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Remembering 9-11-01: Airlift pilot takes a look back at Sept. 11 mission

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Donahue
  • 628th Air Base Wing Plans
Ten years ago, I was halfway through my Air Force career, and now, as I approach the end and the anniversary of Sept. 11, the day that would come to dominate the events of most of our lives and my career since, I wanted to share my "there I was story" for that fateful day.

On Sept. 10, 2001, my crew and I left then-McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., on a routine presidential support mission (flying a C-141 Starlifter). Although presidential support ranks as one of the Air Force's highest priority missions, this one was supposed to be pretty cut-and-dry: a quick flight down to Jacksonville, Fla., where President Bush was meeting with educators and school children. Once there, we would pick up a number of Secret Service agents, their gear, and the presidential limousine and return them to Andrews AFB, Md. A minor malfunction of our weather radar system was the only snag and it resulted in our staying overnight in Jacksonville, since the next day's weather forecast looked promising for flying in clear weather back home.

At 9 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, I called the (Air Mobility Command's 618th) Tanker Airlift Control Center (at Scott AFB, Ill.) in anticipation of our afternoon departure. TACC is the central nervous system that coordinates all United States military airlift and tanker missions worldwide. Before we could leave for Andrews, we had to have clearance from TACC.

TACC is always buzzing at a fever pitch, but the background that day sounded so chaotic it was distracting. I asked the staff sergeant controller what was going on. The controller told me a twin-engine plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City and the news services were just picking it up. I flipped on the television and was bombarded with live coverage of major damage to the first tower. I commented to the controller, "That's a lot bigger than a little twin engine plane," referring to the sightseeing planes that typically fly the Hudson River tour. A few minutes later the second plane hit and I had to pull the phone away from my ear as all hell erupted at TACC. The U.S. was under attack!

I told the controller that I knew he had other immediate things to do and that we'd call back after TACC had time to sort out priority missions. As I was hanging up, my copilot, 1st Lt. Mike Englehardt, was at my door to see if I had heard the news. The rest of the crew was awake and glued to the television so we convened in my hotel room for a quick briefing to discuss the aircraft, its maintenance problems and what we thought would be our impending launch back to Andrews. I made sure the crew had all contacted their families.

Englehardt remembered that his father-in-law was on a business trip to New York City and had mentioned staying an extra day to have breakfast at the Towers' "Windows on the World" restaurant that morning. After several anxious calls, Englehardt contacted his father-in-law at home. Unable to change his flight reservation, he had headed home a day early. The relief would become even more profound an hour later when the first tower fell.

But there was little time for relief. The lead Secret Service special agent was calling and asking how soon we could be airborne. The problem was that neither TACC nor the White House Mobility Office, which coordinates with the Secret Service for airlift, knew where the president was going next. After all, we were still within 30 minutes of the towers being hit and both TACC and the White House were scrambling. Air traffic had not been completely grounded, nor was the president aboard Air Force One. There was a palpable sense of urgency in all our discussions.

Our crew chief, Staff Sgt. Kyle Dolch, brought up our maintenance concerns and I directed him to head to the airport and do what he could to completely fix our aircraft. There was another C-141 on the ramp that day at Jacksonville and I contacted the aircraft commander to ask permission to swap a critical part for our aircraft since swapping our cargo to his plane would take much longer.

I also directed Dolch to contact the communications unit at the Jacksonville Air National Guard to load our IFF, a device that carries classified identification codes for military aircraft. I wanted to be ready to leave the country if that was where the President wanted to go. We had no idea that all aircraft were about to be directed to land at the nearest airfield. What we did know was that our country was at war with someone. No one knew with whom but we were definitely at war.

At some point in the morning, after the initial declaration from the FAA to halt air service in the northeast, all aircraft were grounded or directed to land immediately. We called TACC to determine if this direction included military aircraft. It was not clear if it did or not, especially concerning presidential support missions like ours. They told us that WHMO was trying to decide where to send us but at this point they still did not know and likely would not know for an hour or more.

We took the opportunity to eat lunch because this was going to be a long day. At the restaurant across from the hotel, we discussed where we might go and how long we could be gone. We considered how we would get airborne since all flights were grounded. At that point the waitress asked if we knew anything and we saw there were several patrons in the restaurant watching the television and watching us. We discussed keeping a lower profile in public since we were obviously military. The restaurant staff wished us luck for the future because they too knew this attack was going to result in our being sent somewhere in harm's way to defend our country.

When we returned to our hotel room, the special agent in charge told me that he was getting word that we would be moving somewhere very soon but he did not know where. We could sense a crescendo building in expectations as phone calls were made. The problem of getting airborne with all aircraft grounded was our primary concern. Englehardt and I began calling any agency we could think of, starting with TACC, to work on clearance for take off. TACC recommended we contact the control tower or the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center which controlled all traffic over this region.

We called both and they referred us to the FAA's National Command Center in Herndon, Va. We thought that the implementation of Secure Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids would result in the military taking charge of air traffic but because this was the first and only time this action had ever been taken, the FAA was maintaining control, so we needed their permission. They told us if we got permission from TACC, then taking off would be all right with the FAA. We had our answer as to how to get airborne.

Simultaneously, both phone lines in my room rang. The hotel manager had two taxis waiting for our crew to take us to the jet immediately. The secret service told him that we needed to move now and he took it upon himself to get us transportation, calling our crewmember's rooms to assist their leaving the hotel and getting to the jet. At the very same time the TACC controller I had been working with called and told me our mission would be assigned momentarily. He asked if we had determined the status of our permission to takeoff. I told him what the FAA command center had told me. There was silence for a few seconds, and then he came back to the phone after speaking to the colonel in charge of TACC operations. "Sir, the TACC Senior gives you full authority to get airborne any way you can as soon as possible."

I asked him our destination and he said, "We don't know, we just know your aircraft needs to get in the air with your passengers, ASAP!" I told him we'd call him from the jet. Englehardt and I made it to the jet in minutes.

Our team was coming together like a well-rehearsed operation, including people I had never met. First, the hotel manager and now personnel from Jacksonville Airfield Management had been notified by our crew chief that our crew was on the way and needed fast access to our jet. They met us near the entrance we had used the previous day and escorted us directly to an open gate immediately next to where our aircraft was parked.

Dolch had the aircraft fixed, planning for any possible malfunction by "'borrowing" several more parts from the other C-141. The Supervisor of Flying from the 125th Fighter Wing, Air National Guard, met us to determine exactly what we needed. I told him I needed everything for the IFF, not training codes, and that I didn't know where I was going yet, but my direction was to get airborne ASAP.

Senior Airmen Steven Wilson and Catina "Cat" Grimsley, our loadmasters, loaded the president's vehicle and our passengers who disappeared momentarily to dress into their gear making them look like SWAT on steroids. Meanwhile, Englehardt and our flight engineers, Master Sgt. Henry "Hank" Weaver and Staff Sgt. Anthony "Tony" Laylon completed all the checklists for us to crank engines. Airfield management personnel took me to the fixed base operator, the contracted agency that supports fuel and flight planning, but since we did not have a destination assigned yet, I had no luck filing a flight plan and headed back out to the aircraft. We immediately started engines and a master sergeant from the Florida Air National Guard arrived and loaded our IFF codes just before we taxied.

We called the tower and explained we had not filed a flight plan but needed to get airborne ASAP. The air traffic controller mentioned that he knew we were a military airplane and so he simply asked, "Where do you want to go?" We told him we did not have a destination yet. He said, "Well, I need to put something in the system that shows your initial direction and altitude."

Englehardt and I looked at each other with the same look -- we had no idea.

"Well," I said to Mike, "we're in Florida; most of the U.S. is north of us." Englehardt told the tower, "Reach 41 requests north!"

The controller said, "OK ... north. What altitude?"

An altitude is something you file after a detailed study of the route of the fight. The FAA prescribes rules to determine the safe altitude for a given direction. There are complicated departure routing instructions, especially at a major airport like this into the congested airspace on this major eastern corridor, intermediate level-offs, etc. But today, there was no one in the sky!

"Tell him flight level 350," I said.

The controller replied, "Okay, you're cleared north at 3-5-0, good luck, you are cleared for takeoff." We hadn't even reached the runway yet.

Within 45 minutes of receiving the call from TACC at the hotel, we had our passengers and cargo loaded, all four engines started and were taxing to the runway. After take-off, we called TACC and they finally revealed our destination: Offutt AFB, Neb. We wondered if our plane and Air Force One were the only two aircraft in the sky over the U.S. There was no chatter on the radios and it was eerily quiet.

Somewhere over Georgia we turned west toward Nebraska. The weather across the entire U.S. was 'clear and a million' except for a few clouds over Seattle. It was a spectacularly beautiful day.

We presumed the enemy would be looking for Air Force One and any other military planes that might be transporting the vice president or members of Congress during this unprecedented catastrophe. We prepared the aircraft for potential hostilities. In a surreal move, we ran our combat entry checklist over the United States of America.

It was time to start our descent. The day prior, we had planned only enough fuel for our return trip from Jacksonville to Andrews, so we now had just barely enough fuel to make Offutt AFB. Just as we reduced power to descend, the Offutt command post redirected us to Andrews AFB. We began heading that direction but told the command post we needed either a fuel stop or an air refueling tanker to meet us along the way as soon as possible. I was told to climb to 41,000 feet and to slow to our best airspeed to conserve as much gas as we could. We weren't going to make Andrews but we were going to get our passengers as close as we could.

We discussed our options with the crew and the special agents on board. There were a number of concerns: Where would the agents prefer to land and once on the ground, could they secure transportation from wherever we landed since fuel might not be available at all the airports due to the enormous number of grounded planes.

The agents wanted to get as close to D.C. as possible. Another aircraft, checked in on the same frequency we were using. We advised them that we could hear them loud and clear. I asked what type of aircraft they were, to which they replied, "a KC-135," the backbone of our aerial refueling aircraft! I asked, "Do you have any gas?" explaining that TACC sent us to this frequency to arrange air refueling for our presidential support mission, and further, that without refueling we would be unable to complete our mission. They responded that he could help and was orbiting over Chicago.

Distracted by our quest for fuel over the radio, we momentarily lost track of our exact position between Offutt and Andrews AFB. So we dialed up the navigational station for O'Hare International Airport in an effort to see the refueling aircraft's general direction. It pointed directly left. Looking out the window, we saw we were almost overhead Chicago and Lake Michigan, significantly closer to the KC-135 than we thought. We arranged to join up with them over Chicago, making our way to his altitude of 16,000 feet directly below us. This is what is referred to as random AR, refueling not conducted on one of the prescribed routings throughout the U.S. Before now, in my career, I had never heard of it actually being done and this was going to be my first air refueling in command of an aircraft not on a training mission. It took a few minutes to settle down from the rapid descent and the nervousness of the day's events but we got our gas and continued to Andrews. The refueling crew saved the day for us.

On our approach to Andrews, our flight path took us just southwest of the Pentagon still partially obscured by the smoke rising from the attack. This image of our country being attacked was further reinforced as an F-16 joined up on our left wing between us and the Pentagon, as if to protect it from further attack. He was, of course. He was validating that we were the C-141 to whom the air traffic controllers were talking. As we looked north to the horizon, we could see New York City with a smoke column still rising from her wounded, famous skyline and spreading out in the atmosphere like the giant anvil of a thundercloud, ready to strike.

We landed at Andrews and offloaded the special agents and their cargo just after 5 p.m. The airport was packed like all the others. Because so many aircraft, including commercial passenger aircraft, were already on the ramp, the closest hotel with a vacancy was more than an hour away. We were lodged, coincidently, with another C-141 crew from our home squadron with whom we excitedly compared notes from the day's events.

Throughout the day, the members of my crew and the countless people who helped us along the way performed with the dedicated professionalism we expect of our well trained military. It was a long tough day for a lot of people, but not nearly as much so, as for those in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon or the four hijacked aircraft and their families. Our hearts will forever go out to those souls. God bless the USA!