A topic I think about every year but don't really discuss. Maybe its time.
Here we are, 20 years removed from the most significant attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. What makes the events of September 11, 2001 different and so significant is the broad impact it had across the entire country. Not just one location with a high death toll but three. With four airliners used as missiles against us, the enemy purposefully targeted United Airlines and American Airlines in their mind symbols of US power.
This day was an absolutely stunning late summer day with beautiful blue skies, low humidity and very little wind. I was assigned to the NJSP Aviation Training and Maintenance Unit State Ramp at Trenton Airport (KTTN) for just over a year and washing an aircraft as junior members do when not much was happening. What happened next will be forever etched into my memory.
Master Aviation Mechanic Kurt Foulke came out to the hanger where we were washing the aircraft and told us a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We all stopped what we were doing, went into the kitchen and stood in front of the television as newscasters were talking about the incident. The hole in the tower didn't appear significant at first and we all wondered how a plane could just hit one of the towers since the weather was so beautiful.
Then the second strike happened right before our eyes and it was at that point it came into focus that this was no accident. The NJSP at the time had 3 Sikorsky S-76B aircraft in the fleet. Two were in service at a bases north and south. We had a third aircraft coming out of regular maintenance at a vendor in Chester County PA. The senior training sergeant grabbed me and another pilot and we headed to pick up the third Sikorsky. His instructions to the vendor was to have the aircraft rotors turning and fuel running out of the tanks by the time we got there.
After departing Trenton in a Bell 206L3 we headed west towards Pennsylvania. I was able to turn my head around enough to look towards New York City. I could see the outline of the World Trade Center towers and the smoke that was drifting off from the fires caused by the impact. Events were unfolding so rapidly it was hard to comprehend everything on the radio. Confusion is an understatement. The trip to Pennsylvania didn't require any communications with air traffic control so we didn't get much information from there.
When we arrived in Pennsylvania, the Sikorsky was running, the tanks were full, and I jumped in the left seat and the senior sergeant in the right. It was just us. We didn't know what our assignment was yet but as we started to make our way back to New Jersey, we were told to head towards Atlantic City to pick up Colonel Carson Dunbar #2910 who had addressed a public safety event earlier. As a side note, all NJSP badge numbers are assigned to an individual and never recycled. Each member owns that number and it is our tie to the NJSP history. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. was badge #1 (yes that same family) and I am badge #5291.
We landed at the former Bader Field airport in Atlantic City and found out our Aviation South Unit aircraft had already picked up Col. Dunbar and was transporting him to Division Headquarters but we were directed to take on two Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department (PAPD) command staff members instead. I loaded the passengers in the back and we departed Bader Filed en-route to Newark Airport (EWR).
This portion of the flight got interesting. In the confusion we had heard about the Pentagon attack. We were talking to Atlantic City Approach controllers as we departed north with the expectation of a hand off to McGuire Approach who provided updates of the events unfolding as best they understood. AC Approach was picking up a radar contact on the water off the coast and asked if we could see the target. We could, it was a merchant vessel that apparently painted a target they were interested in. Issue resolved. Everyone was in a heightened state of awareness. No one understood the magnitude of what was happening so information sharing was key.
As we were handed off to McGuire Approach, the Air Force controller acknowledged our call call since we operated in this airspace regularly. They let us know we would be intercepted to verify who we were and to maintain course and heading with no unauthorized deviations. All NJSP aircraft had the BF Goodrich (yes, the tire people) Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) on board. The TCAS alerts off of transponders of other aircraft nearby and receives altitude and relative bearing in a general sense, but not precise.
The TCAS was quiet and no targets appeared when suddenly we received a traffic alert to our 9:00 position. I looked out my window and saw an F-15 and could clearly see the pilot. Most don't know it, but there was another aircraft above and behind us so if we weren't who we said we were, doing what we said we were supposed to be doing, would be in a position to neutralize us if we were deemed a threat. Once we got the thumbs up, the F-15 pulled up hard and the TCAS went silent once again. See ya.
During our transition to EWR the NJSP radio system started going haywire. We had a dedicated channel for Aviation Unit communications when suddenly our radio was being flooded with messages from all across the state from different units, stations, and locations. We were hearing cars stops from north Jersey, Marine Unit calls, and other information in a garbled manner. Then, the Aviation Unit Head made a call to all aircraft that one of the towers had fallen. This would explain why our comms were all over the place since one of the main repeaters to the NJSP communications network was on top of World Trade Center Tower One. When it collapsed, the repeater network could not handle the channel skipping that allowed for simultaneous transmissions.
I always carried a pocket notebook from my days as a general duty road Trooper. It came in handy to note details of jobs like the who, what, where, when, and how to fill in the reports we made from street interviews. From accidents to squirrels in the attic, the pocket notebook was a great way to refresh the memory. Unfortunately, on this day I'd write a note and pass it to the PAPD police officers behind me that one of the towers had collapsed. I still wonder if the police officer ever kept this note. If you're reading this, let me know.
The notebook I kept that day turned into several pages of what I saw and how I felt. I never had a diary but instantly knew the significance of what had happened and I didn't want to lose the details of this day. My cousin Sgt. John Leach #2023 told me to start keeping notes from day one which I could kick myself for not doing. That's a story for another time but when you deal with the public, it can make for some great stories.
This day was different though. I still look through the notes of September 11, 2001 to this day to reflect upon what I saw and the days that followed. I never want to forget for those who can longer be reminded, for those who didn't make it and for the survivors. I owe it to them to fill in my part of the story and to contribute to the complete picture of what happened that day and how we were attacked without warning just like Pearl Harbor. Attacked for being Americans. Attacked for not complying with an ideology that is different from theirs.
I think for now, I'll end the thought process and pick up in another part. My main point with article is is to honor the memory of the victims, those first responders who put it all on the line and paid the ultimate price, and to the survivors who forever have an empty place setting at the table.