September 11, 2001 Part 3
Standing looking over at where the World Trade Center towers once stood, buildings were still on fire and the voluminous amounts smoke were drifting towards Sandy Hook, NJ. What the hell happened and what the hell am I looking at? I’ll never forget the acrid smell that hung in the air, an odor I had never smelled before and never will forget. Sickening sweet. The end of a long day was coming to a close. As darkness came, even more fires appeared. I couldn’t imagine what I would eventually see. This was the days before everyone put their lives on social media and we didn’t have play by play action of people’s every move.
We had a flight request to take some British police officers over what would come to be known as Ground Zero. Col. Dunbar had authorized the flight, but it was a matter of getting into the airspace. The NAS was shut down and we were in “the wild west” for lack of a better term. The.Entire.NAS.Shutdown.
Never in our country’s short aviation history had the NAS ever been shut down. In the confusion of the initial attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all aircraft to land. No one knew if there were more “missiles” that hadn’t revealed themselves yet. Runways became parking areas as airports tried to accommodate the thousands of airliners across the country some barely having room to park. Actually, it was an incredible feat to accomplish shoehorning all those aircraft in places they weren’t normally parked. I’ll touch on the airport observations shortly.
We hadn’t yet taken any flights over the area since only military aircraft were allowed in the airspace. It was my understanding the deadly force was authorized against non-compliant aircraft. Another first. The US military was authorized to take hostile action against a US aircraft. I highly doubt there would have been warning flares deployed by military aircraft now patrolling the US skies on this day. Our landing zone/staging area was just outside of EWR Class B airspace in what was called, at the time, the Hudson River Exclusion Area. In this area, all aircraft could take off and land without having air traffic control clearance and were obligated to self-announce their location. The reason for the exclusion area was due to the high volume of sightseeing aircraft and talking with a controller would overwhelm the frequency and overwork a controller. I will say the controllers at EWR are some of the best and most professional I’ve ever worked with. Not because I’m friends with Ray, it’s because it’s true.
There are hundreds of sightseeing flights conducted on the Hudson River taking passengers up and down the New York skyline daily. Looking back, I feel privileged to have had this be my office view for so many years. The aircraft, mostly helicopters, take turns circling the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and up the Hudson or East river and back to their take off location. The pilots all operate on a common radio frequency to announce who they are, where they are, and what their intentions are. It’s a great system that works with known operators. On this day, only military helicopters were making loops of the area and fighter aircraft high above.
After we loaded our passengers, we began the trip north in the middle of the Hudson River. As we drew near to Ground Zero, the senior training pilot slowed our airspeed. I could hear the passengers in the back making comments about what they saw on the right side of the aircraft. No one in the back had been on a headset where we could talk with them since we didn’t have any spares. It was muffled voices I was hearing over the helicopter noises of a twin engine aircraft.
After we made our first pass north, we turned around and headed south. This time we hugged the New York City shoreline. As we approached Ground Zero, I could see what our passengers were talking about. Unbelievable. Light towers were erected, flooding the street with white light. It literally looked like a giant had smashed the buildings with a fist and just splattered debris in every direction. Mangled vehicles, smoke, dust, even papers were still floating. It was during this flight I realized the magnitude of what hate looks like. As a road Trooper, we see bad things. We see death. We see things that are just better left to television drama. This was evil. On our doorstep. Our country was attacked, and they meant business.
We completed our flight, dropped our passengers back at Liberty State Park and, began the trip back to our base at Trenton. We contacted EWR tower and requested entry into the Class B. Granted. No one else was in the area. The only way I was able to make out the airport was because it was a black hole. All airport lighting was turned down to nothing. It was an eerie sight to see. The normal visual cues had been taken away. We were just navigating our way down to Trenton, looking off into the distance.
Once we arrived at Trenton, the senior pilot went into the office and I began my junior guy, post flight chores. Filling up the fuel tanks, checking the back of the aircraft to make sure it was clean, then pushing the aircraft back into the hangar. I turned on a radio to catch up on anything I missed. WYSP was an FM radio station that played rock music at the time. They were simulcasting KYW News Radio into the station. Imagine listening to an AM broadcast on an FM band. More strangeness. A day of days. I walked out onto the ramp at Trenton and it was total darkness except for a twinkle of an aircraft high in the sky. Normally, the sky would be filled with traffic coming to and from the New York City region. Not tonight. It was a military aircraft.
I called my wife to check in and assure her I was okay. She already knew. I promised her I would be. The girls were safe and in bed. Don’t wake them up, just give them a kiss for me. I let her know I wouldn’t be home for a couple of days. I didn’t get into details of what I saw. What would be the point? I slept on the couch in the crew lounge for the next two nights. I guess I slept.
This is just my perspective of what I saw on September 11, 2001. I never went to “the pile”. I had friends and colleagues who did. Some have passed due to related cancers of the carcinogens they inhaled. All have stories. The recovery efforts went on for months and we taxied people in and out of the area for various reasons. What I saw that day will never leave my memory. On one hand it is an honor to be able to remember. On the other, I’d be just fine if I never saw anything like this ever again. I think I’ll stop now. To those who lost someone, you have my sympathies. For those that ran into the fire, my utmost respect. To the kids who weren’t born yet, take the time to understand what happened.