remember calling Huntress, the Northeast Air Defense Sector, to give the position of the target that we believed was AAL 11. “Where is he?” the military controller asked. “About 10 miles west of LaGuardia, right over the Hudson, heading south. It’s a strong primary target.” “I’m sorry, where? I don’t see him.” I gave up and hung up the line. The target was gone. We did not know then that AAL 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center. A few moments later some aircraft on my frequency that had just departed JFK asked me if I knew the north tower was on fire. There was a huge column of smoke they said.
Later, after listening to the tapes, we discovered that one of the pilots on my frequency had said, “Maybe it’s that American you guys are looking for,” but I hadn’t heard what he said. All we knew for sure was that he was no longer on the radar and that simply meant that he was very, very low. We assumed (for some reason) that they were flying low and down the coast and headed god knows where. Someone said that a small twin-engine aircraft had hit the World Trade Center, but it never occurred to us that it could possibly have been American 11. No way. Not in your dreams bud.
As this was beginning, United Airlines Flight 175 (UAL175) checked on with the controller working sector 42 and told him that they had heard a suspicious transmission on the prior frequency in Boston Center’s airspace. But all eyes were on the target that we believed was AAL11. As we focused on the target, trying to figure out what was going on, the facility chief entered the room with a phone in each ear and his deputy beside him. They stood behind sector 42 and talked quietly but I was too busy to hear any of their conversation. While everyone in the room was staring at this target tracking toward New York, I heard a voice behind me say “Hey, there’s an intruder over Allentown.” This meant that there was a target that we call a “Mode C Intruder” that the computer wasn’t tracking. Then we noticed that the computer track for United 175 had separated from its target so we assumed the intruder was UAL175 and he was showing up as an intruder because someone on the flight deck had changed the transponder code to a code that the computer couldn’t identify. The intruder climbed briefly from 36,000 feet or as we say, flight level three six zero (if I recall correctly) and then as it passed over Allentown, Pa., it began descending and turning left to the south.
Someone said “watch this guy” to me but I was already watching, I had entered the 3321 code that the aircraft was now squawking on its transponder into to make its target appear brighter on my scope. As the target continued turning and descending, I became increasingly concerned about two aircraft that I had under my control, both heading southwest and climbing. If the intruder continued the left turn and descending at the same rate it looked like they would get very close. But it was impossible to tell which way to move the traffic to get them out of the way. If the intruder turned rather tightly than he would come north of my traffic. If the turn was wide, he would come south of them. As it was, he turned head on into both of them.
Before the intruder had finished the turn, I had issued a traffic call to both of my climbing aircraft: “Delta 2315 and USAir 542, traffic, one o’clock, one five miles turning southeast and descending, we believe it is a hijack and we don’t know his intentions.” Please keep in mind that these are my recollections many years after the event and I don’t have transcripts of my tapes available, but the essence is exactly as it was that day. Still, I had no idea what the intruder was going to do. Would he continue turning? Continue descending? I had to assume yes to both of these questions, and it began to look as if he was heading for New York City, but for what purpose? Was he an emergency we speculated? If so it must be a dire one. No pilot would turn off course or descend without informing us first. This was crazy.
We were thinking hijack but just weren’t sure. Delta 2315 was level now at FL 280 (28,000 feet) and USAir 542 was about five miles behind him and leveling off at FL 260. I called the traffic again, “Delta 2315 that traffic is now one o’clock, ten miles, turning opposite direction and descending rapidly. It looks like he will be directly in your face. Take any evasive action you deem necessary.” “Roger,” came the reply. I called the traffic to USAir 542 again and he asked me a question that I didn’t hear correctly. I thought he said, “Is that the guy at our one o’clock?” and I responded, “affirmative,” but we later determined that what he actually said was, “Is that the Delta we are following at our one o’clock?” which was not the case. I wanted him to look for the intruder that was turning head on.
By now I was becoming extremely concerned. The tension in the room was palpable. Several people were staring in disbelief at my scope as the events began to unfold. When the intruder was about seven miles from Delta 2315 and pointed directly at him and about 1,500 feet above him, I turned both aircraft, shooting off the clearances as quickly and as clearly as I could: “Delta 2315 turn left IMMEDIATELY heading two zero zero.” The pilot responded with a “roger” that sounded just a bit too nonchalant for my current state. “USAir 542 turn left IMMEDIATELY heading two zero zero.” The intruder’s target was now about five miles from Delta 2315 and closing at right around 1,000 miles per hour. I again called the traffic to the Delta and waited to see the turns. I watched in horror as the two aircraft converged at 28,000 feet. “GOD F#&KING DAMNIT!” I shouted as I jumped out of my chair, screaming at the scope. Dead silence. I could hear people breathing across the room. Shit. This was it. It takes 12 seconds for the radar to update. That was the longest 12 seconds of my life. I was focused so intensely on the radar that I thought my eyes might pop out of their sockets. Finally, the targets both appeared after having passed each other by about two miles. But at that time, it seemed like you couldn’t fit a sheet of paper between them.
“USAir 542 is responding to an RA (Resolution Advisory),” said the USAir pilot as he began descending, responding to an onboard collision avoidance device called Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Sh*t. “Christ I’m sorry about that sir, I really thought he was going to hit the Delta,” I said apologizing to the USAir flight that had come almost as close as the Delta. As it turns out, we suspect that the hijackers aboard United 175 must have heard the TCAS alerts as well because they briefly stopped descending and actually climbed to about 28,300 feet, 300 feet above the Delta. But as soon as they passed, they began descending again and rapidly. This is when USAir 542 began descending as well to avoid the conflict, but the turns I had given earlier ended up doing the job, but much, much too close for comfort.
By now I was a nervous wreck and we all watched United 175 descending toward New York City. We wondered, clutching to hope, if he really might be an emergency and not a hijack and was just trying to get the aircraft down on a runway, any runway. We wondered aloud if he was trying for Newark as he was pointed right at it. “Maybe he’s shooting for the 4’s at Newark?” (Newark has two runways called 4, a left and a right) “No”, Jimmy B. said, “He’s too high and too fast.” We watched as the target clipped off the miles, 12 seconds a hit. (We call each subsequent target presentation a “hit.”) He was descending at 5,000 feet a minute. Then six. Then seven. Unbelievable. Things were beginning to feel surreal. This wasn’t actually happening was it? Yes. “Maybe he’s trying for runway 4 at LaGuardia?” someone said. “No”, again from Jim. “This guy is going in.” And we knew. They were going to crash the plane into the city. They were pointed right at lower Manhattan and we knew it. “Two more hits,” said Jimmy. “One more.” And then he was gone. We had just watched a commercial airliner deliberately crash into New York City. It didn’t take long for the tears to come. There was confusion, fear, wild emotion. But we still had work to do.
I vectored aircraft on course, climbed some, descended others, I don’t remember really. I remember choking back tears as I issued instructions to several pilots and talked with some about what had just happened. At some point the supervisor asked me if I needed to get up. I nodded emphatically and was relieved by another controller.
As I walked out of the area and passed the watch desk, I heard the operational manager in charge screaming into the phone: “I don’t give a shit what they do, just get them in the air NOW!” Must be scrambling fighters I pondered, feeling distant and disconnected. I reached over his multiple CRT’s (cathode ray tube displays) and grabbed the cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He never noticed.
The rest is history. The controllers in my area, area B, were sequestered with a priest and a psychologist in a conference room for a while, and someone would pop in occasionally with the latest news. “The south tower just collapsed.” No f#$king way I thought. They kept popping in with more bad news, bomb threats, more hijackings. I couldn’t take it and got up and walked out to smoke one cigarette after another. The controller sitting next to me had just lost his best friend who was working at Windows on the World. People were in tears. Everyone was afraid and angry. Unbelievably angry.
At one point they gathered us up, the controllers from Area B and we made written statements and a recording. They brought this big old reel to reel recorder in and passed around a microphone asking us to give our version of what we saw. Four or five people had already spoken when they discovered it wasn’t recording and we had to start over. Later, a Quality Assurance Manager destroyed this tape and there was a bit of conspiracy theory going on about it. But this is nonsense. The tape was destroyed because the manager knew it was counterproductive and embarrassing. Not embarrassing to the FAA, but to us personally. Many people were crying, several facts were stated incorrectly, it was just a mess. And they had all the data they could possibly need with the voice recordings of all the transmissions and all of the radar data. Not only was he within his rights to destroy the tape, it was actually in his job description. Was it right? I’ll leave that to you to decide. But I can tell you from first-hand experience that the contents of the tape that caused such a flap were totally innocuous.
Several weeks (months? who knows) after the event I spoke with a reporter over the phone about that day and he wrote a story for the Hartford Courant. A few days after it was printed, he called me again with a strange request. A reader had contacted him and wanted to speak with me, could he share my number with him? I said sure and the gentleman called. Apparently, he had been a passenger aboard Delta 2315, a circuit court judge for either the United States or Connecticut, I don’t remember. But he had called to thank me. “For what?” I asked. “For saving my life that day; for doing your job,” and we talked for hours. I think he saved my life that day.
This is dedicated to all those who lost their lives that day, especially the pilots, crew and passengers aboard American 11 and United 175.
New York – John F. Kennedy ATCT (JFK)
Phil Nicola, retired member
I was working a day shift at New York-JFK Tower on the morning of 9/11. I was a controller but had been in the third floor administrative office performing Article 17 duties when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.
None of us in the office were initially aware of what had happened. I don’t recall what prompted me to go to the controller breakroom on the tower’s 16th floor but, as I entered, a controller had the television on, which showed the north tower on fire; he remarked, almost matter-of-factly, that a plane had flown into the building. Moments later, a brief shadow flashed across the screen as the second plane flew by and struck the south tower. It was immediately apparent that this was no accident.
I went up to the tower cab, where aircraft were still inbound for landing. Departures had been stopped. As aircraft continued to land, I remarked to the air traffic manager (ATM), who was standing next to me, that there was nothing to prevent the tower from also being a target of an arriving aircraft. At this point, the decision was made to evacuate the tower. Evacuation procedures were initiated and the appropriate parties notified. Aircraft on the ground were advised that the tower was being evacuated and would essentially be left to their own devices to return to their terminals.
I don’t recall when arrivals were stopped, as I was involved in helping to evacuate the tower. I became part of the detail that would relocate out onto the airport to establish a temporary tower. Back in 2001, part of our evacuation plan was to use a Plane-Mate as a temporary tower. Plane-Mates were similar to an oversized bus but were mounted on a scissor-type jack that could elevate the body of the “bus” to the height of an aircraft door; some of these Plane-Mates were equipped with antenna jacks to which portable aviation radios could be connected. The airport operator, the Port Authority of NY & NJ, had arranged to have a Plane-Mate positioned out on the field and myself and several other controllers were transported out onto the field. Tech Ops had already connected our portable radios before we arrived.
As we reached this relocation site, we became busy via cellphone, trying to contact controllers who were scheduled to work later shifts in order to advise them that the tower had been evacuated. This task was complicated by the fact that we had limited cell phone coverage and also that we did not have a complete listing of controllers’ phone numbers; numbers were compiled by going through each of our own personal cellphone listings. We completed the task of notifying those working the later shifts and eventually all who had participated in the evacuation were sent home except for myself and another controller.
It was eerily quiet out on the field; arrivals had ceased and aircraft on the taxiways had returned to their respective terminals. We had two portable radios tuned to the local and ground frequencies, and a third tuned to the approach control frequency. Through prior arrangement via phone, the radar approach controller was to call us on the approach control frequency if they observed any unknown targets heading our way, in case there might be a rogue aircraft inbound to do damage. Thankfully, that was never the case. I did observe a friendly fighter-type aircraft, however, approach the airport from the south at about 1,000’, overfly the airport, and continue to Manhattan. That’s a sight I’ll never forget; it was unusual to see and one that is hopefully never repeated.
Since we were situated at ground level, we did not have a view of the twin towers and, in disbelief, received news by phone that the towers had collapsed and that another aircraft had impacted the Pentagon and yet another had crashed in Pennsylvania.
We exercised no air traffic control that day, as aircraft and vehicular movement on the airport was prohibited. We were replaced by some other controllers at the evacuation site early that afternoon and I was in a daze during my entire drive home. I stuck to side roads, avoiding parkways, as I had no idea what traffic might be like.
The next few days at the tower were surreal; aircraft operations were prohibited and the general public was not permitted in the terminals or on the roadways. During the walk from my car to the tower each day, the usual noise and bustle of cars, trucks, and airplanes was replaced by an unnerving quiet. I think all of us, during the days that followed, were overwhelmed with the realization of what had happened on 9/11 and how the world had changed forever that day.
Retired member Greg Lopez was a controller at JFK who later transferred to New York TRACON (N90), but he was not working on 9/11. However, the next day, Sept. 12, Lopez had the opportunity to ride in a New York Police Department helicopter over New York City and ground zero. He took the photo above. To view more of Lopez’s photos, please click here.
New York TRACON (N90)
I was working a 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. shift on 9/11/2001. I had just returned from a break and was assigned the sequence position around the time the first aircraft struck the north tower. Early reports were that a small plane hit the tower, but that’s when we started getting word about possible hijacked commercial airliners.
The LaGuardia (LGA) final flies very close to Manhattan and the pilots were saying that it was a large impact. About 9 a.m., the controller working sequence in the Liberty Area brought to my attention a primary target that they thought may be another hijacked airplane. This target was moving very fast and we watched it fly to New York City where the target disappeared. We then found out that it had struck the south tower. Shortly after, we were told not to accept ANY more airplanes into the New York area and departures were stopped as well.
Eventually, the only aircraft we had left was a New York City police helicopter circling near ground zero. About 10 a.m., something I will never forget happened when the controller working radar told me that the NYPD pilot said the south tower had just collapsed. We were all shocked to hear that. I was on break and watching TV in the unusually crowded break room when the north tower fell. The silence in that room was deafening.
A couple of hours later, when there were no more airplanes flying and nothing left to do, the air traffic manager told most of us that we could leave early. Part of me didn’t want to go. Our country was under attack, and I just felt like there must be something we should be doing. Of course, we had already done it by grounding every aircraft into, out of, and within the United States. I went home to be with my family.
Brian Fallon, retired member
Dawn broke as clear as I’d ever seen, the thick cobalt blue of the night being chased silently into the western horizon by the radiance of yellow growing on the east. A benevolent high-pressure system had settled onto the East Coast of the U.S., clearing skies while allowing wonderfully moderate temperatures to prevail. I was driving into work on my favorite road on Long Island, the Ocean Parkway, which traverses the barrier island along the south shore, and lets me pass through the world-famous Jones Beach area before the parkway turns northbound and towards the New York TRACON.
I love mornings like this, not only because I can soak up the natural beauty of the seashore environment – an effective way to lift my spirits before having to face the crush of air traffic that a good VFR day like this will most certainly bring – but also because as I cross the drawbridge leading out of Jones Beach, I can look to my left and clearly see the proud twin spires of the World Trade Center, some 25 miles away, gleaming in the bright morning sunlight now spilling over the horizon. Little did I know that this would be the last time I would ever set eyes on those buildings.
The morning routine was well under way at work, with the scramble of commercial departures pouring out of the area airports and nosing their way towards the jet airways. The majority of the departure push was completed as I went out on break; the time was 8:45 a.m. I walked outside to drink in more of this beautiful morning, looking up to watch the heavy jet arrivals pass majestically overhead as they were being vectored to the final approach course at JFK International. It never ceases to amaze me as I watch these behemoths quietly glide by that my friends in this very building are guiding them in this most crucial phase of flight. If only we had windows…
My reverie was interrupted by the angry buzz of my cell phone. A call from home! It was my son. “Dad, what happened with the airplane?”
“What airplane?” I said, thinking that he was probably in a last-minute scramble before school, having forgotten to finish his homework the night before.
“The plane that hit the building.”
That got my attention. “What building?!”
“The news is saying that an airplane just hit the World Trade tower.”
“I’ll call you back!”
I ran into a nearby office where I knew there was a radio, and quickly tuned it into one of the metro area’s 24-hour news stations. The early, chaotic on-the-scene reports were being shouted by reporters trying to talk over the scream of rescue vehicles pouring into the area. I quickly called my union facility representative, to ensure that he was aware of the breaking news. “I’m watching it on TV!” was his immediate reply. It dawned on me that he was out at a NATCA multiregional conference being held in New Orleans. Dozens of NATCAvists from all over the country were watching this unfold right before their eyes. And here I am, at the TRACON, learning about this from a phone call from my son! “I’m gonna go see if we were talking to this guy. I’ll call you back.” I slapped the flip-phone shut and ran up the stairs.
It’s always disconcerting, walking into the dimly lit Operations Room after having been out in the bright sunlight, and this was no different. As I rounded the corner at the end of a bank of scopes, I stood there for a moment, to let my eyes adjust. The silhouettes moving about took human form, and I moved over beside a friend of mine, who was standing behind the final approach controller for one of the ‘Big 3’ airports. He was staring at the multi-colored display with rapt attention. As quickly as my eyes adjusted, I realized that the tension in the room was electric.
“Were we talking to him?” I asked gently, following his gaze at the swarm of targets before us, quickly reading the traffic flow as the controller at the position kept issuing instructions in crisp, professional staccato. He slowly turned his head towards me, his mouth agape.
His voice was thick with emotion. “It just happened again!”
I felt like I had just been slapped. “What?!?”
His arm lifted straight from his body, almost as if a string was pulling it, until his finger was pointing right at the scope. “There. It just happened again.”
I looked where he was pointing. The southern tip of the island of Manhattan.
Our eyes locked. We both knew exactly what was going on. We were under attack by terrorists. There could be no other explanation. Suddenly, a single question bubbled to the forefront of my consciousness: What do I do now? I stood there for I don’t know how long, my mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water as a million and one options shot through my mind. Finally, I realized that there was only one thing that I could do. I went and grabbed my headset.
The events went liquid shortly thereafter. No one had to wait to be told to stop departures, but then in rapid succession the airspace cleansing began. Normally, at this time of the day, we’re getting into our early lunch rush. The scopes around the room become littered with targets; student pilots thick as fleas, turboprops zooming about like seagulls in a feeding frenzy, and jets of all stripes droning in and out of the area airports.
Now, the screen was almost blank. The airspace of New York, arguably the busiest and most complex airspace on the planet, was all but empty. I don’t know how long it took, but it wasn’t very long. As the quiet descended on the room like a heavy blanket, the voice behind me said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” It was my supervisor. He has over 35 years of ATC experience.
Then another co-worker walked into the sector. He had been watching TV in the break room. He announced that the Pentagon had just been hit. I couldn’t believe my ears. The Pentagon?? That can’t happen. THIS can’t be happening! I turned to the controller working the position next to me. He’s a Vietnam veteran. His eyes were set.
“So that’s it, then.” he said, his voice rock steady, his tone final. “We’re at war.” The wheels in my head did yet another spin, my own military training evaluating the possibilities. As the answer locked into place, I nodded my agreement. My throat was too tight to speak. I looked at my hands. They were shaking.
I didn’t even see the footage of the events until a few hours later, when I finally got home. I watched the news for about five minutes, and then shut off the TV, after I felt the bile begin to rise in the back of my throat. It would be another day before I learned that Susan Mackay, the wife of Boston Center controller Doug Mackay, was on American Airlines Flight 11, the first one to hit the WTC. It would be a few more days before the body of another friend of mine, a New York City firefighter, would be pulled out of the rubble. But the feelings of grief and utter helplessness in the face of such unspeakable horror were already settling in.
I tried to keep up a brave front for the kids, cooing that everything would be all right, that our guys would go out there and find the Bad Guys, and put them out of business. I wished I could’ve convinced myself, but one look at the gray glass of the TV told me that there was a whole world of horror and terror out there, and that at long last, it had washed upon these shores, crashing in like a tsunami. I held my kids close, and said a prayer, asking that they not get swept away too, like so many of my neighbor’s neighbors and friend’s friends had, so senselessly, just this very morning. I tried to keep the kids busy, got them going on their schoolwork, because “tomorrow was going to be just another normal day.” As I was helping my daughter, I noticed a little inspirational message at the top of one of the pages in her homework agenda. It read, “You may be but one person in all the world, but to one person, you may be the world.” That gave me some needed perspective. I stroked my daughter’s hair as I took a deep, calming breath.
For whatever divine reason, I realized I was where I needed to be, doing what I needed to be doing. In time, perhaps something in all this insanity would make sense. But for now, I knew what my job was – to keep on doing the things that I needed to be doing.
Things were anything but normal for the next couple of days, as the resuscitation of the National Airspace System began. Chaotic and convoluted it was, but resuscitate it we did, anemic as it may have been. It took several days for all the NATCAvists down in New Orleans to find their way home. Most had to rent vehicles and drive home. The NATCA National Executive Board (NEB) had told the Communications Committee to shut down our WebBoards. NATCA, at that time, had both a public and a private Internet-based electronic Bulletin Board Service (BBS), which allows controllers from all over the country to post messages and discuss issues on a multitude of topics, where – along with our websites – the National Office can disseminate the latest news on issues affecting NATCA, aviation, and labor. Because of the criminal nature of the attacks, as well as the over-arching National Security concerns surrounding them, any discussion or speculation related to these events or the new procedures in place – which seemed to be changing daily –would receive no statutory protection and/or union privilege whatsoever. For our own protection, NATCA issued a gag order on itself.
It was only a couple of days after “The Events” that the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team began to appear throughout the facilities touched by the tragedy. The CISM Team is a cooperative effort between the FAA and NATCA, where specially trained NATCA controllers come to a facility after a major accident or incident, to talk to not just the controllers involved with the event(s), but anyone in the facility – supervisors, support specialists, secretaries – who may be feeling stressed out by what happened, and to give them information on ways to help them cope, as well as contact information for more in-depth assistance, should it be needed. For major accidents, there will often be formal De-Breifings. Normally, only 1 or 2 CISM debriefers deploy to a facility, usually for just one day, and almost never more than three for even a major accident. The events of September 11th mobilized almost the entire CISM Team of 14 controllers for almost a month.
With our interactive forums closed, the only national communications we had was through our websites. We had just last year moved NATCA’s entire Internet presence onto a new system and revamped the entire look and feel of both the public and private sites. The main architect of this re-structuring was none other than my dear friend Bryan Thompson, who is also the Editor-In-Chief of The NATCA Voice, our national grassroots newsletter. Bryan, a controller at the Chicago TRACON, and a former U.S. Marine, was feeling especially frustrated by the terrorist attacks and the ensuing self-imposed NATCA gag order. Then the letters started pouring in. John Carr, president of NATCA, began forwarding e-mails and letters the National Office was receiving from controllers and ATC organizations from all over the globe.
When the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Norm Mineta, gave the order to shut down the NAS, the response was immediate. Across the country, over 700 airplanes were brought down safely in four minutes; in less than two hours, over 5,000 flights that had been airborne were on the deck.
There was not a single incident outside of the four hijacked aircraft. Then we began receiving information about all the flights around the world that were diverted. Photos of Gander and Newfoundland in Canada, flooded with diverted aircraft, heavy jets packed onto runways like they were on an aircraft carrier. Stories of the citizens of these small communities opening their homes to the stranded passengers. The letters and e-mails from around the world continued to flow in, the world aviation community embracing us in sorrow and brotherhood.
Slowly things began to get back to normal, or as we’re calling it, the ‘New Normal’. The private BBS came back on line, and a few weeks later, the public BBS was back up. We’re still cautious in what we say, but we’re talking about how we feel.
While the terrorists had most certainly hit America with a near-crippling sucker punch to our collective Solar Plexus, what they didn’t realize at the time they planned their attacks was that by turning aircraft full of innocent civilians into weapons of mass destruction, they had attacked every nation on Earth. The world was now pulling together, not just militarily, but emotionally. We as Americans were hurt, and our friends around the globe reached out to help. And in the especially close fraternity of aviation, we unified in friendship, empathy, and understanding. As the sordid process of reclamation and rebuilding continues, we in the ATC community are faced with a whole new paradigm of safety and security. There are many more questions than answers of how to best implement many of the new challenges before us, but for air traffic controllers around the world, our mission remains unchanged. We are to grab our headsets, and safely keep the airplanes moving.
Sharon Keller, retired member
I was an air traffic controller at the New York TRACON working traffic on 9/11. At first, some of us weren’t sure what size plane hit the World Trade Center (WTC). Only some were aware of a second plane, and when it turned around it almost hit a Newark (EWR) departure.
As soon as it hit, we closed down the New York airspace. I handled many of the aircraft that were being sent back to Boston Center (ZBW) and all of the pilots were asking what was happening at the WTC and that they had relatives that worked there.
We were all scared that we were under attack and didn’t know if we were in harm’s way. After all the planes were handled we closed all but a few scopes. I called my fiance who was an Emergency Service Unit cop at the Port Authority (who owned the WTC), worried that he had gone into work that day. He had not, but ended up going down to the pile for a few weeks looking for the 39 PA cops who died that day.
The next few days we worked the police helicopters and military aircraft. We also had to tell any pilot who took off to return to the airport or be shot down and advise their intentions (which I did have one). When the airspace finally opened, we weren’t allowed to let our aircraft go too high or the military planes would go after them. I had one aircraft do that; I was so scared he would be shot down. I was in shock for weeks. Every day after his 12-hour shifts, my husband came home smelling like a burning building, and I had to go into work every day also. Never Forget 😥
Going to work that day was just a normal day. You wake up at 0 dark 30, and roll into work. On 9/11, I was actually with a trainee at the time. I trained him on one session in the morning. We took a break. We were training on the Liberty South positions.
It was shortly after 8:46 that we started training. There was rumor that a plane did hit the north tower. Nobody knew if it was an airline or a small plane. We plugged in and started working. Maybe 10 minutes later, we got a call from the center that there was a target out there and it was nordo. My supervisor at the time said he was probably a hijacking. You’re in work mode, so you hear it and your mind goes back to refresher training. You hear he’s a hijacking and now it’s, where is he going? When we saw him, he was at 24,000 feet, coming in from the west. He started descending. I unplugged and told the trainee to leave the room. There was no reason for a trainee to sit through this.
It was confirmed that it was a hijacking. I pointed him out to the Empire area. I issued traffic to one Delta jet and I said, “traffic descending rapidly out of 18,000. I don’t know what he’s doing.” They replied, “OK, we’ll keep an eye out for him.” He just kept going down. It doesn’t click then that something tragic is goinig to happen. You’re watching and going through your working day. As far as I knew, you’re trained to deal with situations and if it arises, you deal with it and keep working. A controller sitting to the right of me said, “that guy is going right for the city.” He hit the south tower. Eleven hundred feet doing 600 knots. I had a friend run in from the break room and say he saw it watching TV. I said I was watching it right here. But again, we still had other traffic.
There were probably 3-4 others watching it too. He went through my Empire airspace and the LaGuardia sector and he flew right up the Hudson and made a turn at the last second toward the tower. I had a couple pilots say they’d like to report smoke coming from lower Manhattan. I told them I knew about it and was contacting the proper authorities. It didn’t sink in until I got off position. I went to the break room and saw the TV news and that’s when it hits you a little bit more.
Unfortunately, there was nothing you could do for that one aircraft. They had their mind set on what they were going to do. You watch him hit the tower, the tag disappears. You still have to worry about the planes in the sky.
It wasn’t until the next day that it sunk in. I was off Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, I went back to the spot where I go fishing, a place where I can watch the Kennedy final all day long. That was the eerie part of it for me. You could see the plumes of smoke from Manhattan and you didn’t see a plane around.
It was just a very eerie feeling. You can’t believe what you went through the day before. You’re trained to deal with a hijack or a medical emergency. But now you see the result of what had happened. It takes a while, to the next day, to have it sink in and then wow, you see the Manhattan skyline and realize it will never be the same.
By Friday of that week, I was on edge a little bit. When we’re working and a plane does not answer you right away, your mind goes to “oh my God, here it goes again.” You’re giving instructions and they’re not answering.
A few years ago, I went to the 9/11 museum for the first time. I saw the reflecting pools and I got to see a couple of names of firefighters I knew. When you go to the museum itself, they did a beautiful job. The guide takes you around, you see the white roses and the tree that survived the collapse. It’s something I will never forget and you can’t believe it because you’ve been through it. For the few people I know who perished, it’s just horrible for those families. For anybody outside of New York, it’s going to a museum. But for people who went through that day up here, it’s a little piece of closure and how far we’ve come since that giant hole in the ground since the attacks.
The controllers that I work with – and this is not just my facility but across the country – are probably the highest level of professionalism you could ever think of. As far as the way we handled the shutdown of airspace and everybody landed safely without incident is just incredible.
The majority of the time, this was the best job I could ever ask for. To work with fellow brothers and sisters in air traffic control, you cannot replace that.
Pittsburgh ATCT (PIT)
Vivian Lumbard, retired member
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was in radar simulation training at Pittsburgh International Airport, having transferred to that facility from Boston Air Traffic Control Tower a year prior. I remember our traffic management person coming into the room saying they were trying to track down flights from Boston to Los Angeles and me replying, “The only carriers would be United, American, and maybe Delta. Don’t bother looking at the rest.” We discontinued training and headed to the radar room to see if they needed us to assist.
During my career, I have been involved in many situations where controllers, including myself, were concerned about a flight emergency, a bomb threat directed at our facility or something similar and we all just continued doing our jobs. But this…this was something so much more. All of us were in the same place of shock and initial stages of grief, but had a job to do to keep as many people safe as possible. My most poignant air traffic control memory from that morning was in the radar room witnessing some of my colleagues working traffic with silent tears running down their faces, while their voices remained strong, calm and sure on frequency. What air traffic controllers nationwide accomplished that day had never even been considered as a possibility, yet we did it.
We were ordered to evacuate immediately when it became known that UAL93’s last projected flight path before it was lost on radar was that it was headed directly towards us. I evacuated out with everyone else, but had none of my personal belongings. Everyone was rushing to their vehicles and leaving. I jumped into a co-worker’s car and she asked, “Where do we go?” “Northwest,” I replied. “The plane is coming from the northwest; maybe we’ll be able to see and avoid it.” We went to her home and attempted to call into the facility for about an hour, only hearing a busy signal each time we called as we watched the news broadcasts in horror. The staff person who finally answered the call stated, “Everyone was supposed to meet at the basketball net.” I recall telling him that no one followed protocol because the airport’s fuel tanks were nearby and none of us wanted to be that close to an ignition source if the plane were to crash at the airport. We were told we had been released for the day, but I could come back to gather my personal belongings and vehicle. When my co-worker drove me back to the facility, our Tech Ops people had already changed all the security codes and were only allowing FAA personnel they recognized on the premises.
The following weeks were filled with daily airspace rule changes, watching those few general aviation aircraft that didn’t get the word being directed and escorted by military aircraft to land, new security protocols, and new procedures for coordination of all emergency events. In many publicly unseen ways, air traffic control changed that September 11th, but the one thing that didn’t change was the basic air traffic controller “can do” attitude; it only got stronger for those of us who were present that day.
On a different but related note, the captain of American 11, John Ogonowski, lived only several miles from where I had lived in Dracut, Massachusetts. For a long time after 9/11, I wondered how many times I may have spoken with him on frequency at BOS or passed him in our neighborhood supermarket, etc. never realizing that I would never forget his name in the future.
Vivian M. Lumbard
Retired Air Traffic Controller (1991-2016, BOS, PIT, YNG)
Eric Stormfels, retired member
As we practice holding, I heard my co-worker mention something about New York Center not taking aircraft due to an airplane crashing into a building in the New York area. Wow, I thought. As time went on, minutes really, I wondered what had happened. Then my co-worker Charlie stated to an AVBASE flight, “They did it again!” I knew something was very wrong. I WILL NEVER FORGET!
Wayne and I talked. His words were mostly about political issues concerned with the who and why. Stop! I just noticed it was awful quiet on Pittsburgh Departure frequency. It was push time. There was nothing happening. Nothing at all! I WILL NEVER FORGET!
A medical helicopter check on the frequency, no one answered him. I wondered. A Piper checked on the frequency, no one answered. I worried now. I had a conversation with both pilots and we all expressed our concern at the lack of ATC communication. What was going on? I WILL NEVER FORGET!
I called Cleveland Center, but there was no answer. At this point I thought we were at war and everyone I worked with was dead. This was not the case, but I WILL NEVER FORGET!
After what seemed like an eternity, I convinced Wayne we should land. It was really only a 10-word conversation, but it seemed like an hour. We turn toward BVI and tuned in the tower frequency. I felt relieved to hear a pattern full of airplanes and Jimmy on the frequency. I WILL NEVER FORGET!
I asked him if he could get Pittsburgh Approach on the land line? He said, “we haven’t been able to raise them for a few minutes now.” I worried about my co-workers. I asked Jim if we were operating under certain security rules, he stated he didn’t know. I was scared!
I WILL NEVER FORGET!
Syracuse ATCT (SYR)
Carmen Reale, retired member
September 11 happened to be my RDO. My next shift was the next day – Wednesday morning, the 9/12 shift.
Approaching the gate, there was a local Syracuse police officer guarding it. I approached and he asked for my ID. Prior to 9/11, we never wore our IDs. Mine was in my locker. I had to have someone from inside come out and vouch for me to get inside and to come out with my ID to show him my credential.
Needless to say, an ID has been worn all the time since. A policeman was stationed at the gate for almost a year following 9/11.
Teterboro ATCT (TEB)
Jerry and Elena Nash, retired members
In the Fall of 2001, Elena and I lived in the shadows of the World Trade Center on Staten Island. We worked west of the Hudson with one of the best views in the world. Our neighbors worked at the WTC. Our local first responders were stationed at our neighborhood FDNY and NYPD buildings.
On September 10th, we were returning from a visit to St. Louis. We, being airplane buffs, planned a trip to Wright Patterson Air Force Museum in Ohio. We’d allocated a few hours and were consumed by the displays. We nearly tripled our expected time to revel in the history of our profession. We decided that we wouldn’t be able to make the drive home to New York City. We decided to travel until we were hungry or tired and would stop for the night and complete our trip home the morning of September 11, 2001. We made it to just a few miles east of Shanksville, Pennsylvania for the evening.
We both worked the Hudson River VFR corridor from Teterboro ATCT. We knew the airspace and procedures well. When we awoke on the morning of 9/11 we witnessed, just as most of the world, the plane crash into our iconic NYC buildings. Knowing the airspace, we first thought that it was truly an accident by a private jet avoiding another aircraft and crashed into our WTC. Moments later, as the second plane hit Tower 2, those thoughts were distinguished and we knew the threat. Soon, we learned that after having our city attacked that there was an aircraft down in Shanksville. This became personal. We felt personally under attack and as a nation, we were correct.
We knew that we could not go home. We left Shanksville and headed westbound towards Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh was being evacuated so we made a turn north through the Allegheny National Forest to Elena’s aunt’s home near Buffalo. When we were able to take back to the road to home we found the right lane of the interstate closed except to military caravans, ambulances, and law enforcement headed to NYC.
As we approached NYC on a drive we’d taken hundreds of times, we observed the smoldering sight and smell of a city burning. We arrived home to find that we had left a window open in our apartment. We soon discovered our home in a blanket of concrete dust from the WTC.
Soon before the attack on 9/11, the Great Kills Landfill was closed in Staten Island. Again, now, lanes of the interstate were closed but for the hundreds of trucks transporting the WTC remains. This was a daily reminder to us of the gravity of the event.
Upon returning to work we discovered that our skyline and lives had been indelibly marked. We worked for months to get the National Airspace System to return to its full capacity.
The incredible dedication and professionalism of the NYC/NJ NATCA air traffic controllers was a feat to be admired for all time and was a proud moment of our careers under most difficult times.
Washington Center (ZDC)
Gregory L. Wojcik, retired member
September 11, 2001: I remember it vividly. The weather was beautiful in Northern Virginia and a little bit crisp on my drive in for a dayshift at Washington Center. I was a CPC transfer and training on the last of my D sides at the Linden Sector which is a departure sector for the metro Washington, D.C. area. URET wasn’t a thing yet so everything on the D side was still done manually complete with flight progress strips, red W’s, and lots of strip marking.
It was my Friday and I commuted weekly to Virginia.
There was a rather busy departure push at that time of the morning with traffic funneling out of Dulles, Washington National and Baltimore. My trainer was Rich Wallace and the radar controller was Carl Finkbeiner; both whom today, I consider good friends and not just because we’re all Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
I remember the push ending and at that time, Rich and I took a break. It wasn’t quite 9 a.m. yet and as I stepped into the cafeteria, there was a crowd of about 15 people standing around watching the TV which had a news report on and smoke billowing from one of the Twin Towers. I couldn’t hear what was being said, so I stepped out to the “Crack Shack,” ZDC’s smoke shack. There was only one other person out there and I asked what was going on because the same scene was on the TV out there. That co-worker said that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. Like many, I figured it was just a rogue Cessna or other small aircraft that lost its way or whose pilot had a medical issue.
Around that time, there was a blanket page on the P.A. system for all controller personnel to return to their areas immediately. Going back into the control room, there was a small crowd around the Operations Manager’s desk with one of the Ops managers saying, “We’re looking for American 77.” I was with Rich then and as we walked back to the area, he said that we had worked that aircraft.
As we plugged back in at the Linder Sector, he started searching through the deadwood and found the AAL77 strip and handed it to the supervisor. That supervisor took the strip to the watch desk and upon his return, declared that the other twin tower had been hit. Things got real then. Until that moment, having been a controller for 11 years, commercial flights just didn’t get hijacked. The “ample security” that was in place prevented it from happening so it just never happened. In fact, despite all of the annual refresher training on hijackings, it just never happened.
The control room became a bit more somber as the normal traffic continued. Eventually, the order to ground all aircraft came and my training was stopped at that time. I was reassigned to a different sector that I was certified on to assist that radar controller in getting all aircraft on the ground. I doubt that we even did a training sheet that day because Rich was reassigned to a sector too and we just kept working.
The sector that I was assisting was generally over Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., and frequently had more VFR aircraft that some of the other sectors in our area. The radar controller, Tiffany Meadows, rerouted IFR flights to ROA and LYH and most aircraft were reasonable about it. Some questioned the order but complied, especially when they were told to land and go watch a television. She also made a blanket broadcast every 5 or 10 minutes announcing that all aircraft were ordered to land under a national emergency. There was one VFR aircraft who just couldn’t understand the order and wanted to continue his flight. In no uncertain terms, Tiffany made it plain and clear to this pilot that he was to land immediately, and he did.
During this time, the supervisor came back from the watch desk and stated that an aircraft was down near Camp David. This was not accurate but it was a reference to UAL 93’s crash in Shanksville, Pa. There was another reference made to this flight which has been debated on being said, but I do know what was said and I heard the words.
Eventually, the airspace was clear except for military aircraft. We eventually went to a midnight configuration of one sector, but a high altitude sector had a data block on it where Flight 93 was last observed even though this was in Cleveland Center’s airspace. There were several military aircraft in that area as well, including one using the call sign Wojo; my nickname.
Non-essential personnel were released on admin leave and since I was not a CPC, fell into that category. As I left, the main gate at ZDC had been barricaded with several Leesburg police vehicles and that gate was never used again. Upon my return to work after my weekend, the police cars were replaced with backhoes and eventually, Jersey barriers.
Nearly a year later, I visited the Shanksville area that had been turned into a makeshift memorial with a chain link fence and many mementos left there. Since then, I have visited all three of the memorials. I’m retired now but the memories of that day 20 years ago have not diminished.
Washington Dulles ATCT (IAD)
Terry Walsh, retired member
On September 11th, I was working at Dulles Tower. It was a combined tower and approach control in those days. I had been a controller for 20 years, 15 of them at Dulles. That day I was working a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. Upon reporting to work, I found I was assigned to the tower cab for the day. The weather forecast was for clear skies and north winds. It should be a great day in the tower.
The morning proceeded normally until shortly before 9 o’clock. I was on a break in the terminal and a co-worker walking by me asked if I had heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I returned to the tower and stepped into the break room just in time to see the second aircraft fly into the second tower.
I reported back to the tower and was assigned to ground control. We were landing on the parallels 1R and 1L and departing Runway 30. The departures were getting backed up, but not because of volume. Washington Center had imposed large “miles in trail” restrictions, limiting the number of new flights entering the system, as we all tried to make sense of what was happening in New York.
During this time a United flight in the departure queue contacted me.
“Ground, we need to return to the gate.”
“Yes sir, it’ll take me a moment to clear a route, do you need any assistance?”
“No assistance needed but my company has serious concerns about the safety of this aircraft.”
Shortly after that exchange all departures were stopped.
During this time frame we learned that one of our departures, American 77, was missing and suspected of being hijacked. Events are moving very quickly now. The system is being shut down. The two finals are packed with arrivals and will be for quite a while. Someone in the radar room notices a primary target, (no transponder), coming from the west. It is moving at a high rate of speed and is going to cross our final south of the airport.
We have no idea of this targets altitude or identification. The final and local controllers are calling the traffic but nobody is able to get a visual. It passes to the east and into Washington National’s airspace. They of course had been notified and are tracking the target as well. It turns south, away from Washington, but in just a few moments it is headed toward Washington in proximity to the National final.
We heard from National Tower a moment later. National is closed. The Pentagon has been hit. AA77 has been lost.
The controller professionalism was incredible. The information was processed but this was not the time to reflect. There were still airplanes to get on the ground.
While all of this was going on a “hotline” with Washington Center and other concerned parties was audible through a speaker in the rear of the tower. The subject was the suspected whereabouts of UA93 and the military aircraft trying to intercept it. As we listened, we learned that UA93 had been lost as well. The rest of the shift was quiet with only the occasional military or law enforcement aircraft moving through the airspace. When I came down from the tower, sometime around noon, I found that some evening watch controllers had already started arriving. Nobody had called them, they just wanted to help. True sisters and brothers.
As I left that day, I walked through the terminal. I don’t remember seeing another person. It was a ghost town. The baggage claim conveyers were packed with bags and the excess was piled next to them. Outside the building it was quiet. I never realized how much noise an airport produces. There wasn’t a single aircraft engine to be heard.
Washington National ATCT (DCA)
Woke up that morning to a cool breeze blowing in my window, and I checked the forecast to see that yes, this will be another September 11 where the weather in Northern Virginia will be perfect, and the sky will again be a still and beautiful, cloudless blue. Twenty years has passed. Twenty years ago, I stood, helpless, inside DCA tower, at the culmination of my two-plus-hour-long stint on a very confusing session on ground control.
In the tower that morning, we were performing our normal operations with the addition of some stranger-than-normal restrictions on northeast bound traffic. “What?” Stop all traffic to New York. “Why? It’s beautiful out.” Fifteen minutes later, “Wait, what”? Stop all traffic going to or through the New York Center’s airspace? “Why, is their radar out?” Another 15 minutes of jockeying airplanes on my limited surface space, and separating them into groups of ones that can depart, and ones that can’t. Then, “Oh, what?” A small aircraft crashed into a building? “Well, why would that make the en-route center’s radar out?”
Confusion continued, and my taxiways filled up and the chirping on the frequency from frustrated flight crews continued. It was like working a thunderstorm shift and I hadn’t even had my morning coffee yet. Then a transmission from a pilot on one of my planes cut through all the chatter. He announced to me and the others in the conga line queue for departure that his wife just called him on his cell. “Don’t fly,” she said. “It’s a terrorist attack.”
We all know the rest. Just a short time later, my confusion increased. I’m still thinking a terrorist flew a small private plane into one floor of the World Trade Center at this point, when the TRACON called from downstairs (this was before Potomac TRACON was opened) saying there was a primary target heading toward Washington, D.C. They asked us to look out the window to see if we could spot what kind of plane it was, and at what altitude. The controllers all swivel and look out the back window, and spot it flying up I-395 at just about pattern altitude, and I remember thinking – this plane must have been stolen? Did someone steal airplanes just to start crashing them? Jet airplanes? Commercial jet airplanes? (Now I could see the paint job- American Airlines).
Then, in slow motion, I realized that maybe there are passengers on there and could it be hijacked? Then, still replayed in slow motion in my mind, the plane, now just flying past our west facing window, wiggled. No other way to describe it, but it wiggled and then tilted down and in an instant it was powering up and bee-lining into the Pentagon across the George Washington Parkway from where we stood up high in our perch. Every year, I say my prayers for all those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and their loved ones left behind. (R.I.P. 💔) Now, aviation forever changed and no longer the innocent fun we had pre-Sept. 11, on this 20-year anniversary of that day, I definitely realize this was the day I will remember most from my 30-year ATC career. Never forget.
Wilkes-Barre ATCT (AVP)
Anton Schulden, retired member
I was working local control when a co-worker came to relieve me. He told me a plane crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC). I was thinking it was a foggy day in New York City and the weather was a factor. Looking out the window, I saw blue skies and knew the weather was not the cause as we’re not far from New York City. I went downstairs to the break room and watched the news. I was surprised to know it was a passenger jet that hit the WTC. Some of the reports mentioned a possible attack. I called my wife to make sure she was watching the news. Then I saw the second aircraft hit the other World Trade Center tower. At first I wasn’t sure what I saw, and after a short pause the reporter confirmed it was a second crash into the South Tower.
I was called into the radar room to relieve the controller working the north radar position. The supervisor instructed us to land all aircraft at the nearest airport due to a national emergency. I was working about seven aircraft at the time. I made a broadcast on my frequency reference the national emergency and all aircraft were ordered to land at the nearest airport. I couldn’t believe that I would ever make that broadcast! I immediately started to vector aircraft to Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Airport (AVP) for landing. All aircraft responded to my instructions to land at AVP airport. Questions were asked as to what was going on. I responded by saying a plane crashed into the WTC and there was a possible attack on the U.S. Then the silence came. In less than an hour we landed or handed off aircraft to N90 and ZNY. It was an eerie silence that followed.
We sat silent for three days, and on the third day the FAA let the airlines reposition passenger aircraft. A local pilot from a small airport decided to fly. At the time of the flight I was the CIC of the radar room. I called ATC Command and informed them AVP Approach was not talking to the aircraft. Within seconds I was talking with five people. I was instructed to find out who was flying. The aircraft landed at another airport within our airspace. I called the airport and asked to talk to the pilot who just landed. After obtaining all the needed information I explained to him that he was not allowed to fly and to wait for a call from the FAA. A sigh followed with silence.
Great Lakes Region
Chicago Center (ZAU)
Bob Johnson, retired member
I was working a day shift on Tuesday 9/11/2001. I usually worked Tuesday day shifts because I was volunteering as a youth soccer coach on Tuesday nights. I worked in the Southwest Area of Chicago Center. The SW Area mainly works ORD and MDW arrivals. After I arrived, I worked the Plano sector which handles arrivals to O’Hare and hands them off to C90. After my session was over, I took a break in the NATCA office to watch some morning TV. I was in the NATCA office shortly after the first tower was hit. On the TV, there was a helicopter view of the tower burning. There was speculation on the broadcast of what kind of plane had hit the tower.
I went back the my area to relay the news. I was working BDF High, our high altitude arrival sector, when the second tower was hit. It was shortly after that the OM came around to ask us to land all our flights and not to let any of the flights land at their destinations. We were also told to look for any overdue or missing flights. I coordinated with Steve Kaufman, who was working BRL Low, on which airports we could divert the flights to. We tried our best to divert the flights to airports which their airline had services at.
We were living in a SCANTANA Test. A SCANTANA Test was usually done by a supervisor walking up behind your sector on a Saturday morning and saying this a “SCANTANA Test.” Then I would point to the aircraft on the scope and say where I would divert the aircraft.
Luckily, Steve and I have been working together for decades and we rerouted American flights to Peoria and United flights to Moline. I told the pilots they were being diverted to PIA or MLI and if they had any questions to contact their operations.
The pilots were all very professional and made the reroutes seamless. I handed off aircraft to Steve on headings so he could give the approach controls some spacing. It seemed within minutes my airspace was empty. Then everyone was out of airplanes.
We were told there may be more flights missing. I ran with my All Primary button on at the high altitude sector to see if there were any intruders. We flipped through all our strips to make sure every flight was accounted for. The area was very loud as we coordinated all the reroutes and looked for missing flights. Then when all the planes landed it was very quiet, eerily quiet.
That night at home, I got a phone call about my good friend, Cmdr. Dan Shanower. He was killed at the Pentagon. Dan was an intelligence officer in the Navy. His specialty was the Middle East. He was seen on a conference call saying he was working on some leads on the tower attacks. Moments later his office would be the impact site for UAL93.
I will never forget 9/11.
Joe Nemec, retired member
I was working in the Traffic Management Unit at Chicago Center training a new TMC. The TMU had an annual golf outing in Wisconsin Dells and management tried to get as many people out as possible, so the TMU was only staffed with two TMCs and one trainee (normal staffing would have been at least four TMCs).
After coming back from our first break, I was waiting for my trainee to return and a controller came up and said that he had heard that a plane had run into the World Trade Center. We checked the New York weather on the KVDT and saw that it was clear. I called up my wife who was at home and asked her to turn on the TV. When she turned it, on she said that they were showing the World Trade Center smoking and saying a small plane had hit it.
Soon after that, we received a call from the Command Center telling us to ground stop all New York landing aircraft. Shortly after that, the calls and chaos started. At that time, the TMU was next to the OMIC and after the second plane hit the second tower, the area filled with people. Calls came from the Command Center for ground stops, to try and find planes, and the order to have all planes land at the closest airport. Most of the good information the TMU and OMIC was getting was from people at home watching TV and calling in. The OMIC had the front gate locked and the Aurora, Ill., police closed the road in front of the center and were stationed in front of the gate with assault rifles. By the time I left work, the only aircraft in the skies of ZAU were F16s, tankers, and AWACS.
John Whidden, retired member
I was working the ELX (Keeler, Mich.) sector that morning. FL240 and above. Basically, it handles the eastbound departures from the Chicago metro area as well as the overflights cutting through the airspace. The majority of the pref routes going to New England, New York, Philly, and Washington, D.C., from the West Coast funnel through this airspace.
A fellow controller in my area was working a JBU flight enroute to JFK. The pilot was asking if there were any delays, hearing that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. My co-worker asked the supe if he knew anything, the supe then went to TMU to ask. TMU had heard something about it but the thinking was that it was a small plane.
Slowly we started to get a little more info, but still conflicting facts about what had actually occurred. Nobody really knew anything but now we were hearing that it was a B767 that hit the towers. At that moment one of our guys who was break came back to the area shouting: “You won’t believe what I just saw!”
Well what he just saw live on the news coverage was the second aircraft slamming into the other tower. That got everyone’s attention. A few minutes later we started to hear reports of another NORDO aircraft somewhere in ZID airspace. I don’t think the enormity of what was going on had sunk in just yet. We were at war. I had already worked through the morning departure rush, so my sector was kind of slow. I answered pilot’s questions vaguely with what little info I had. Info about another possible hijack in ZOB airspace started to trickle in.
What I did not know until days later was that the controller at ZNY who was working the airspace that AAL11 had traversed (that flight normally my area would have worked eventually at ZAU) and who also spoke briefly with UAL175, was my first radar trainer 15 years earlier. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around that. There we were, the teacher and his former trainee separated by probably only four frequency/ changes of sectors going through the shitstorm that now is universally know as simply 9/11.
So anyway, I was up for break before the order came down to clear the airspace. I immediately went to the NATCA office to watch the news and get the updated details of what was going on. The vision of the WTC billowing smoke and flames was surreal to me. I grew up in northern New Jersey so the on a clear day you could see the twin towers off in the horizon. They were a permanent fixture of the landscape as I recall growing up.
After a quick commercial break, the news came back with a live distant shot of Manhattan. Something was different. There was a lot more smoke spread over much more of the area. The first tower had just collapsed. I decided it was time to return from break at that point.
When I returned from break, much to my amazement, while I was out, the order had already come down to clear the airspace and we were all combined from six sectors down to two sectors There was literally nobody in the air except maybe a flight of fighters. I took over on the radar on the sector that abutted ZAU. Within minutes I’m getting a handoff from a ZAU sector to my north. A civilian jet that had departed MKE en route direct to DCA. Obviously, I was suspicious of this since everyone was told to land already. Who the hell is this guy?
Well “this guy” turned out to be the (then) Attorney General of the United States, John Ashcroft. Well I figured this would be acceptable that the AG be returning to D.C. NOPE! The supe told me that he had to land at the nearest suitable airport. There was some obvious pushback from the pilot. “I have the US Attorney General on board and he needs to get back to Washington!” is what the pilot told me. A little more back n forth discussion with the supe and he finally told me that if that airplane continues towards D.C., he runs the risk of being shot down. That’s when I realized this sh– is about to get real. I’m supposed to tell the Attorney General of the U.S. that he’s going to be shot down if he continues? I can’t recall exactly how I phrased it but I did relay the message and told him he would have to land…SOON.
At this point ZOB had taken the handoff. Information was relayed to the controller about the aircraft wanting the AG to return to DCA. The story of what actually happened with Ashcroft’s flight is detailed somewhat in the book “Touching History.” As I recall, after a little more blowback from the pilot, eventually the AG was convinced to land and NOT return to Washington that day.
Indianapolis Center (ZID)
I was working in area 4 at ZID. It was the worst and best day I have ever had in our profession. To see our brothers and sisters empty the skies in about 45 minutes on the most confusing day in aviation history was amazing and inspiring.
Controllers were crying at the sector, but hyper-focused on the mission at hand, doing what I thought was impossible only seconds before it was happening. I will never forget that day and I hope it never happens again, but I know this generation is also up to the task if called upon.
New England Region
Boston Center (ZBW)
The morning started out as normal. As I was about to leave for work, I saw the news reports of a “small” plane hitting the World Trade Center. I told my wife, “I gotta go, it’s going to be busy,” and left for work. As I arrived at work and was passing the cafeteria, one of my area supervisors walked by on his way to watch television coverage and said to me that the “small” plane was actually AAL11. Still not grasping the enormity of the situation, I was assigned the D-side of the Hancock Sector at ZBW. A few minutes later, after getting briefed about what had transpired in the morning so far, that same supervisor arrived in the area to inform us that the Pentagon had been attacked as well. As I looked to my radar controller, I was immediately struck by her shocked expression. She then said that her brother worked in the Pentagon. I told her to get off position and try to call him (he was OK). I moved over to the radar position.
I worked a few aircraft returning to upstate New York airports after holding for LaGuardia and was only controlling a handful of aircraft when we were instructed to force all aircraft to land immediately. I had a Allegheny Airlines DH-8 en route to Syracuse, N.Y., and informed him that he had to land either in Albany or Utica, N.Y. He said that he wanted to go to Syracuse. I replied that we are in a national emergency and that if he didn’t want to decide that I would decide for him, reiterating his choices. The pilot elected to go to Albany and I cleared him to do so. The next half hour or so was spent coordinating with the local approach controls and high sectors as aircraft in my area diverted to local airports. The seamless and professional manner that this was done was a testament to my fellow controllers that day.
After the airspace was cleared, we were informed that there was a fast moving unidentified aircraft heading towards Nashua and that fearing that ZBW was a target, we were directed to evacuate the Center and meet at a hotel down the road. A caravan of controllers jumped in their cars, drove down the street, and spent an hour at the Holiday Inn, calling our families to check in and debriefing each other about what just happened. Reality hit when we received the “all clear” and drove back to ZBW to find a Nashua Police Department officer guarding the gate with an M-16 in hand. We were at war. The eerie feeling of walking back into an empty control room to resume our duties of watching a sky devoid of aircraft except for combat ready F-16s has stayed with me since that day.
Kevin Bianchi, retired member
The events I recall from working on September 11, 2001 are endless. I work at Boston ARTCC (ZBW) in Area C. On that morning, my area worked both UAL93 and AAL 11 after they departed Boston’s Logan Airport. Peter Zalewski was working the departure sector at the time UAL 93 was hijacked. As luck would have it, one of the terrorists inadvertently hit the wrong switch and started broadcasting on the air traffic frequency instead of only to the passengers.
Upon hearing this, Peter immediately called over the supervisor and put the frequency on speaker so more controllers could decipher the transmission. It was during this time when the controllers heard the transmission “we have many planes.” It was at this time the aircraft shut off its transponder and Peter had to track the aircraft with its primary target only. UAL93 subsequently veered off course and became NORDO. Peter handed the aircraft off to the next controller. While this was ongoing, AAL11 was also handed off to the next sector. When I mentioned luck earlier I honestly believe if we didn’t hear that transmission, more aircraft would have taken off and been hijacked, causing more pain to the USA that day.
I was the facility NATCA VP at the time. Once the first aircraft hit the World Trade Center, like the rest of America, we were told initially it was a small aircraft, until the world watched the second one hit on TV. This was when the order was given to land all aircraft.
ZBW is located about 40 minutes north of Boston where the nearest FBI office was. However I swear it seemed like they were in the building in 15 minutes. I was taken with them up to Quality Assurance to listen to the voice tapes. This is where it was clearly confirmed they had many other aircraft in their sights. While one agent was passing on the information, a second agent informed us New York Oceanic had a NODRO aircraft believed to be hijacked and was headed directly at Boston Center. The FBI directed us to abandon the building. Bruce P in Area D was the last one out that day. We were initially just mustering in the parking lot when the FBI directed us to get further away and we moved over to a hotel down the street. About an hour went by before the feared NORDO aircraft was able to reach ZNY and we were allowed to go back to ZBW. Prior to going back it was decided we would solicit volunteers to return since we only needed skeleton crews. It was very strange walking back inside as it was completely quiet. Jimmy Sappier, Kevin Trask, Bob Everhart and myself settled back in. Bob stated that it looked like we got activated since it was three Flyboys and a Marine.
Lastly, while this was ongoing, it came to our attention one of our controllers Doug MacKay, dropped his wife off at Logan and he was on his way into work. We learned his wife was on AAL 11. The decision was made to have one of his closest friends meet him outside to deliver the heartbreaking news, an image I will never forget.
I have always been very proud of our great profession and professionals, never as much as I witnessed on that day.
James Ekins, retired member
September 11 was a day just like any other day at ZBW. The weather was perfect as I traveled to Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, CAVU (Clear Above Visibility Unlimited), an easy day.
After a morning break, I returned to my sectors and noticed a change in the mood in the control room. Usually, on such a clear day, traffic complexity would be light and the mood lively during the middle of the week. So I asked what was going on and found out that NO had a hijack, working the ATHENS-38 high altitude sector.
This was the third hijack of my career, and our operation was routine, so I moved to another sector controlling the airspace over western Massachusetts towards Albany, N.Y. Sitting down, I expanded my radar range to include the hijacked aircraft. As we watched, the target made a wide right turn over the city.
I told CF (the best man at my wedding and close friend), working the sector next to me, “It looks like they’re flying right down the Hudson.”
He replied, “I bet they fly that thing into the World Trade Center.”
“No shit!” I responded. I was stunned by the magnitude of that possibility. CF was a student of history and closely followed the political situation in Africa and the Middle East after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. So his opinion carried a lot of weight.
We kept doing our job, watching the target when we could. Then my data controller says, “How do we know they’re still at flight level two-nine-zero?” the last altitude report we got.
Of course! The hijackers turned off the altitude encoding transponder, and the aircraft could be at any altitude. We expanded our display and found another aircraft descending over Athens, N.Y. inbound to TF Green Airport, Providence, R.I., and tried to see if the pilots could spot AAL11. Still, the crossing was so quick they were unsuccessful, or perhaps the target was too low. The target continued down the Hudson until we lost it in the clutter caused by all the tall buildings in the New York metro area.
We assumed they were bound for JFK Airport, where the hijackers could get a lot of media attention for whatever demands usually accompany this kind of situation.
Then LY comes back into the control room from his break and says, “They just flew that thing into the World Trade Center.”
“Crap,” I think. “OK, keep working; there won’t be a happy ending to this one.”
Fifteen minutes later, someone else comes into the control room and says a second plane hit the other tower. “What the heck! What’s going on?”
Other aircraft are making routine calls, so again, I keep working. RS (the area supervisor) relays instructions from the managers, “Make a general broadcast to all aircraft about cockpit security.”
“What the heck does that mean?” I ask. RS tells us how they believe hijackers took over the aircraft, and this is to try and avoid other events. We make the broadcast, making up the phraseology on the fly and wondering how bad this will get. That’s really the issue. When you are in it real-time, it’s the unknown you fear.
Sometime later, he says, “Land everybody!”
“Land everybody! Immediately at the nearest airport that can accommodate the aircraft.”
During the Cold War, we had a contingency plan called SCATANA (Security Control of Air Traffic And Navigational Aids) to prevent attacking Soviet aircraft using our own NAVAIDs to find targets in the United States to bomb. In the SCATANA plan, we had to land all domestic aircraft first before shutting down the NAVAIDs, so planes were not flying blind, and the goal was “turn off the radio beacons part,” not the “land everyone” part. This was only done as an exercise, no aircraft were rerouted or landed, and we just got a form to fill out, indicating how long it would take to get all aircraft on the ground. Now we were asked to do this for real.
Working the western portion of Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and Vermont, most of my aircraft were already landing or transitioning to a landing profile.
I have five commercial aircraft and a few general aviation light single-engine aircraft. Two jets were inside GDM VORTAC and under the control of Boston TRACON, but what about the others? I have a decision to make; land at Keene, N.H. (KEEN), or continue to Manchester and Boston. KEEN has a 6,500’ runway, just enough for the two B-737s and the one MD-80 to land on, but maybe not enough to takeoff. Land them there? EEN has no scheduled air service, no control tower. Did it have the ramp space? Could people de-plane there without jetway boarding facilities?
Not knowing the scope of what we’re doing, I ask RS, “Land these guys at KEEN or continue to on?” I can feel him thinking the same things I was a few moments ago; force this aircraft to KEEN, stranding the passengers, crew, and aircraft, or keep flying. He says, “Let them continue to Manchester and Boston,” easing my workload a bit because the flight crew probably did not have any charts for KEEN. Landing at a completely different airport is not like parking a car at a new location. Approach/landing speeds, weight, stopping distance would be different and need to be computed quickly.
The situation for my high-altitude colleagues was a bit more difficult as they tried to get foreign pilots whose destination was New York or Washington to understand that they needed to land at an airport without any of their regular ground personnel.
Clearing the airspace of all IFR flights (aircraft under our direct control) leaves us just sitting around looking for something to do, but we get some interesting news. A flight that was supposed to divert to Canada is still flying down the coast, headed right over the Air Traffic Center. “Are we a target too?” I think.
With all our aircraft down, we evacuate the whole facility, something we have NEVER done; it feels wrong even as we do it. Waiting at the alternate site, we find that the aircraft in question had just lost the proper control frequency to talk to Canadian Air Traffic and, after re-establishing communication, lands safely at Bangor, Maine.
RS comes over to me and asks, “They’re looking for controllers to go back. Are you interested”? The command center wants someone to return to the Air Traffic Center to control the military aircraft, look for other threats, and clean up the stragglers. I tell him, “I’m in! This is personal.” CF, RT, and I volunteer to staff our control section, Area B, one of five in the Center. I don’t know who volunteered for the other Areas; A, C, D, and E, but I wish I did.
Security does not want a lot of vehicles to check for bombs, so CF rides in my car.
As we are driving out of the parking lot, MR comes over, stops us, and says to wait because whoever is making the decision doesn’t want too many people. So, we sit, wait, and wait. Finally, I say, “Screw it; we’re going,” CF and I have never been the kind of people who sit and wait. If we get there and they don’t need us, they can send us home.
In some ways, it seems so normal, CF and I are driving into Boston Center together on a bright clear day just like we have done countless times before, but something in my head keeps asking if this is real.
As we enter the facility gate, I see it’s real because a Nashua Police cruiser parked near the security building, facing the road, and an NPD Officer standing behind it with the trunk open. He is wearing tactical gear and holding an M-16 at low-ready with a magazine locked and finger along the receiver using the trunk lid as concealment. Thanks, NPD! Our security detail was not armed on September 11, but this has since been remedied.
We return to our sectors and establish communication with, Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), which was called NORAD in the old days. I’m back at the same sectors before the evacuation, but also controlling the airspace CF was working at, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Massachusetts; CF is controlling airspace north of me up to Canada and some of upstate New York. RT is working the high-altitude airspace over me, extending down to NYC, the same airspace AAL11 traversed.
It feels like World War III. Fighter aircraft are everywhere, and they are looking for a fight; military controllers call us about available assets and inquire about unknown aircraft in our area.
We scan our sectors looking for ANY unidentified targets. Our radar is optimized to display cooperating civil traffic and not locate rogue aircraft, so we turn up the target histories in an attempt to distinguish real aircraft from the ground clutter present on any radar display.
I spot a primary near the coast, moving slowly…not a jet…good target trail. I start computer tracking to get heading and ground speed. It’s a plane; make the call.
“HUNTRESS Boston 90-line, target,” I call on the landline.
“HUNTRESS,” ADC answers.
Geez, why can’t we talk directly to the military radar controller like we do here at the Center? It’s sometimes like a game of telephone as the message gets relayed through to the person actually controlling the fighters.
“Target two-five miles northeast of PSM moving down the coast, heading two-three-zero.”
“Stand-by,” he replies. “We don’t see it,” he says.
“Don’t see it!” I think what the heck.
Repeating the target info, he says, “Standby…”
Finally, he replies, “Positive ID, HUNTRESS out.”
I watch two F-15s rollout of the fighter CAP over Boston to investigate. They are moving quickly. The normal flight speed restrictions don’t apply anymore. Typically, we would control air intercepts to avoid collisions with other traffic, but ADC is running the show because there is no other traffic. If you are curious, search N7142N, a BE-58 that was overrun by an F-4. This target is just a light single out flying on this beautiful day.
Another target shows up more inland. This one has a working transponder, so I know the altitude. Again, a computer track allows me to see the computed ground speed and heading.
HUNTRESS and I do the telephone dance again. This one is just a little C-172 out for a ride. Soon the day quiets down, and my relief shows up. I go to the break room to sit down and watch CNN. A couple of guys come in behind me; when I turn around to talk to them, I notice they are wearing sidearms, “FBI,” they say.
Many people talk about conspiracies and the lack of a military response, but you have to remember that no one except the Japanese in World War II had used manned aircraft as a weapon, certainly never a civilian passenger aircraft. Hijacking was a law enforcement issue, not a military operation. Our protocol was; keep talking to the aircraft, keep other planes away in case it makes unplanned maneuvers and keep the supervisors abreast of the situation.
Fighter escort was always considered, not as a shoot-down option but, I think, a show of authority. By September 2001, we didn’t keep as many aircraft on alert, only 14 nationwide, including Alaska & Hawaii. We had fifty during the Cold War when the USA & USSR played a game where you try to run through someone’s yard before the crazy old guy who lives there can chase you away.
Even if we could have gotten armed aircraft airborne, the geometry of the situation makes an intercept of civil transports difficult. Modern turbojets fly around five hundred miles an hour, interceptors about one thousand at top speed. So if the airbase is 150 miles away, that adds 9 minutes to the flight time, and the target flies another 160 miles, New York was just too close.
Plus, who would give the order to shoot down a U.S. flag carrier over a major metropolitan area?
Today we have protocols and specific words/phrases that fighter crews know authorizes the use of Deadly Force if the situation warrants.
It’s a whole new world after that day in September.
Greg Taccini, retired member
Sitting at the scope, my supervisor Jon came up behind us and I asked, “Jon, what happened?” His reply, said in a low and somber voice was, “Bad news,” then turned to walk away. I had to know. “Jon, WHAT happened?” I asked again in a demanding tone. He stepped up behind us again and replied, “They hit the World Trade Center.” This would become the worst day in my life.
It has been almost 20 years. My memory and timeline may not be exact, but I know it started out a sunny and beautiful “normal” day at ZBW in Nashua, N.H.
Working the radar at BOSOX sector 47, I frequency changed AAL11 to Pete at BOSTON sector 46, positioned directly to my right. After noticing Pete had been trying to reestablish contact with AAL11 who he had vectored off course to the northwest, I tried broadcasting to see if the flight may have come back to my frequency. A short time later, we noticed the transponder was not working. My initial thought was there was an electrical problem onboard or perhaps something worse. Shortly after, Pete alarmingly told me to pull up and monitor his frequency and then put his own on speaker. This is when I first heard the chilling transmissions from the cockpit and had a very strong sense that it was coming from the AAL11 flight.
Our supervisor was not in the area at this time, so I yelled across to the adjacent area D supervisor that we had a hijacking in progress. I then called sector 38, whose airspace the vectored off course aircraft was deep into, and told them to consider this aircraft as hijacked.
I told Pete to give me all of his airplanes, securing his frequency for AAL11 only. I then “quick looked” his sector and got UAL175 back on my frequency, who had departed BOS after AAL11. I then continued to control aircraft in my sector as well as through Pete’s.
When we heard the hijacker’s voice broadcasting on sector 46’s frequency, my initial thought was that one of the pilots was bravely hitting the push to talk to let us know there was a cockpit breach. I became very furious; furious of the nerve that someone would have to hijack an aircraft and put so many innocent people’s lives unfairly in distress.
We discussed amongst ourselves at the sectors, thinking of what goes down during a hijacking. Given the now southernly flight direction of the primary only target, perhaps they would be navigating the aircraft towards New York, land, and make some demands. We all watched, and continued to closely monitor Pete’s frequency for any further transmissions, until the primary target disappeared north of New York City. It was after this that my supervisor Jon gave us the devastating news. My heart buried deep into my stomach.
We were all relieved by new controllers at sectors 46 and 47. I immediately went to the phone booth in the training wing of the Center to call my wife. She was a flight attendant for United – Boston-based – and had just returned from her trip on Sunday. After the past three months of flying the BOS-(SFO/LAX) flights, the company changed the legs of the trips, so she decided to leave the 767 and jump on the international BOS-LHR flights for the month of September. I consider us lucky to this day.
I asked if she was watching the news. “Yes, the Today show. Katie Couric said a Cessna had hit the WTC,” was her response. I said “No Lin, it was a 767.” After a back and forth of who was correct, it hit her when I said that I had just talked to the crew, AAL11, B767 out of BOS.
In frustration over what I had just worked through and still in shock, I let her off the phone and went to find my co-workers in the break room. It was just then as I was walking into the room that I saw on TV the second aircraft slamming into tower 2. I was in utter disbelief. I would find out later that this second aircraft was UAL175, of which I had controlled after AAL11. I also knew that the crew had most likely heard the hijackers on Pete’s frequency minutes earlier.
It wasn’t until hours later that we found out the pilots weren’t flying. I would never have had the thought of the hijackers taking over control of the aircraft. It was unthinkable.
The remainder of the day was a blur. So many questions, no answers, and again, utter disbelief. I played no part in guiding the remaining aircraft in the system down that day. I was filling out the required paperwork, watching the news, looking for answers. I was just waiting for the moment to be released to go home to my wife.
Boston TRACON (A90)
The airspace was shut down by the time I arrived at work. We were expecting Medevac flights from New York as we were initially told that authorities expected the New York-area hospitals to be filled with injured survivors. Our NATCA members on duty were ready to do whatever it would take to get these aircraft on the ground as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, within an hour or so, it became apparent that there were no Medevac flights heading our way and the scope of this tragedy became even more apparent.
We had looked forward to helping out in any way possible. Needless to say, the fact that there wasn’t a large number of survivors just magnified the grief and sense of helplessness that a lot of Americans were feeling on that terrible day.
Cindy LaRuffa, retired member
I remember the morning of September 11, 2001 vividly. I had an opening shift at Cape TRACON (K90, now part of A90) on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My flight physical was scheduled for 11 a.m., so I was looking forward to working a short day.
At about 8:40 a.m., I was working the Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard sectors combined when my supervisor told me that there was a hijacking and to expect the jets to launch. “The Jets” referred to the F15s that were based at Otis Air National Guard Base which is where Cape TRACON was located. My first thought was that the jets would go east and intercept a hijacked flight from Europe, similar to the DLH592 hijacking in 1993. Some of the developmentals, armed with more information than I had, came into the TRACON and tracked AAL11 on the computer. We were surprised that AAL11 only flew from BOS to New York.
The jets didn’t depart before I was relieved. I went out to the break room and joined a few others who were watching the news. I couldn’t believe my eyes that the World Trade Center had a large gaping hole and was surrounded by thick black smoke. I quickly deduced that that was where AAL11 had gone. We watched in horror as UAL175 flew into the south tower. More people came to the break room as news spread to Tech Ops and the administrative offices.
A few minutes later, I went back in to the TRACON and took the Nantucket sectors. My supervisor told me to instruct every aircraft to land. Many pilots were confused and wanted to know why. I could only tell them that it was a matter of national security and that all aircraft in our airspace were ordered to land. I was surprised that a small aircraft that had flown 25 miles from Nantucket decided to return to Nantucket instead of landing at Martha’s Vineyard. In retrospect, it was a wise decision since no one flew for the next two days.
Shortly before 10 o’clock, I was relieved. The relieving controller told me that an aircraft had crashed into the Pentagon. I remember saying, “this is going to shut down the whole East Coast.” Little did I know that the whole country was about to be shut down.
Providence ATCT (PVD)
Howie Barte, retired member
On September 11, 2001, I was the NATCA Facility Representative at Providence Tower/TRACON (PVD). It was a beautiful, crystal clear morning.
I arrived to work at 8 a.m., but I had to leave early that morning for a quick doctor appointment. As I was pulling into the doctor’s parking lot, I heard on the radio (Newsradio 88 WCBS New York), that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in downtown New York City. No information was initially given regarding the type of aircraft, and being familiar with the VFR traffic on the Hudson River, I presumed it was a light aircraft that ventured too close.
Perhaps 25 minutes later I left the doctor’s office and when I started my car, the radio said that another plane had crashed into other building of the World Trade Center, and reported that it was a jet airliner. At that point, I realized it was no accident.
Fifteen minutes later, I walked into the tower building and went straight to the office. My manager told me that they had been alerted to terminate and land all VFR aircraft in the airspace. I went into the TRACON where the working controllers were complying with the order. While I was in there, a new order came to instruct ALL aircraft, including airlines, to land as soon as possible at the nearest airport capable of accommodating them. The controllers began instructing all remaining airborne aircraft to landing at the closest capable airport, and within perhaps 25 minutes, all aircraft within the control of Providence TRACON had landed. All VFR aircraft contacting any controller were told to land immediately per national order, that the airspace was now closed.
I went back to talk to and be further briefed by the manager, who, himself, was receiving sporadic updates from the FAA New England Region ATC division.
About an hour passed, and I went back into the TRACON for an in-situational update. Except for an occasional VFR aircraft who was not in contact with anyone, the airspace was clear. The only other exception was military fighter aircraft that were patrolling near Long Island, New York, being worked by the New York TRACON or Boston Center.
We had an Aircraft Situation Display at the supervisor’s console that was capable of seeing all identified aircraft within U.S. airspace. The display normally would have been filled with aircraft, but now it was empty except for military aircraft, with one exception:
The data tag for the American Airlines aircraft that departed Boston earlier, bound for the West Coast, and that was hijacked and turned toward the World Trade Center: that tag was still moving westward across the USA. The hijackers had turned off the transponder that allow the aircraft to be tracked by radar, but the data tag with the aircraft ID, speed, and last altitude was still active and moving, since the ATC computers were projecting its course. The actual aircraft had already crashed into the first World Trade Center building, but the data tag on the display was still actively being displayed and moving. It was eerie to watch it.
Northwest Mountain Region
Denver Center (ZDV)
Curt Dillahay, retired member
I was in the cafeteria at Denver Center, having coffee, with my back to the TV.
The Today show was on, and they cut to New York, saying that a bomb had apparently gone off in the World Trade Center. I turned around, and knew what everyone else in the room already knew … that was no bomb.
There was a huge round hole, with symmetric “arms” projecting from it. The TV host later said it looked like a “small plane” had hit the tower.
We watched for about five minutes and here came the other aircraft.
That’s when we all went back to the control room.
We got an all-personnel page just as I got to the control room doors. By the time I got back to the area (maybe 30 seconds after the second aircraft hit, all sectors were double staffed and they were forcing the aircraft to land at the nearest airports.
No one wanted a break, of course. My supe told me to “be available by page,” and sent me out of the control room.
I was the national CTAS/TMA NATCA rep, so I went back to the support string, watched the timelines fill up, and gradually drift down to nothing.
When I finally got into a sector, it was all over. The only aircraft left flying were military.
Seattle ATCT (SEA)
Isabel Cole, retired member
On September 11, 2001, I had a day shift at Seattle Tower. I had a flex shift and could start anytime between 6:30 and 7 a.m. My daughter’s day care opened at 6 a.m., so I always got there right as they opened so I could make it to work by 6:30 if possible. When I got inside, I was the first one there other than the day care person. It was a young woman who was probably a college student, and as I was taking my daughter’s coat off, she came up to me and said, “an airplane hit the World Trade Center in New York.” I think she knew I was a controller. I asked what kind of airplane and she didn’t know but she thought it was a small one. My first thought was, “I sure hope this wasn’t controller error in any way.” As I was saying goodbye to my daughter, the day care worker came back into the room and said, “another plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I remember feeling so weird, like maybe I misunderstood her. I asked if she knew the weather in New York. She said that from the picture she’d seen it was a sunny day. My first thought was, “this wasn’t a mistake.”
So, I got in the car and headed into work, listening to NPR all the way into work. It was all over the news, but everyone was just as confused as I was. Just as I got to the traffic light at the entrance to the airport, they announced on the radio that the President was shutting down the airspace. While I waited for the light to change, I called the tower. A CIC (Controller in Charge) answered the phone. I asked if I still had a job. He said, “yes, and we really need you.” I told him I was at the entrance to the airport and I’d get there as quick as I could. I pretty much ran all the way from the parking garage. When I got up into the tower there was still a CIC in charge. He told me to take Local and get everyone on the ground. I asked what we were doing. The controller I relieved told me that anyone without a gate was to roll to the end of the runway and taxi up the taxiway until they were nose to tail with the aircraft in front of them and just shut down the plane. I asked how we were going to get the people off the planes. I was told that we had one set of stairs and people were just going to have to wait. So, I started clearing people to land and pretty much stacking them wherever we had room.
So, we got word that at a certain time they were going to shut down the borders and not let anyone else across. Everyone else would be turned away. We got word that there was an international flight inbound, I think it was an American flight, and it would be the last one we let in. Then we were told that he was going to be diverted, then he was heading our way again. Then suddenly we were told, “that’s it! No one else can land or depart.” The last flight had been turned away. For a while we thought there was another hijacked aircraft, but later learned that due to language barriers the pilot had confirmed he was being hijacked instead of the opposite. Luckily it was figured out prior to military aircraft being scrambled to intercept.
Then it was a lot of waiting. We asked if we could combine positions so that we weren’t all just standing there but were told that we had no idea when things would start up again so we needed to keep all the positions manned. We all just looked at the gridlock of airplanes filling the taxiways, full of people waiting to deplane. The only voices on the radio were the operations vehicles that were on full alert on the airport surface trying to make sure that there were no attempts to hijack another plane.
Eventually, we were allowed to combine down to one position and the rest of us were sent downstairs to debrief. We were told that we couldn’t leave until given permission. I mentioned that my husband had gone out of town and I was the one who was supposed to pick up my daughter when school ended. I said I had no problem with staying, but if I was going to have to stay past six, I’d need to make arrangements for someone to get my daughter for me, so I’d just like to know as soon as a decision was made. The supervisors were figuring things out as they went, and they told us that they would give priority to people who had children to take care of and they’d let us know when we could leave. I called the school and told them of my predicament. It was a private school and I was lucky that the lady who ran the school lived on the property and she told me that if I couldn’t get out she’d just keep my daughter at her house with her until I could get there.
One of my co-workers was supposed to work the mid shift and her son-in-law was suddenly admitted to the hospital in Portland, Ore., and was going to undergo surgery. So, I told her I’d take the mid shift for her so she could go down there. I ended up being allowed to leave on time from my day shift, partly because I had to pick up my daughter, and partly because I had to come back for the mid shift. I don’t think I was able to sleep at all before that shift. It was such a bizarre day. And it was a bizarre mid shift as well. There were no airplanes to speak to. The only one on the frequency was the operations vehicle. Ops was going from aircraft to aircraft and searching them, and then they’d seal the doors with tape. They were also checking the airport surfaces and the perimeter of the airfield, so they’d call for permission to be on the taxiways or runways, but that was about it.
Normally, the mid shift controllers would split the shift in half, but I was so wired that I offered to work longer. It was about 1 a.m. when I suddenly heard a voice on the radio. “Unidentified Aircraft, this is U.S. Warship (name of warship), identify yourself immediately, you are in restricted airspace!” Then the warship repeated this demand. About 30 seconds later a shaky voice came over the radio, “Sir this is Cessna ***** we’re a life flight and we’re supposed to be here!” I could hear the fear in the guy’s voice and visualize him shaking in his seat. The warship allowed the Cessna to continue on his route so he must have identified him. The warship made another similar call a few hours later, but other than that and the ops vehicle, those were the only sounds on the radio.
Our traffic levels had been steadily climbing in Seattle prior to 9/11. But the traffic never came back to the pre-9/11 levels for the rest of the time I worked for the Agency. That day changed the rest of my career in the Agency, but it changed everything else as well.
I remember when all of the planes had landed that day and we were standing around just looking at each other, shellshocked. One of my co-workers looked at me and said, “I just realized that nothing is ever going to be the same again.” I looked at him and said, “Yup, and I just realized George Bush is going to get re-elected.” He thought I was insane. He said there was no possible way I could know that. I told him, “we’re going to go to war after this, and when the next presidential election comes along everyone is going to be too frightened to go with anyone new. They won’t want to ‘change horses in midstream.’ When people are afraid, they go with the familiar, and people are going to be afraid for a long time.” Turns out we were both right.
Seattle Center (ZSE)
Chris McKeever, retired member
On the morning of September 11, my phone rang early. My brother in Delaware told me to turn on the TV. First aircraft had already struck the World Trade Center. Within minutes of waking, the second aircraft hit. I called in to Seattle Center to see if they wanted me there sooner than my normal time (6:30 a.m). They said yes, get here when you can. I was out the door in less than five minutes.
The area was still mostly combined and, as usual, traffic was building so I opened a high altitude sector feeding arrivals to Portland and Seattle, as well as overflight traffic. As all this was happening, the order had come in to get aircraft on the ground as quickly, safely and practically as possible. Many of the flight crews had been alerted to and were following the events of the day which helped immensely. To those unaware, the re-clearance to alternate airports was unexpected and confusing. We issued clearances “for National Emergency” and did not offer further information. Within about an hour or so, my high altitude sector was virtually empty with some military traffic operating pretty much autonomously.
Once the aircraft were all on the ground, the sectors were combined back to one position and remained that way for quite a while. America was grounded. #neverforget
Atlanta ATCT (ATL)
Steve Day, retired member
I’m now retired but worked from 1989 to 2020. I started at Asheville (1.5 years), then Greenville-Spartanburg (2 years) then Nashville (10 years) and finally ATL for over 20 years. I was working approach control in Nashville when several of the controllers on break ran into the radar room with the story about the first plane hitting the tower. Then chaos ensued when the second plane hit and we received the command message from headquarters to ground ALL planes.
We started getting calls from Atlanta and Memphis Centers with planes they were funneling down to us. We had to open all radar positions to accommodate all the airplanes that were being funneled in. We had heavy international planes that we had never had to work and space alongside Twin Cessnas and King Airs. After about an hour of full finals and panic in the TRACON, we finally got all planes down safely.
There was not enough gate space on the ramps, so they had to charter buses to get all of the people off the airplanes. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief that we made that transition safely and then focused on keeping our families safe among the uncertain hours ahead.
Memphis Center (ZME)
Richard Anderson, retired member
I was working a day shift. Frank Caldwell and Brian Gardner, the local’s president and vice president, had gone to New Orleans to participate in a summit between NATCA and FAA management that week. I was the local’s secretary and they had asked me to fill in as president in their absence. About 0830 while working a sector, I was asked to go to the Quality Assurance office to represent a controller in a meeting, someone burst in the door asking “have you heard what’s going on? A plane flew into the trade center.” We adjourned to the cafeteria where there was a large screen TV with the news on. It was about the time the second plane hit the towers. I was trying to wrap my head around what I was seeing and hearing when the facility intercom announced “All control room personnel, return to the control room, NOW.”
I returned to my area. Every position had a controller plugged in. The supervisor assigned the remaining ultra-high sector, flight level 350 and above, “hand-off” position to me. Technology had made these “hand-off” positions pretty much obsolete except in extremely high traffic and unusual circumstances. You assist the other two controllers coordinate the traffic. It is said that day Memphis Center landed the most aircraft, due mainly to timing. The aircraft were overhead passing through at that moment when the decision was made by the FAA to get all aircraft on the ground, NOW. So we went with the nearest biggest airports that could take aircraft.
I remember Fort Smith Approach calling and saying they were out of concrete. No more. Little Rock similar. Memphis Approach was still taking aircraft. I was coordinating with other controllers our aircraft, which started out above 35,000 feet, all the way to approach control. This was mainly due to sectors below us could not talk to nor deal with more aircraft. So we coordinated and worked them into approach control.
As we ran out of aircraft, we combined positions until each area in the center was down to one sector. I was requested to go to the chief’s office to help coordinate what was coming out of Washington, D.C. I had gotten a few of the area reps to go to the entrance gate to brief incoming controllers on new security procedures that were changing by the minute. In the chief’s office were the management on duty and me listening to what seemed to me disjointed conference call and the occasional directive. At some point, I remember calling my wife and suggesting our kids miss cross country practice that afternoon. Not well received.
After a couple hours, I returned to the area and relieved the remaining controller. Not a radar return to be seen. Silence. Then I got a handoff from Tulsa Approach on an F16. When the F16 checked in on my frequency, he asked “Center, you know what’s going on?” He was headed to the East Coast.
Sam Hyte, retired member
On the day of 9/11, I had been at Memphis Center for 11 years and in the TMU unit for 1 1/2 years. I was on break when the first plane hit the first tower and I rushed to the TMU unit and started manning one of the positions.
Everything seemed to happen so quickly. I answered the line from the Command Center to ground stop all planes with a destination to the New York and Washington, D.C., metro airports. That was followed quickly by a call to ground stop all airplanes and then quickly after that to land all the planes immediately. ZME at that time of day was one of the busiest times for us with aircraft going to ATL, DFW, and ORD. We quickly filled up the FSM, LIT, XNA, airports and tried to figure out ways to get the rest of the aircraft on the ground. Even Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx, was northeast of BNA and we made him land at BNA when they begged to continue on to MEM. I remember a pair of F16s showing up at FL350 looking for their IFR clearance. Very crazy morning, but what happened next is sad story.
A couple of hours after we got the planes on the ground and no one was flying except military, BNA tower called for a release of a lifeguard flight to Omaha, Neb., with a heart onboard. I proceeded to call the Command Center and ask for a release for the aircraft. After trying to convince them, the answer was no; only military were allowed to fly. I relayed the info back to BNA Tower and about an hour later they were able to get one of their National Guard C130s to fly the heart there. So I called the Command Center back and asked for a release on the C130, but they still said no. They were just not letting anyone fly that day. The patient never did get that heart that day and I heard that the patient ended up passing away. Those terrorists got one more life that day.
Miami Center (ZMA)
Mark Schermeister, retired member
It was a morning exactly like any other. We opened the same sectors at the same time that we did every day of the year. Everyone was in their normal places, the usual routine unfolding again. The regular crew of controllers sat at their familiar places working the same flights that they worked every day. There was absolutely, without a doubt, nothing unusual that morning. A completely normal operation, all airplanes separated, sequenced, and monitored. As we say in the ATC business, “boring is beautiful.” This was a beautiful boring morning.
Ho Hum. How long till I get a break? What shift do I work tomorrow? I could use another cup of coffee. Of course, we had our problems. The temperature in the break room was too low. The food in the cafeteria was too expensive. Someone had been out on break too long. These were our big issues.
I was seated at the oceanic sector southeast of the United States over Grand Turk. To the southeast of my airspace was San Juan, to the south was Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to the southwest was Cuba, to the west was another sector in Miami Center, and the northern boundary of my sector joined the southernmost part of New York Center’s airspace. All traffic northwest bound, into the U.S. passed through this airspace on their way to entering the United States’ border airspace.
Then . . . In less time than it takes to tell it, everything changed. It started curiously enough. Hmmmm. “What’s this coming out of the printer?” It was a “GI” (General Information) message. “All sectors stop traffic to the New York area.” No explanation, no reason. “OK,” I thought, “The weather is good up there, it must be a computer or radar failure somewhere on the East Coast.” I told the bad news to several pilots headed that way and told them to start deciding where they wanted to divert. A few moments later, the next GI read “Reroute all traffic around New York’s airspace.” THAT got my attention in a hurry. It had to be something severe to cause a complete shutdown of an entire center. I turned around to ask my supervisor what was going on up north, but he was on the phone. He looked serious.
Back to work. Lots do now. Most of the airplanes in my sector needed to be rerouted around New York’s airspace, and I needed to get busy. I keyed my microphone to start working on all the reroutes when out of all the background noise it stood out: “American smacked the World Trade Center.” About that time, pilots began requesting information on why they were being rerouted so far off their flight plans. “An accident up in New York,” I told them. “I suggest that everyone contact their company dispatch for more information.”
Controllers who had been on break were now returning from the employee lounge. They had seen it on television. One sat down next to me to help; “We were watching the first building burn, and a second one came along and flew into the other tower.” I was busy and didn’t have time for her morbid sense of humor. “That’s not funny – get going and help me with these flight plans,” I said. She replied, “OK, but look up there.” Looking up at our computer display screen was the sight of two towers burning. Suddenly it was coming fast and furious: “we’re under attack” – “The Pentagon has been hit” – “Get ready to shut the system down” – “Don’t let anybody into the United States” – “Turn everybody back” – “Another one’s down in Pennsylvania” – “Start clearing them out” – “One of the buildings collapsed” – “Get these guys turned around” – “get them away from the U.S.” – “Jeez, does anybody know what’s going on?” – “another building just fell down” – “Where do I tell these guys they can land? – they’re over the ocean and can’t get into the United States” – “It’s a national emergency!”
Now there came the mind shift: there were at least five thousand aircraft over the U.S., and we had to consider the possibility that any number of them could suddenly turn and plunge into any part of our county. If the Pentagon could be destroyed, what was next? The White House? The Capitol? Nuclear power plants? Cities? The center where I was sitting? My house? We had five thousand potential warheads aimed straight at our civilization. These weren’t warheads based in another country hundreds or thousands of miles away… they were at our collective throats, thousands strong, each one only seconds away from a target.
Everything was different. The aircraft we had been trained to serve were now both potential victims and enemies. Which one had more hijackers on board? Which of them held the evil that was striking us, killing us, destroying us? There was only one option. “They” (whoever that was, and we had no idea at all who it might be) could destroy our world as long as they were still flying – every airplane in the sky would have to come down and come down now. No more schedules, connections, urgent travel, vacations, business meetings. The word came out: “Clear the skies and do it now!” “OK, everybody, shut the system down. Get everyone to the nearest available airport.” That was a lot easier said than done when your sector happens to be out over the South Atlantic, where suitable airports are hundreds of miles apart, and most of those are now within the now-off-limits American airspace.
I keyed the microphone again; “Attention all aircraft: A national emergency has been declared. The United States is under attack. The Pentagon has been hit. We are closing the United States airspace to all aircraft and shutting the system down. I need all pilots to determine the nearest suitable airport for landing. I don’t want a reply from each aircraft, I just need each pilot to determine the first place that they can land and be ready with the information when I ask for it.” During the next two hours, time ceased to exist. It was a blur of reroutes, news updates, rumors, directives, questions with no answers, confusion, fear, cooperation, teamwork, frustration, and at long, long, last . . . silence.
The airspace over the United States of America was empty for the first time in its history. Now what? Except for the military fighters circling over our cities, we had nothing to do. Air traffic controllers without air traffic.
This was a time to absorb, to comprehend, to realize what had happened, and come to terms with what we had just done. Who did this? Would there be more attacks? Where? How many hijackers were on the airplanes that we had just grounded? How could any human being do something like this? What was going to happen next? When would airplanes fly again? Would it ever be even remotely similar to the system we had just shut down? How do we stop this from ever happening again? Had we been negligent? Who was at fault? The questions were only starting to flow . . . there would be many, many more to follow in the weeks to come. They would be dealt with in due time. For now, the skies were empty. The chronically congested frequencies were quiet. The radar scopes were blank.
My shift was over. I unplugged my headset, then signed off the log. Walking to my car under a curiously blue sky, I felt as if the very fabric of our lives had been torn. I was right. I drove home, hugged my wife and daughter, and cried. September eleventh was over. September 11th was just beginning. . .
Western Pacific Region
Oakland Center (ZOA)
Domenic Torchia, retired member
Of all the stories I have about the decades of time spent in the facilities and on the street, I enjoy telling about the morning of 9-11-01 as much as any of them.
At 5:45 a.m., my alarm went off for me to get up and get over to Oakland Center (ZOA) for my 6:45 a.m. watch. I lived five minutes from the Center. Before I even get out of bed, I turned on the TV news. As I lay there, I saw the World Trade Center on fire.
I got up and headed to the bathroom. I came back and to my surprise the other tower was on fire. I turned up the sound and woke my wife and said, “Hey babe, check this out, the World Trade Center is on fire, and the fire jumped from one tower to the other tower.” I spent 15 years as a stock broker and would get sent to New York and if one of the company apartments was not available we would stay at the Vista Hotel in the WTC.
I was just slowly getting dressed watching and not really hearing what was going on. I had the volume down as I did not want to wake my wife that early. Then, I caught, “it appears a second aircraft is involved.” I was outta there and at ZOA in about five minutes. There were gate guards when I got there. Ten minutes later, they were making those coming in after me get out of their cars. They were searched, as were their cars. Traffic was shut off at SFO, SJC, OAK, SMF, all of them. I was told to open the arrival sector (17). I had three aircraft – a United coming in from SLC I think, a Delta that took off from SFO and was turned around over Nevada and asked to return to SFO, and for some reason, they let a Sky West take off from Fresno for The City.
Out of nowhere, the DAL jet said, “Center this is DAL, and we are encountering severe turbulence.” Of course, I said, “Delta, Say Again.” He said, “We need to get out of this stuff, can you vector us away. I told him, “I just got here, and will check with the United jet about 30 miles in front of you. I cannot vector you, but you are cleared to climb, descend and/or turn 90 degrees either left of right.”
In the meantime, the controller at BAY asked the UAL crew about their ride and they said they had smooth air. I told DAL and asked them how it was going and what are their intentions. They confirmed severe turbulence and were turning south. I told the Sky West, he had heard it, and he asked to be vectored around it. I told him I had no idea where the turbulence was – except in was reported about 20 miles east of CEDES at about 11000 feet. I told him he could deviate any where he wanted and that no other aircraft reported anything.
Finally, DAL said they were OK and wanted to be cleared back to an ILS to SFO. So I did. Sky West just stayed on course and never had any problems.
So then, we thought this is not right and we alerted everyone that DAL may have a real problem like hig jackers or some kind of terrorists. The bosses took it from there. All ended well for DAL.
Only other weird thing is watching one target (on the huge screen on the Center back wall) in the airspace over the entire country – Air Force One (A1) – from Florida to an undisclosed place somewhere in the Midwest.
The only traffic we worked for the next couple of days were military aircraft, mainly F-16’s and their tankers. We did have a major league wildfire somewhere near Bodie and the CDFS2 tankers and other firefighting aircraft had to fly. So we gave them a discrete code (1246 comes to mind).
So from 0800 to 1700, we all watched these couple of targets fly from Columbia (O22) toward Reno and back for two days.
Engineers Southwest Region (ESW)
Felix T (Tom) Antone, retired member
The Region X engineers had barely ratified their new Collective Bargaining Unit prior to 9/11 of year 2001. For a transition to Labor Management relations, I was on a temporary assignment with my manager at the Southwest Regional Office, affectionally called the Crystal Palace. This was a GSA building that housed IRS and DEA on the upper floors and some FBI presence as well. The building was much more modern than the old Helium Plant.
We had 25 Resident Engineers all on construction projects. FAA management was trying to achieve a ratio of 15 to 1 but our group was allowed two coordinators. Coordinators handled a lot of travel vouchers, payroll, overtime approval and would daily relay various problems, often obtaining the monetary approval for situations which arose.
The other coordinator planned to attend a pre-construction conference and was on the way to DFW Airport to fly out. We did have one clerical administrative person. On September 11, 2011, the boss attended the daily stand-up meeting with the Regional Airway Facility managers, F&E Managers and thus the field Airway Facility managers reported the local concern.
On this day, no construction-related issue or emergency urgent action or hint of what was about to transpire occurred. Two or three resident engineers were being called to confirm about progress of the previous graveyard shift work. The other projects were not apparently in some critical phase.
The clerk went to get coffee and while on this trip down the hall she saw the video of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. She returned to report this. My comment was that several planes had hit the Empire State Building with a little fire and some repair and that this was not an abnormal event.
My thought was that this was a Cessna or a Piper Cub on a bad course from a tour of the Hudson.
Very soon she was commanded to summon the manager for an emergency meeting. She asked me to help but I was actively talking to several on site Resident Engineers. It so happened the boss returned soon from his trip for coffee and reported seeing the news on the television. He had seen the video of a cargo plane hitting the second tower. Again, my comment was that this was not a big plane, and the World Trade Center would hold up quite well. My boss may not have recognized a 767 and oh, by the way, he was to report to the manager emergency meeting.
My routine early morning continued. This involved checking in with those Resident Engineers assigned to the other coordinator who would be out for the day.
The view of my Crystal Palace office looked at the flight path to DFW, Meacham Field to the West and Alliance to the north. You could easily determine northerly or southerly flow of the Metroplex.
The manager went to the emergency meeting and management had an extraordinarily strong decisive reaction, with mandatory and clear directions. This was a terrorist event. As for our impact, the FAA field resident engineers and all contractor and their personnel at any airport would remove themselves immediately, cease all work immediately to include complete safe evacuation of all personnel and equipment off any airport.
There would be an update sometime in the future.
Of course, permanent Resident Engineers worked the ARTCC’s ZHU, ZFW and ZAB. Luckily no asbestos, or critical power swap out or major renovation were occurring. Again, the construction efforts occurring anywhere would cease.
The real decisive decision locally at the Fort Worth Office was that the threat could be domestic, and that the retaliation directed to the IRS, DEA agency and the FBI agents in the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace (Southwest Regional Office) was to being evacuated with few exceptions.
The approximate 600 FAA employees went to the parking lot like a fire drill; thus, the building was empty except for essential personnel. My manager was not part of this skeletal management because the Facilities and Equipment efforts of construction could be stopped and forgotten easily. There was no concern for monetary costs of restart or a management concern that the project scope be completed timely and efficiently.
The other coordinator called to report his flight was cancelled. He saw first-hand that no outbound flights were occurring. Luis Flores was told not to report to the Crystal Palace. Since government cell phones were still not common, he went by his home phone.
My boss and I then split up the task to call off the work and cause the shutdown of 24 construction projects. Mr. Erbey Fernandez started at A and Felix Thomas Antone began at Z. We would meet in the middle. We both kind of prioritized that the two or three projects directly doing work in the middle of the airfield would be the first to be stopped.
All the field Resident Engineers were oblivious mostly to the news. Certainly, some had heard about the attacks via reports on the AM or FM radio. The more Seasoned Resident Engineers were certainly not accustomed to projects being placed on hold.
They had barely taken off Christmas Eve or the Thanksgiving Wednesday and certainly the word moratorium was not legally binding or included in any construction legal contract documents. The training to be Contracting Officer Representatives certainly did not cover this situation which was basically an explosion as the result of airplanes plowing purposefully into buildings we build.
There were some questions about how to do this process, how the current work stoppage would take some 1 to 2 hours: what efforts to cause the evacuation of all FAA and construction personnel and equipment off the airport would occur. And of course, this also meant delay based on the tower controllers who could not be bothered with ground traffic.
If I correctly recall, the work at DFW was in a closed area so that evacuation occurred quite quickly. Certainly, the work at the ZFW, ZAB, also went very effectively. ZHU which was my normal duty station was handled by Fred Odanga my replacement in short order, but the contractor was quite upset and festered on the authority of the onsite Resident Engineer. The real contracting officer later did official documentation about the stop order.
The work at IAH was however in a situation where there was a significant trench that had been excavated. A rather large crew had also commenced a connection to a major manhole. This work involved some rerouting of some communication cables. So, mark McLauren and David Randal were the ones who did not evacuate immediately. A great construction foreman, Mr. Enrique Longoria was the person doing the splicing and of course splicing several cables of 100 pair means you really are splicing double this quantity since the reroute caused a longer cable. A one-man job.
This was the project that my boss and I resolved as the final project to be evacuated but now with a lot of exceptions. This was the one both of us knew required more detail.
At that moment, our evacuation of the Crystal Palace began. We looked out on the parking lot to see that only some GOV vehicles, a smattering of Emergency Command Center vehicles, and then our two cars. The two rows for the IRS, DEA and FBI were totally bare. Even the preferred parking for our disabled employees seemed like the ADA had received excellent assistance in the evacuation. The third floor for not only Airways Facilities but also F&E was an echo chamber. You could only hear the broadcast of the news from the Command Room. The coffee pot had some burnt stale coffee because the office evacuation was so quick.
It seemed like the towers had just fallen and both my boss and I were astonished that the towers had lasted so long. Certainly, their evacuation of the towers went amazing, at least a successful evacuation. Certainly, the firefighters and first responders’ efforts caused them to be the tragic loss.
The loss certainly could have been much greater. Later in life I did have a direct link to a person who survived the tower and to someone who lost classmates in the rescue. My sister at OPM was traveling to Annandale witnessing Pentagon rescue efforts. Again, this building design also was commendable. We, in Construction and Civil Engineering continue to exalt about the design.
My boss was asked by me to ascertain if we would have any timeframe when to restore normal order. He replied a WAG, aka “Wild Ass Guess.” Hopefully, projects restart 9/12 afternoon.
I reminded him to take his charger with him for his government cell phone. I took my FM Radio so that I could listen to the Air Traffic frequencies as planes were routed to parking. Calls that the evacuation had been completed occurred for all but IAH.
We both looked out the Crystal palace window and saw only the occasional military airplane. When we got out in the parking lot it was so silent and the road traffic noise of I-35 was so noticeable.
I told my boss I was going to check to see if an optician would do a checkup on my eyesight. I then went to an optical office and surprisingly they had not closed and for some reason, had a lot of cancelations. They were happy to see a customer. I walked out with reading glasses in about two hours.
The Sky was so clear. No FedEx or UPS to Alliance, no flight school planes to Meachum and certainly one of the largest airports of the world at DFW now had no inbound nor outbound traffic. Only military planes from Carswell randomly appeared.
The news report on the hotel television showed the international flights, noting Churchill, Canada was not a premier destination. Flights to Mexican airports were not so well documented. The news did not indicate how the FAA Air Traffic system had achieve an unknown situation one not on the books. Certainly, the decision to do the evacuation of the Southwest Regional Office was not on the local news. The FAA does try to fly with the least amount of coverage by news agencies.
And the cost to restart is still not a topic. The fact that the guards were required to be armed and that construction people now had been escorted caused a new wave of discrimination. Resident Engineers were now ordered to become escorts for these non-FAA personnel. The delivery of material also was to be escorted. The inspection of all vehicles and this delay was not allowed as a cost, but all construction now has a factor of costs for this.
Moratoriums are now ridiculously long and very costly and projects now do not need so many Resident Engineers (except as needed for escorting purposes). There are Super Bowl moratoriums.
There is not a moment of silence observance and no recognition of the valiant air traffic controller response. There have been some documentaries about this effort, but they are viewed by the same audience as plane wrecks and not in the history books.
Certainly, Desert Storm occurred at major expense to the US. The Afghanistan military now is in its final evacuation 20 years later. As the USA was the only one attacked on September 11, 2011, it is this lack of international commonality that caused smaller coalitions and more isolation and concern for other countries.
Today in 2021 the vaccination of humans outside the USA must occur for aviation to return to glory days before 9/11.
I have retired now. I certainly have not traveled like I want to because of COVID-19; no bucket list travel to Iceland, Portugal, Chile, and Antarctica has occurred. The view of Americans as world travelers welcome now occurs with severe restrictions even from our neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico, mostly in retaliation to our isolation.
The FAA is not in the news like it was. The middle-aged generation barely recognizes this date. My generation certainly remembers the Vietnam Conflict; 2021 pandemic is causing news fatigue.
I do remember normalcy in 2001 occurred at a snail’s pace. Thursday, I worked remotely from the hotel. Seeing no airplanes in the air was so awkward. Then Friday the 13th occurred. I reported back to the Crystal Palace and our Engineering F&E Managers convinced the Airway Facilities manager to convince the Air Traffic Management to allow the projects both electronic System and Construction to restart. Of course, this were delayed past the time when the diverted airplanes to Churchill, Canada on Hudson Bay could be refueled and reloaded.
I left Fort Worth and drove the five hours to my home in Houston. I continued to look in the sky to try to find airplanes flying the same flight path as the drive I was taking. Finally, I crossed the bridge on the San Jacinto River and saw the stream of airplane wing lights in the flight descent to IAH. I knew the IAH construction project would see and hear those planes. When I parked my car at my home, I could hear this not as background noise.
I did eventually move out of that flight path and hope that some normalcy to Pre-TSA days will occur. It is sad that now the Border Patrol and the TSA have more employees than the FAA. The service the FAA provides is so safer now but more so because of the pandemic. The FAA Southwest Regional Office will have a full parking lot. The FAA commitment to modernization and construction is not the same. It is hoped that 737 MAX will fly again and cause a need for capacity. It is hoped that the Covid Relief Act will not have to pay the Aviation industry payroll and thus a need for the FAA.
Let us remember that 2021 is like the afternoon of 9/11 and that we may soon see the capacity achieved that the FAA can safely cause for passenger and cargo travel. Long live the FAA.
Additional 9/11 Resources
NBC News: The Skies Over America. September 2002 Dateline NBC special, hosted by Tom Brokaw, featuring NATCA members who worked on 9/11. Read transcript here
History Channel: How Air Traffic Controllers Managed the Crisis in the Skies
9/11 ATC Recordings and Transcripts
NATCA Remembers Meaningful Gesture from Pa. Students After 9/11
October 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of a special interaction that NATCA leadership and staff had with a group of seventh and eighth graders from Hazleton, Pa., located just south of Wilkes-Barre. A few weeks after the horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, then NATCA President John Carr and Executive Vice President Ruth Stilwell arrived at the National Office to find a stack of cards and letters from the West Hazleton Elementary/Middle School students thanking air traffic controllers for their efforts to close the National Airspace System and get over 4,500 aircraft on the ground safely. Teacher Cindy Fetchko wrote at the time, “As we try to make sense of the senseless tragedy, we are discussing how many heroes have emerged in our society. Our students have decided to honor the air traffic controllers for their heroism on that horrible day.” Wrote one student, “I would like to thank you for doing your job so well the day of the tragedy and every day.” Carr led a group of members and staff employees who traveled to Hazleton to thank the students in person in October 2001. NATCA at the time created a book featuring each of the students’ notes, which you can view below.