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Our crew had a great layover in Narita, Japan on September 10, 2001. But I was looking forward to getting back home to celebrate my son’s 10th birthday two days later. After a short run in the morning, and lunch at the hotel, we boarded the crew bus in the afternoon and headed to Narita International Airport. The preflight and briefing were normal. The dispatch office reviewed the weather and winds, alternate airport forecasts, and our route of flight over the Pacific ocean for our flight back to Los Angeles. After reviewing our landing currency, the Captain determined that I would be the pilot flying our MD-11 home that night and First Officer, Sean, would be assigned the role of relief pilot. This would work great for me as I would get the highly desired middle break during our 10 hour flight home.


The Captain determined that I would be the pilot flying our MD-11 home that night

After takeoff, we settled into our normal routine getting the oceanic clearance from Tokyo and heading out over the Pacific at 34,000 feet. We were later than normal due to a typhoon that had passed directly over Tokyo. The air was crystal clear since the storm had cleared out the clouds and late summer haze. We had an awesome view of Mt Fuji in the setting sun and we all remarked that the excitement was over as we settled in for a long, uneventful, and relaxing flight home.

After my crew meal and three hour duty shift, I was more than ready for my rest break. My phone chime woke me up from a deep sleep hours later and I headed back to the cockpit to relieve the Captain so he could get some well deserved sleep. As I walked up the darkened aisle toward the flight deck, I noticed several flight attendants huddled together in the mid-galley talking in hushed tones. No big deal I thought to myself as they must be getting ready for the next cabin service.

Arriving at the flight deck door, I performed the normal cockpit entry procedure but received no response. After waiting a moment, I tried again with no luck. Well, that’s odd, I thought to myself, I wonder what’s going on. Finally the door cracked open and the Captain was standing there with our lead flight attendant. In his hand were multiple text messages from flight control and our dispatcher. “Good, it’s you,” he said, “get in here.” Everyone looked very serious and I remember Captain Jim saying, “Okay, this is bad, really bad” —immediately I thought we had an engine failure, electrical problem, hydraulic system fault, or other type of emergency. Then he said, “Terrorists have hijacked several planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center.”

world trade center

The Captain informed me that terrorists have hijacked several planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He showed me the messages from Flight Control and several read, “Beware Cockpit Intrusion” and “Confirm the Flight Deck is secure”. I was stunned and then Jim said we were diverting to Honolulu. “Why not Anchorage?” I responded (it was much closer and right along our great circle route of flight across the North Pacific). Jim said, “We can’t because they’ve closed all US airspace”.  He told me we were initially directed to divert to Portland, then Vancouver, British Columbia after they closed the airspace, but since our airline was not serving Vancouver, we would have no company support when we arrived. Jim and Sean had agreed that Honolulu (HNL) would be the best option for us and our passengers.

Honolulu was not an approved airport for our MD-11 so Jim had to use his emergency authority to go there. The extreme seriousness of this day was becoming very apparent now as I looked over to Sean in the right seat putting our new route to Hawaii into the Flight Management System (FMS) as we turned south. Honolulu was more than three hours away.

During the next few hours, we desperately tried to get more information from Flight Control. That’s when we got word that the twin towers had collapsed and the Pentagon had been hit. Captain Jim had disabled the airshow system that showed our route and arrival information in the cabin. He didn’t want to cause any panic, but he knew that the passengers would begin to be suspicious as the sun was coming up in the east as we headed south.  Then Jim looked both of us in the eye and said, “All our families and friends are watching the news right now and are very worried. They’re probably not getting any information from the airline on our status or where we are. So here’s what we’re going to do, each crewmember is going to come up here to the cockpit one at a time and make one call on the satellite phone to their spouse or a family member to tell them we’re safe and will be landing soon.” I thought that was one of the many great decisions that he made that day.

Soon the air-to-air common frequency we monitored to communicate with other aircraft began to be filled with chatter from other carriers about crews that had decided to barricade their cockpits stationing beverage carts in front of the flight deck door with multiple flight attendants stationed right outside. As we neared the Hawaiian Islands, approach control kept asking all the various heavies converging on Honolulu to divert to Maui, Hilo or Kauai. Some did which overwhelmed those smaller fields. This was a surprising request. How could they expect several 747s, A330s and MD-11s to land and park on the ramp at those smaller airports?

Jim asked what we had to do to proceed to HNL and were told, “Declare yourself an Emergency aircraft,” which is what we did. Also concerning were more messages from Flight Control asking if any of our passengers were suspicious or acting abnormally. We kept wondering if they knew something about our flight they weren’t saying. Little did we know or realize that all other flights from our airline had landed hours earlier in the US or Canada. We were one of the last flights they had airborne due to our long diversion over the North Pacific..

On our initial contact with Honolulu approach, we were told that we would be intercepted by Hawaiian Air National Guard F-15s and be inspected before being allowed to proceed to HNL. They relayed that only pilots in full uniform could be in the cockpit. We scanned the horizon trying to get a visual on the traffic. Soon two F-15s appeared in formation off our left wing. One inspected us up close and the other trailed behind us. They followed us all the way to the airport and were told that if we made a missed approach, to make an immediate right turn or risk being fired upon. I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy movie. It was simply unbelievable. I kept thinking of my last New York layover and what was happening there now. I couldn’t imagine what the situation was actually like there in the city at that moment.


We were told that we would be intercepted by Hawaiian Air National Guard F-15s and be inspected before being allowed to proceed to HNL.

After completing the approach briefing, we were given our descent clearance and I initiated the Vertical Nav profile that was loaded into the FMS. As the thrust levers rolled back, I asked for the descent checklist. I remember Jim saying to me, “Mark, I don’t care how bad your landing is, but whatever happens, don’t go around.”  He was right. Within 30 seconds flying time from our final approach course to runway 8L, was Hickam Air Force Base, battleship row, and Ford Island, not to mention numerous high rise hotels in downtown Honolulu filled with hundreds of people.

We descended through a scattered deck of cumulus around 6,000 feet and had the Honolulu airport in sight prior to passing Barbers Point. The approach and landing were normal outside of a slightly elevated heart rate on short final as I was extremely focused on my airspeed and runway lineup. Once clear of the active runway, we had a short delay for a gate assignment while taxiing past numerous widebody aircraft from Thai Airways, Hawaiian, American, JAL, Cathay Pacific, United and Delta. As we taxied in, Jim chose to make a passenger announcement for the full reason for our diversion. After a few minutes of stunned silence, we heard crying in the cabin.

Once inside the airport, we were surprised to see uniformed National Guardsmen with automatic weapons in the terminal and at the security checkpoints. Outside the terminal, as we waited for our crew van, we saw military humvees and numerous police cars blocking all civilian traffic from approaching the terminal. It seemed like, in a matter of hours, Honolulu had been transformed from a tropical vacation paradise into a wartime fortress. After checking into our layover hotel, I finally got to my room and hesitated turning on the TV for several minutes as I tried to prepare myself for what I knew would be shocking scenes of destruction.

world trade center memorial

As we taxied in, Jim chose to make a passenger announcement for the full reason for our diversion. After a few minutes of stunned silence, we heard crying in the cabin.

Mark Harris
Latest posts by Mark Harris (see all)
21 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Mark, On 9/11 I was working as a contractor with offices on the west side of DC, just outside of the ‘Beltway’ (Tysons Corner). I was in my office when a fellow employee walked in and said an airplane had just hit the WTC. We went to another office that had a TV and watched as an airplane flew into a building. At first, I thought it was a recreation or some video from the first plane, but then heard the TV commentator say, “Another airplane has just hit the second WTC building!” I then went straight to our company’s conference center where we were hosting a meeting with a very senior DoD leader. I walked in and spoke with our boss, who turned on the big screen TV in that conference room and the meeting ended as everyone watched what was happening. A short while later, I was back in my office on the 13th floor when an F-15 flew by slightly above my level. That was shortly after the third airplane flew into the Pentagon, which I could see from another corner office on our floor. The tale of your 9/11 experience was riveting! Thanks for sharing it after all these years. BTW, if you are in the Atlanta region, I invite you to join our Daedalian Flight. We have members from each service and many of them are either former or current Delta pilots. If you are interested, send me an email and let’s talk. FYI, here is a link to the Daedalian website —

  2. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    I was in recurrent ground school when an instructor said an airplane hit the first building. During a break we watched the aftermath from the first plane when all of a sudden the second plane flew into the other tower.

    Days later when we started flying again I was to fly with a pilot I knew well. My wife was nervous about me flying with this individual. I wasn’t at all. He was Iranian. We had a good 3 day trip as a result. Security was all over the place as it seemed every airport had their own procedures. A sobering time.

  3. Chris Mayer
    Chris Mayer says:

    Outstanding article. Superbly written.

    We need to remember that today’s college students and military recruits were not even born when these events happened. For many of us, these are memories, for them, it may be things they never heard before.

  4. Michael
    Michael says:

    On that beautiful weather day we departed Manchester, NH (MHT) in a PC-12 for Gabreski Field/Westhampton, NY (FOK) to pick four pax bound for Southern NJ’s Pine Valley Airport (19N) SE of PHL and within the Philly Bravo. Having dropped them off, and expecting to pick them up later in the day we bid them farewell.

    HPN was the next stop and we asked Philly for advisories and a hand-off headed towards the EWR area. My copilot had never done the trip up the Hudson low level past The Statue, Battery Park, and up over the GW Bridge. It so beautiful out we elected to fly that route with an altitude that ATC gave us in the bottom of the Bravo. Fine with me, better separation from the VFR folks which often included helicopter and sometimes floatplanes.
    All was well as we took in the sights of Manhattan, the Twin Towers, Yankee Stadium, the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the East station of the GW and all their neighbors.

    It is a short flight to destination from the GW Bridge. HPN was landing 34 so we got a left downwind and kept it tight of traffic coming up on the shoreline for the straight-in.

    Arriving at the FBO ramp and deplaning I turned on my cell phone and it was ringing. A NH friend who flew Gulfstrearms asked where I was, I replied White Plains and he said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. My first thought was of the B-25 that had hit the Empire State Building in poor weather in July 1945… But today was severe clear. I foolishly told him we had just gone by the WTC and saw nothing amiss. He said “find a TV.” Well , that didn’t take but a couple of minutes, and we joined other crews, passengers, and FBO staff in the lobby viewing the horror of that moment. We were all still there, transfixed when, 18 minutes later the second aircraft hit the South Tower. I went to the FBO desk and asked the CSR to please find us hotel rooms, I knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere.
    Interestingly it was immediately impossible to get a call out on a cell phone. I would end up going old tech, using a pay phone, and my AT&T card. In the years I had worked there, my wife never called my workplace, she did that day. Our daughter was an American F/A based at ORD. My wife’s two cousins also flew for American. One, a 35 year LAX F/A who often flew LAX – BOS, or LAX – JFK or EWR. The other cousin was a JFK based F/O who often flew a Buenos Aires trip. I called the American Hot Line none were flying that day. The FBO CSR asked me if I could find out if her ex, a United pilot was flying. He was not. We spent three days in hotels at HPN and ended up driving back to MHT. A crew retrieved our plane later.

    The World Changed Forever that day… especially Aviation.

    • sledawgpilot
      sledawgpilot says:

      Interesting. Yes it did. I am interested in hearing these stories, sadly many young people have no clue. General Aviation took a terrible hit. I was able to stay in GA but it was a poor paying job with a lot of work, many GA pilots were not that fortunate.

    • joel turpin
      joel turpin says:

      Michael, I am a retired United Airlines pilot who, like you, flies a Pilatus PC-12NG professionally, but at age 74. On September 11, 2001, I was based at JFK flying the Boeing 757 and 767. My wife was, and still, is a United flight attendant also based at JFK. By the grace of God, we were both on days off when those horrific events occurred. I later checked my log book looked up the N numbers for the planes used and found that I had flown the exact 757 and 767 that were hijacked that day. My wife and I went to several memorials for crewmembers we knew who were killed that day. Those were the worst days of my 29 year career at United.

  5. sledawgpilot
    sledawgpilot says:

    Interesting and well written story Mark, thanks.
    I was a corporate pilot on a Westwind. On 9-10, we flew from our home base in Sheridan WY to Teterboro and that afternoon to DCA (Washington Reagan).
    Weather was awful and we waited well over an hour to get out of New York. I was wiped out and still asleep in the hotel at Crystal City when the other pilot called my room and said to turn on the TV, a plane had hit one of the towers. I figured bad weather still at NYC and then saw what was happening. We talked while the second plane hit and then he heard the Pentagon get hit.
    We reserved our rooms for a week and were glad as at first everyone was stuck in DC. When airlines started flying again a couple days later, everyone wanted out of DC and it became a weird ghost town. Without a car I walked around for miles that week. Occasionally a city block or building would be cordoned off because of some perceived threat.
    When we were able to leave a week after 9-11 from DCA Signature FBO, we were escorted through airline security, then straight back to the plane. We took off downwind, away from the Pentagon with guys with stinger missiles on rooftops pointed at us. It was a relief to be out of there.

    • Daniel Thompson
      Daniel Thompson says:

      Surely that was a terrible day to remember forever…..never forget for future generations! I was a police helo pilot that night….when our late shift, 2 of us, arrived at the police hangar, we were given details on our new protocols and procedures for flying. Firstly only emergency calls only or felony chases. Secondly, if requested by dispatcher, immediately call Houston Center for departure clearance…..200 miles from KSSF. Give them aircraft info……name, addresses, dob’s, ssn’s!!! (for taxes?), N number, make/model, discrete squawk code, and one thing we couldn’t comply with, route and destination! It was a car chase! Who knows where we would end up! We departed with a reluctant approval, called up KSAT departure, verified clearance and controller told us we were only aircraft airborne, except for one EMS bird was up about 180 miles out…, it was sobering to assimilate! Well, we acquired the chase, using thermal, and I was TFO and I noticed a white intermittent strobe pattern wayyyy up there and coming down fast! Then another about a mile behind in trail…..uh-oh, I told my new pilot we were about to be ID’D visually!…..yep, 2 Vipers blew by about 1/8th mile sep, staggered and offset, we could easily hear them, barely saw them in the dark…..kept in the car chase, but we watched them both go vertical and resumed their CAP…..controller never said a word! We operated like this for a few days….no traffic at night, then scheduled carriers and IFR departures. Kinda like a Presidential TFR.

  6. Randy Arment
    Randy Arment says:

    I too remember the day well as I and my crew were conducting a low-level aerial wildlife radio-telemetry survey for the recently reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I had just taken off from Bozeman International Airport and was out of radio contact in the mountains northwest of the Park working the Telonics radio box frequencies, and the wing-strut mounted “H” and “Yagi” antenna switches in search of spot-checking collared wolves just prior to any news about 9/11 being received by local ATC. Rising out of the mountains a few hours later I noticed, except for myself, the Bozeman Tower frequency to be unusually quiet and no one else in the Airport Traffic Pattern. Upon being cleared to land and taxiing to the non-movement area to tie down, I was met by an entourage of airport officials conveying what had happened several hours ago involving the Twin Towers.

  7. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    Stories of what happened to fellow crew members that day never get old. I had Jason Dahl give me my captain ride in the 300 in 1995 and three more pc’s or enroute checks in the ensuing years. My last pc with him was on 8/30. As bad as the news of the day was, it became worse once I learned he was captain on flight 93. The flying profession took on a very different flavor afterwards. Thanks for the article.

    JOHN H ROUSCH says:

    I was not flying that day but teaching a high school drafting/engineering class in Florida. We had the news on the classroom TV and I said to my students, many how were also enrolled in my aviation class, “The world as you know it has changed”.
    We were all stunned and you could sense the uncertainty and fear in the students. I have heard it said that teenagers are indifferent to our world. That has not been my experience and my kids felt it like everyone else. Everyone was dismissed early that day.

    My wife was scheduled out of Hartford later that morning. It was sometime before she was on a flight back home.

    Thanks for the great article Mark.

  9. Dan Fregin
    Dan Fregin says:

    I was in the shower for an 8am PST takeoff from Chico CA (Corp. C-90B) when my wife told me a plane hit the WTC. I thought light plane scud running. Then the next one hit and I watched TV until going to the hangar at 7:55 to tell the pax. Just after IFR was allowed 4 days later I flew 8+hours. Tom Aylward, early-retired American pilot replaced me in 2013 when I retired. He was on his off week for 9/11 but had flown one of the planes. Our CEO had been on one of the 40th floors a month prior.

  10. Warren A Collmer
    Warren A Collmer says:

    My sim partner and I were new hires at NetJets International, on our way to the FlightSafety training center in Savannah Georgia where we underwent Gulfstream IV initial training. We were listening to the morning drive commute on the car radio when a vague announcement about a plane crashing into a building in New York. We assumed that it must have been some light aircraft scud running or something. When we arrived at the center we encountered a lot of commotion as people gathered around the TVs scattered throughout the center. About ten minutes after we arrived, the second airplane hit the tower. Everyone was stunned to say the least. FlightSafety announced that it was closing the center for the rest of the day and our company directed us to head back to our hotels and to standby for further directives. The flight line at the SAV Gulfstream maintenance facility was secured and a few of the Middle East registered Gulfstreams that were on the ramp had their registration numbers and logos covered up. Only one Gulfstream departed SAV later that day and we learned that it belonged to the FBI.

  11. Gary Hagan
    Gary Hagan says:

    I was walking up to my first E-3 Sentry of the day as a support troop at the Depot at Tinker AFB. Someone hollered out that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers..I immediately thought of the B-25 hitting the Empire State during WWII. After a few minutes, someone brought a radio onboard and the facts were shared. Immediately the bosses brought all of day crew into a mass meeting and shared what they knew. The civilian crew that I was a part of was told to prepare all aircraft that could be flown for departure. All gates into the base were locked and civilian security took over and the military members were processed out for parts unknown. E-3s cleared the ramp and flew off. Canadian crews backfilled the Reserve aircraft to take the place of the activiated aircrews who had departed. Life had changed massively in 1 24 hour period. We, civilian crews, got to work on a war time schedule. No joking about having to work extended hours. Everyone pitched in and did their part and more.


    I thought this was going to be boring but the further I got into it the better it became. The author’s description of the wide security systems that envelops us is the best description I remember reading. It appears to work surprisingly well.

    The shot of the F-15 in all it’s correct regalia is gorgeous.


    I thought this was going to be boring but the further I got into it the better it became. The author’s description of the wide security systems that envelop us is the best description I remember reading. They appear to work surprisingly well.

    The shot of the F-15 in all it’s correct regalia is gorgeous.

  14. Bob Mittelstaedt
    Bob Mittelstaedt says:

    Great story with a lot of tension, empathy and important decisions to be made. On 9/10/21, with a colleague, I flew my T-210 from the Philly area to Hartford for a business meeting. There was rain and low clouds that day and we were IFR both ways. Piston GA aircraft transiting NY airspace were kept low. There is brief over water risk but if you want higher you get a much longer route.

    On the return flight around noon, probably at 4,000 ft, a brief hole in the clouds suddenly appeared below and to our right. and I pointed out the Twin Towers to my colleague in the right seat just before the clouds closed up again.

    On 9/11 I was at work at the Wharton School in Philadelphia where I was Vice Dean, Executive Education. We had about 100 corporate executives from all over the world in our Conference Center in three different courses. When the news hit it was put up on big screens in the classrooms and executives grabbed their phones or went to look for a landline.

    Those who were there for a one-week course started looking for train or rental car reservations. Those who were there in the longer course with more non-US participants started asking if they should make plans to leave immediately, perhaps going to Canada to proceed home, since no one knew how long the no-fly restrictions would last. As we got more news things settled down. But we saw, as did others around the world, the instantaneous concern, chaos, empathy and fear that the event generated and the importance of correct information for the public.

    On a personal level my wife and I worried about our youngest child, a daughter who worked in mid-town Manhattan. She walked home that day all the way to Brooklyn.

    And my wife and I will never forget 9/11 because I had business appointments scheduled in both towers on Thursday 9/13.

  15. AJ
    AJ says:

    As a Corp Captain I was halfway from FL – VA and when the airspace was closed KCHS was closest. I was able to reserve a Town-Car for the Pax to drive back to FL.

    As soon as airspace was opened I flew to AGC for a Pax who wouldn’t get in an airliner and home to FL.

    Our other Corp aircraft was a ‘bush’ plane that we flew between agricultural fields in FL. Since only Instrument Flight Plans were allowed and had to be closed after landing, I received my first Cell Phone so I could call FSS from agricultural fields landed at.


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