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Tuesday, May 16, 2006
A Pilot's Perspective on United 93
This was sent to me by a acquaintance. However, this writer has a different perspective, he was a pilot on another plane on September 11, 2001.
Susie and I just got back from seeing "UAL Flight 93", it was absolutely gripping, and as a former airline pilot who was flying a trip that morning on a Boeing 767 from Cincinnati to Orlando it was almost too horrific to watch...it was very disturbing!
For you pilot types, the attention to detail, the cockpit, the preflight, the crew, pilots and flight attendants boarding the aircraft and making small talk was or so real and routine...just another day in the office! Likewise the views from central flow control, NY and Boston ARTCC and the NORAD command center were very realistic. Should anyone have any doubts about our response, or lack of that morning you need to view this movie. Watching all the various controllers and their supervisors trying to get their arms around the problem and to come to grips and connect the dots is so very real.
The movie appears to almost happen in real time and you can really sense the problem that the commanders had in thinking outside the box and realizing that we were really at war. Fighters are scrambled, late, and in the wrong direction, as threats are suppose to come from over the water to the east not from over land to the west; the planes are not armed, can they ram, and who has the authority to give that command...the command is given but not relayed to the pilots. The lack of communications, or rather the disbelief and lack of coordination is stunning but easy to understand. Even the pilots of UAL Flt 93 are given a data link message that the Towers have been hit and to beware of cockpit intruders...they brush it off in disbelief, as I'm sure any pilot would have prior to that date.
The time line given at the end of the movie and the confusion over what planes were involved, and which flights were being hijacked is very revealing...we just couldn't get it together quickly enough. As pilots and crew members we had never been trained to deal with suicidal hijackers who were prepared to die, it was simply inconceivable at the time.
A key point, though not belabored, was when the supervisor (he played himself in the movie) of the FAA Central Flow Control ordered that all aircraft in US airspace land immediately, (there were over 4200 in the air), that no planes from overseas would be allowed into the country and would be turned back, and that there were to be no over flights. He realized that we were at war but didn't know with whom...it was a very bold and brave move and he was thinking way outside the box... AND it was his first day on the job as the boss! All Americans should see this movie as it may help them get a grip on the terrorist threat that we are up against vs. the radical Muslim world. I don't know if we belong in Iraq or how we should deal with Iran or North Korea or the Sudan, but I know that there is a real threat to our way of life from the radical Islamic fundamentalists. I continually hear that this is not a true reflection of the Koran or true Islamic beliefs. Well that may be true, and it might not be, but there would appear to be plenty of Muslims in the world that have an entirely different and radical interpretation of the Koran which we cannot ignore.
What was probably as disturbing as watching an airline crew, that could have been me or any of my friends, seeing their world and their life taken away, was the hijackers preparing to die, washing themselves and praying to their god as if they were doing his will. They looked like ordinary young men, and to think that they could sit next to all these people on that plane that they were going to kill, who had nothing against them or done nothing to them, was beyond words. I guess if nothing else it gives you insight into the minds of suicide bombers, which to our Western way of thought is beyond comprehension.
This movie will make you angry, very angry.
My experience on 9/11. We were just ready to close the door for our Delta 767 flight from CVG to MCO when the gate agent came on board and asked if we had heard anything about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center, we had not, so she said goodbye and closed the door. Shortly thereafter we were airborne climbing out on a beautifully clear crisp fall morning heading to Florida with not a cloud in the sky or a care in the world. I heard a bizjet ask for a reroute since he could not get to New York and I thought that was strange. Then another bizjet said "well I guess we won't be going there either" and asked for a clearance to an alternate..
At that point I asked center what was going on. There was a pause and then the controller came back in a very excited voice and said "they have hit both of the Trade Center Towers, they have hit the Pentagon, they have hit the Capitol and the White House"...well you can imagine it got really lively on the frequency. I turned to my Co-Pilot and said "I don't know what has happened, but I do know that things will never be the same", and I think I got that right!
Within seconds the controller had composed himself and said all flights on this frequency standby, and it was dead quiet. He then said all flights are to land immediately and went down the list of the planes under his control..."American 235 turn right heading 230 you're landing at Pittsburgh, Continental 456 turn left heading 180 for Cincinnati, Delta 235 (that's me) turn right to 250 and descend to 8000, you're landing at Knoxville, airport your 2 o'clock 40 miles....etc" It was the best, fastest and most efficient handling I have ever had from ATC. They had everyone on the ground all over the country in minimum time. After all the initial confusion, their professionalism, and that of all the flight crews was exemplary!
We spent two days in Knoxville and then ferried an empty 757 back to Atlanta and I believe were one of the first flights to land back at our main hub. Our arrival at ATL was one of the most moving experiences of my flying career. The airspace was totally empty, there was no talk on the radio, and we were the only plane in the sky over ATL, the busiest airport in the U.S., but we did have, unknown to us until informed by the controller, an F-16 right on our tail, but we never saw him. When we taxied in the normally frantic ramp area was dead quiet, all the ground equipment, tugs, baggage carts, tugs, fuelers etc. were lined up in military precision and the ground crew were standing at attention and saluted...wow, I'll never forget that. They needed a sign that things were getting back to normal...that we were moving and flying again.
Reflections. As you may know I was on a United Flight several weeks ago from Chicago to Sacramento that had a passenger who tried to open the front cabin door, allegedly claimed to have a bomb, and took a swing at the flight attendant. We'll yours truly was sound asleep in the last row of coach and missed all the action, but suffice it to say that before he got very far he was rapidly subdued by the first class section and we diverted to Denver.
Unlike Flight 93 he couldn't have gotten into the cockpit as the cockpit door is now armored and no passenger is going to sit still and let anyone interfere with the flight. I always felt that with the improved cockpit door that I would be totally safe, and that all my passengers in the cabin would act as Sky Marshals...I was and they did...they remembered 9/11, lets hope that we never forget!
I would also like to mention that all the crew members on my United flight as well as all the ground rescue folks in Denver and the United station personnel did an absolutely marvelous job in handling this incident. It made me proud to have once been a part of this profession.