Like everyone else on the East Coast, I thought that Tuesday, September 11, would just be another gorgeously clear blue early autumn day of the type that we had been enjoying for a couple of weeks. I had flown a helicopter to a meeting in a nearby county. Near the end of the conference, we learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
I went back to the local airport for the flight back to my office. The local airport manager greeted me and advised that, based upon a phone call he had only just received from the FAA, he did not think that I was going to be flying anywhere for a while. I called Flight Service and received confirmation that, for the first time since I have been alive, “the National Airspace System is shut down and all civilian aircraft are grounded.” So, I secured the helicopter and got a car ride back to the office.
My office was and is located within the Phoenix Air headquarters building across the street from the airport in Cartersville, Georgia (KVPC, about 40 miles NW of Atlanta). Phoenix Air specializes in providing electronic warfare jamming training services, target tow, complex international air ambulance, explosives transport, and other specialty missions for various U.S. agencies, NATO, other allied governments, and related businesses. The company operates more than 30 turbine aircraft, primarily Learjet 35/36s and Gulfstream I/II/IIIs.
When I arrived back at Phoenix Air, everything was unusually quiet. I learned that some of our planes were stuck on the ground outside of the country. Military training exercises were not operating, so those planes were also on the ground at various bases. We were not getting much information as to when our stranded crews and assets would be operational again. Of course, we appreciated the gravity of the situation and mainly talked and watched the latest news updates on TV in the office. Like most all of us, I sat there wishing that I could somehow help.
The Chief Pilot then told me that we had just received a call requesting that we field a Learjet for a special flight itinerary. The purpose would be to pick up various federal emergency response professionals from around the Southeast and fly them to Stewart ANG Base, 50 miles or so up the Hudson from New York City. Ground or helicopter transport would then take these individuals to the city so that they could go right to work in their respective areas of emergency response logistics, counseling and mortuary services. He indicated that I was the only immediately available Learjet captain who could do the flight and that we would need to take off as soon as we received confirmation from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) for use of the airspace. I told him that I was ready to go.
I called the Atlanta Flight Service Station and advised that I needed to file a number of IFR flight plans. I had to do some talking with the briefer about the flights before he would start to take me (and my flight plans) seriously. He had been told that no civilians would be flying and had not received the word that there would be any exceptions. It was at that time that the Chief Pilot gave me a NORAD transponder code that I would use during my flights. Once I passed that info on to the briefer, everything became much easier and he filed the flight plans.
The Chief Pilot arranged for a copilot and I met him at the plane so that we could brief the mission. Obviously, we had no experience being the only civilian aircraft in the sky. We discussed the absolute need to have only the assigned transponder code in the box during each leg of the mission that we would be flying. The requirement to stay on our cleared flight routes and altitudes was also reviewed. Our dispatcher had emphasized to us that NORAD owned the airspace, and that any deviations from the plan or transponder code would be immediately detected by ground and airborne surveillance platforms. He said that we did not want to know what would happen next. He did not need to tell us that twice.
We took off from Cartersville into a beautiful setting sun and turned southwest to our first destination of Fairhope, AL (KCQF, near Mobile). The gear was barely up when we made our initial call up to Atlanta Approach – we wanted to be talking to ATC before they acquired our target. Approach cleared us direct to Mobile and right on up to FL 350. This was to be the first of a pattern for that night: Cleared direct with uninterrupted climbs and descents to the desired altitudes.
The airspace and the radio were devoid of any other traffic. The controllers were clearly happy to have someone to look at on their screens and were in a calm and chatty mood. As would be the case for the rest of the night, ATC could not do enough to help us get through the mission.
We came over the KCQF airport and entered a left downwind. After getting on the ground and taxiing up to the ramp, we shut down next to two local sheriff’s cars. Fortunately, they had been informed of our flight and advised that our first two passengers should arrive shortly. They also handled a radio call from their dispatcher who told them that his switchboard had lit up with reports of an airplane flying over the town about the time that we had entered the pattern. We also checked in with our own HQ dispatcher, who had also been told by local law enforcement that numerous concerned citizens had reported our earlier takeoff from our home airport.
Once our first two passengers were on board, we took off and headed down to Orlando International. While we did not have to deal with any airborne traffic, we did have to circumnavigate a line of thunderstorms that were over the Gulf and just south of the Florida Panhandle. Fortunately, Learjets are great at circumnavigation (not to mention flying above some cells) and we were soon descending into KMCO. Although initially cleared for a straight-in to Runway 18R, a small rain cell moving across the airport caused us to break off and do a 360, loiter a bit in the vicinity of downtown Orlando, and then turn back for 18R.
I was a bit concerned about this maneuver – this was definitely a night that I did not want to have to loiter or do anything other than fly in a straight line. We certainly kept the tower advised as to what we were doing. We were met by airport security at the FBO, picked up our next passenger and called for our clearance. Clearance Delivery replied: “Buddy, you can do any altitude and any route you would like tonight.” I knew that I would probably not hear such words from ATC again for the remainder of my flying career.
After takeoff, we turned direct to the old USAF base at Myrtle Beach, SC (KMYR). After another quick in and out, we were found ourselves landing at Charlotte Douglas International (KCLT). Our awaiting passenger advised that airport security had been asking him for the past hour if an airplane was actually going to land and pick him up. Although Charlotte is one of the major hubs in this country, the thought of an airplane actually landing or taking off this night was apparently a unique concept.
We then flew our shortest leg over to airport at Jacksonville, NC (KOAJ). Three local law enforcement types were waiting for us on the ramp, along with our last passenger for the night. We made a quick turn, and then took off and headed direct to Stewart, with an unrestricted climb to FL330.
It was a stunningly clear night with an unobstructed view of plenty of stars above and ground lights below. When passing a bit to the east of Washington, DC, we could see Baltimore, Philly and NY in the distance. It was in this area that we first heard controllers speaking with other aircraft and they all had military call signs. As we came up the center of NJ, New York Center advised that an F-16 would be passing southbound about three miles off of our left wing. We quickly got a good tally on him.
As we descended into Stewart, we passed about 25 miles to the west of Manhattan. The usual lights of downtown seemed to be muted and obscured by fog, but we obviously knew that it was smoke and dust. The ever-familiar landmark of the World Trade Center Twin Towers was sadly missing. As we continued our descent, all the while on a perfectly straight line for Stewart, we saw an AWACs orbiting high above and to the north of the city.
Once on the ground at Stewart, we discharged our passengers, filled up with gas, and headed back to Cartersville. Unlike the usual daisy chain departure from the NY area and step climbs, we were again greeted with a direct clearance and climb to final cruise altitude of FL430. After about 90 minutes, we were handed off to Atlanta Approach, which runs our home base KVPC airspace (as well as Atlanta Hartsfield/KATL and about a dozen GA airports around metro Atlanta) and which ATC facility has been generally aware of our “unusual mission profiles” for years. Even though all controllers had been told to report to work that day, they had no airline or other civilian traffic to work and the frequency was quiet. Then, one controller called us out of the blue and said: “It figures. There are 25 of us down here at the TRACON doing nothing but watching you guys descend back into Cartersville. Good to have you back.”
For all Americans, the desire to take practical and immediate action to help out was strong on September 11. I am grateful that our company could do something meaningful on that terrible day.