Air traffic
13 min read

It is now 5:25 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a day that will live—as certain as does Pearl Harbor Day—in infamy. I am sitting in room 212 at the Baymont Inn near the Indianapolis, Indiana, Airport. I will be staying here for at least tonight and probably even longer. According to local reports, I am very fortunate to even have a room because of the five to six thousand passengers stranded, like fellow pilot John Baker and myself, in this city that we had never intended to visit. The significance of this day, though, no one could have predicted, nor could anyone have imagined the events that would cause this to become one of the darkest days in our nation’s history.

This day began rather routinely for me, or at least as normal as a day with a 3:45 a.m. wake-up time can be. It was great sleeping weather last night in Omaha, and I enjoyed both the early bedtime (about 9:15 p.m., as I recall) and the cool, mid-50s breeze through the open bedroom windows. I awoke, as I normally do, five minutes before the alarm clock was to sound. I remember appreciating the long duration of the next four minutes. I then deactivated the alarm (so it wouldn’t wake up my wife), and got up.

I had my usual breakfast of two granola bars and a banana, shaved and showered, quickly pulled things together for my flight bag, kissed my wife goodbye, and then left the house for the airport at 5:24 a.m. I know the time exactly, because I remember looking at the clock in my car and realizing that it was actually about 14 minutes later than I had planned to leave.

911 weather

September 11, 2001, dawned as a beautiful day in the East.

The drive to the airport was unusually relaxing, both because of the light early morning traffic and the refreshingly cool weather; it was the first time in a long time that I had not needed my car’s air conditioner, even early in the morning.

I arrived at the hangar at 5:55 a.m., which was only five minutes ahead of my scheduled 6:00 a.m. show time. John, who was assigned as pilot-in-command for the trip, accomplished the flight planning duties, while I began the preflight of the corporate jet… a task that normally only took 45 minutes or so if all went well.

All did go well, and I finished the preflight a little before 7:00 a.m. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m. for Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI), with a return departure at 3:00 p.m. EDT. John gave me the normal flight briefing, which included time enroute, weather, Notices-to-Airmen, passenger requests, etc. He also asked me to fly left seat on the leg to Baltimore, as he had just returned from a two-week vacation and thought that he might be a bit rusty.

Since I would be flying as pilot-in-command, I listened to the recorded airport departure information, obtained the ATC clearance to Baltimore, used the office computer program to calculate the takeoff performance numbers (weight and balance, applicable takeoff speeds, etc.), then briefed John on the takeoff and departure procedures. After that, nothing else of note happened. Our maintenance technician fueled our airplane, and then we just visited and waited for the eight scheduled passengers to arrive.

John eventually went out to the airplane to start the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit and finish the cockpit setup (avionics, route of flight, performance numbers, etc.). I waited with the passengers until the last one arrived at 7:25 a.m. One of the passengers was also waiting on a fax, but finally decided that it wasn’t really needed, and that they could go without it (although it actually arrived later, and was handed to me through the open cockpit window just prior to our engine start). We boarded about 7:35 a.m., I briefed the passengers, started the engines, and began taxiing at 7:43 a.m. We then ran the Taxi and Before Takeoff checklists as I continued toward Omaha’s runway 18 for a southbound departure.

The takeoff and departure were normal, except for having to turn east into the incredibly bright morning sun. It was so blinding that I engaged the autopilot earlier than normal so I could adjust the sun visor to block as much of the sun as possible. The sky was so beautiful and the air was so smooth, though, that, when I could see the instruments again, I disengaged the autopilot and enjoyed hand-flying the airplane for most of the climb.

We received several step climb clearances to 10,000 ft., Flight Level (FL) 230, FL290, FL330, and then up to FL370, our final cruising altitude. We also had several heading changes as the Minneapolis Center controller told us that he needed to weave us through the traffic for our climb. I mentioned to John that I was wearing out the sun visor by having to move it every time we were given a heading change. We were eventually cleared direct to Bradford (in central Illinois), and then direct to Rosewood, which is just northeast of Dayton, Ohio.

A few minutes later we received the first hint that something unusual had happened. I heard a portion of a call from an airline crew (I had “tuned out” the first part of the transmission because it didn’t concern us) asking Minneapolis Center If they had heard anything about what had happened. Center replied by asking if they had been talking to their company, and then stated that they didn’t have any more information at the time. John and I assumed from hearing that conversation that there must have been an accident somewhere, maybe even at Minneapolis, since the crew was asking Minneapolis Center about it.

We then got a handoff to Chicago Center. Shortly after checking in on the new frequency, the controller said something to another airline crew about the East Coast, and mentioned that all he knew was that there had been several accidents in the East. John and I looked at each other in bewilderment, and one of us said something about how strange that sounded, and that it must have involved terrorism or something. Just minutes later—and after another handoff to another Chicago Center controller—we heard, “ATTENTION ALL AIRCRAFT: There is now a ground stop in effect for all aircraft at all locations for all destinations.” John and I looked at each other again and I said something like, “I wonder what in the world has happened?” My thoughts were that maybe terrorists had gotten their hands on some ground-to-air missiles and were using them against airline targets.

Air traffic

The skies over America quickly emptied.

At that point we knew that whatever was happening was very serious. I looked back in the cabin, got the lead passenger’s attention, and motioned for him to come forward. We told him what we had heard and added that even though we could probably get to Baltimore, we might not be able to get out. We also mentioned the possibility of returning to Omaha. He asked how soon we would have to make that decision. I told him that it would have to be within the next 10 or 15 minutes or so to still have enough fuel to get back to Omaha. We told him that we would keep him advised, and he returned to his seat.

After one more handoff to yet another Chicago Center controller, we heard the report that all traffic was stopped going in or out of New York Center’s airspace, and to expect delays if that was your destination. I asked the controller specifically about Baltimore and, after checking, he said that we could still get in there. After just a few more minutes, however, Chicago Center called us again and said, “We’ve got a situation developing here, and we’re going to have to land you at the nearest suitable airport.” We looked at each other again, and John asked the controller what airports we were near. He said “Fort Wayne or Indianapolis… take your pick.”

We were only about 40 miles west of Fort Wayne at the time, so we both agreed, certainly for descent purposes, that Indianapolis would be better. John told him we preferred Indianapolis, and we were immediately cleared direct to Fort Wayne to join the Chang One Arrival to Indianapolis. I typed FWA into the navigation system and turned the airplane to proceed direct while John began looking for Indianapolis approach charts. As I started the turn, I also asked the controller if he could confirm that returning to Omaha was not an option. He said, “You’re right, that is not an option.” I also motioned the lead passenger to come back up to the cockpit and told him that we were just told to land at the nearest airport, and that we would be landing in Indianapolis.

After that, things really began to happen in a hurry. Even though we probably flew for another 30 minutes or so, things seemed to stay very busy and were very compressed. John immediately began to get the Indianapolis weather report, load the arrival and approach to runway 23 left into the navigation system (as the recorded airport arrival information had indicated), compute the landing data, etc. I stayed busy with our step down descent clearances from FL370 to FL330, FL290, FL200, 11,000, back to 16,000, down to 11,000, 7,000, back to 8,000, down to 7,000, 4,000, and—finally—3,000.

In the meantime, the landing runways had been changed to runway 5 left and right, so John reloaded the navigation system and set me up for the instrument landing procedure for runway 5 right. I both hand-flew the airplane and used the autopilot as I followed the numerous airspeed assignments (first 210 knots, then 180 knots, then 160 knots). The radio frequencies also seemed to go from fairly quiet to very crowded in a hurry. As a matter of fact, at one point after the handoff to Indianapolis Approach Control and after several attempts to call them, John looked at me and said, “Well, I’d like to talk to him.”

One major factor that helped our diversion work as well as it did was that the weather in the entire central part of the US was absolutely beautiful. We were taken off the standard arrival routing and were turned to a 230 heading, which took us toward the Indianapolis Airport. It was so clear that we could see the airport from at least 25 miles away.

Another notable factor was the absolute calm, professional manner in which all involved (crews and controllers alike) handled the situation. No one asked anything or said anything other than the appropriate calls and responses involved in such a recovery scenario. Everyone apparently believed, as did we, that whatever was going on was huge, and so all just “stepped up to the plate” and did—very well—what they were trained and asked to do.

We continued following headings and vectors for sequencing to the airport, and eventually received clearance for a visual approach to runway 5 right to “follow the heavy Airbus ahead.” We kept the traffic in sight as we turned about a 15-mile final, continued the non-eventful approach, and then landed on runway 5 right. I made a very smooth landing, which—even at the time—seemed incredibly insignificant in light of the obviously serious situation. Numerous other flights (a total of sixty, according to local media reports) also made unscheduled landings at Indianapolis in the minutes preceding or following our landing.

911 towers

A day that lives in infamy.

We taxied clear of the runway and continued as directed by Ground Control to the corporate aircraft parking area. A ramp employee then directed us to a parking place near the corporate terminal facility. It wasn’t until after I had shut down the engines, completed the immediate checklist items, opened the captain’s side cockpit window, and asked the ramp worker what was going on that I learned—with incredible disbelief—about the horrific attacks upon our nation.

John and I soberly deplaned the passengers and quickly completed the steps necessary to de-power and secure the airplane. I desperately hoped that I would wake up soon so this nightmare could end. It wasn’t a dream, though, as the eerie and surreal silence in the skies and on the runways and taxiways around us soon verified.

This day has changed our nation and probably every person in it. I know it has changed me forever.

How can any of us erase the memory of the terrible video replays of United Airlines Flight 175 hitting the second World Trade Center tower, or the devastating images of both towers’ later collapse?

As a nation, we clearly face new uncertainties in the weeks and months ahead. This unbelievable event should prompt all of us to not only re-evaluate our safety and security, but also to re-evaluate our own lives and priorities. And, even dozens of years from now, long after the debris from the Boeings and the buildings has been laboriously cleared away, we must never forget this day.


FAA History and Actions on 9-11-01


0800. American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with 92 people on board, takes off from Boston Logan Airport for Los Angeles.

0814. United Air Lines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 with 65 people on board, takes off from Boston Logan Airport for Los Angeles.

0821. American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 with 64 people on board, takes off from Washington Dulles Airport for Los Angeles.

0840. FAA notifies the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) Northeast Air Defense Sector about the suspected hijacking of American Flight 11.

0841. United Air Lines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 with 44 people on board, takes off from Newark Airport for San Francisco.

0843. FAA notifies NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector about the suspected hijacking of United Flight 175.

0846. (approx.). American Flight 11 crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

0902. (approx.). United Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

0904. (approx.). The FAA’s Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center stops all departures from airports in its jurisdiction (New England and eastern New York State).

0906. The FAA bans takeoffs of all flights bound to or through the airspace of New York Center from airports in that Center and the three adjacent Centers—Boston, Cleveland, and Washington. This is referred to as a First Tier groundstop and covers the Northeast from North Carolina north and as far west as eastern Michigan.

0908. The FAA bans all takeoffs nationwide for flights going to or through New York Center airspace.

0920. The FAA establishes an open phone line with other government agencies and the military to share information about missing or suspicious aircraft.

0926. The FAA bans takeoffs of all civilian aircraft regardless of destination—a national ground stop.

0940. (approx.). American Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.

0945. In the first unplanned shutdown of US airspace, the FAA orders all aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as practical. At this time, there were more than 4,500 aircraft in the air on Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plans.

1007. (approx.) United Flight 93 crashes in Stony Creek Township, PA.

1039. Reaffirming the earlier order, the FAA issues a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) that halts takeoffs and landings at all airports.

1215. (approx). The airspace over the 48 contiguous states is clear of all commercial and private flights.

Note: All times are Eastern Daylight. For UTC/Zulu/GMT, add four hours.

Jerry Tobias
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