Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11

Ten years. Seems like forever.

There are literally billions of stories out there about "where were you?"; we each have one. And these stories are important to us, but rarely interesting to others, yet we all feel compelled to share them with others. Here's mine.

I recently watched a NatGeo story about George W. Bush's story and found it compelling; I simply can't imagine having been in his position of responsibility on that day. But he said something that struck me interesting: paraphrased, he said that 'some day 9/11 will be a date on the calendar, like Pearl Harbor, but for us today that lived though it there's our memories of that day'.

On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I was in Albany NY on business as an IT consultant. I was working with a state government agency in downtown Albany, having flown myself there in my Grumman Tiger the prior day. I was supposed to be there all week but for whatever reason - I don't recall the details - there was a problem with the contract when I arrived on Monday; either the statement of work was wrong, or the expectations from my company and/or the customer didn't agree. We had discussions that morning to arrive at an agreement, but by early afternoon I was asked to go home so they could work out the contractual details and I would come back at a later date.

I recall Monday's weather was "going down" that afternoon as a big cold front worked its way across the area eastbound; even though it was only a 1-hour flight, had I flown home that day I would have been fighting some significant weather. I figured that if I stayed overnight the approaching cold front would push through later that night the weather the next day would be gorgeous. Since I'd already had a hotel reserved for the week (the Albany airport Marriott) I decided to stay the night and make an easy 1-hour flight home on Tuesday morning.

As you know, Tuesday September 11th turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day. The weather was one of those crystal-clear, blue-sky, dry New England Fall days. From my second-floor hotel room overlooking the airport it appeared you could see forever. It was going to be an easy, enjoyable flight, and I was really looking forward to it; I'd even planned to take "the scenic route" home through the New York City VFR corridor, then along the south side of Long Island and back north to Connecticut.

As I finished my morning shower and began to collect my belongings to check out of the hotel I had the TV news on; a breaking report came in about a light airplane flying into the World Trade Center, which of course caught my attention. The first thing that came to mind was that an airplane flying along that New York VFR corridor had veered off-course (you're supposed to stay within the banks for the Hudson River). I was shocked; after all, the weather was absolutely crystal clear and you have to fly way way off course to hit that building; maybe a pilot had a heart attack? It's not like it was hard to see those buildings or anything. But then I looked at the video feed on TV and saw the huge scar with the smoke pouring out of it and immediately realized that there was just no way that a light airplane could do that kind of damage; I mean, at worst a light airplane would break a few windows and leave an aluminum-colored splotch. So I knew that was something much bigger, but I did not in any way assume foul play. Did a commercial airliner flying into LaGuardia airport have some kind of mechanical failure...?

Soon after, as I watched, the second airplane struck the other tower - I was engrossed with the TV coverage and saw it happen in real-time - and it was obvious this was intentional. Intentional? Someone intentionally flew two airliners into skyscrapers??? Are you freakin' kidding me??? I knew we were under attack by someone...for some reason. Were there more...?

I wasn't quite sure what to do but I figured the airport would be shut down for at least the day (I had no idea of the scope); I mean, I didn't have any commitments for the day so at worst I'd pay for a hotel room so I could watch the TV and see what was going on. I called down to the hotel lobby and re-extended my room reservations for a couple days then, like so many other people in this country, I sat down in front of the TV and began to digest the information being presented to us, trying to understand what and why.

I watched the events unfold, stunned as to what was happening. I remember feeling a sense of fear and helplessness, that there was a sequence of events already set in place that we could not change. As I scanned the airport and skies outside my hotel window I felt these fight-or-flight instincts -- after all, where was the next one going to hit? -- and yet all we could do was watch...and wait. I wondered where it would lead to, and how we could stop it, knowing we couldn't. And yet events continued to happen, from the Pentagon attack, to the collapse of the twin towers, to the (unfathomable) complete shutting down of the country's airspace (the FAA did an awesome job with that), to (false) reports of bombs going off in DC, to reports of an airliner crash in Pennsylvania (did the terrorists screw up? Did our fighters shoot down another attack...?)

What in the hell was going on here?

My wife, Thea, was at work that morning and I tried to call her (after all, she knew I was supposed to be in a New York State government building in New York's state capitol). Neither regular telephone nor cellphone service was working dependably (systems were overloaded) and all I had was the hotel's Internet connection. My first email to her, at 10:42 AM right after I had fully digested that both towers had fallen (which meant that, in my mind, tens of thousands had just died) was with a simple subject of "Me":

I'm obviously staying out. FAA has canceled all flights in the country.


I don't know if you're watching TV, but you should be. History is in the making, and there are continuing developments. I would encourage you to go home.


This is a well-planned attack perfectly matched for the TV news.

  • Both World Trade Center towers have collapsed to the ground. The loss of life will show to be absolutely incredible.
  • There's been one maybe two planes attacking the Pentagon. It's on fire and a large part has collapsed.
  • There's been a car bomb attack on the State Dept. Damage unknown.
  • There's a fire on the Washington Mall. Reasons and damage unknown.

This attack will show to have far exceeded the damage and loss of life of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Its effect on aviation freedom may be nearly fatal.


We're at war. With whom and what we're going to do about it is the big question.
I also sent an email to my immediate co-workers, as I saw a few were trying to contact me and getting voice mail. I replied to them:

I am safe in a Marriott in Albany, riveted to the TV. Please pass the word on to those concerned.


Given that FAA has stopped all airport departures, and that military jets are taking command of the skies, I'm going to stay put until we get this settled. Obviously, telephone and cellphone circuits are all crammed up, and my service is spotty at best. The high-speed internet access is working great, and I'm checking email consistently.


I'm at the Albany Marriott, room 663. Call me on the landline if required, but only if absolutely necessary. Please keep the phone calls to a minimum, and use email when possible as an alternative. I'd like you to do this for two reasons: one, let's not tie up the communications infrastructure across the country, as there folks out there that really need it especially here in the northeast; two, when you call and leave a voice message, I cannot call into my cellphone system to retrieve it.
It was not too long after this, after watching a couple hours of this coverage and after all the immediate events had happened, that I just started to get really pissed off. Thea sent a reply:

Thanks. Please use this e-mail for now. I got an e-mail from Bob [a friend that works for the FAA] at 8 a.m., minutes before all this shit happened. I forwarded him this message though I bet he's in a tizzy.


People at QU are in shock, trying to find out if friends or family work in the the WTC. They have a counseling center set up in the student center. We have TVs in the PR room here, and I can't stand to watch it. I can barely do my work.


Write back if you can.

I'm sure there will no longer be free access to the Hudson corridor route.
...and those frustrations were beginning to show in my reply to her:

Just relax, it's got us all rattled. This is not the first time this country has been through something like this, and it won't be the last. Humans are resilient, and we will overcome as we always do.


This is a perfect example of how trying to "feel safe" or "good" about something is irrelevant. At least four terrorists got past our airport "security" checks that I always complain about. I've always said these checkpoints did more to make people "feel good" than to be effective. These checkpoints gave us a false sense of security. This false sense made us complacent and resulted in the ability of these terrorists to attack us.


Never before has there been an act of aviation terrorism in this country, certainly not to this degree. Sadly, the American people will not see these failures for what they are, and will attempt to further restrict our freedoms in the Quixotic pursuit of safety. Risk is the price of freedom, and we will continue to give up our freedoms trying to pursue a risk-free society. We can't win that game.


These cowards that have attacked our country are dead, and their organization will most assuredly be rounded up and punished. However they will win: they will have made this country turn on itself and close its doors to freedoms and liberties in that pointless pursuit.


Remember my Benjamin Franklin quote when we got stopped at the DUI checkpoint? "Those that give up their liberty in the pursuit of safety deserve neither liberty nor safety?" You will find this to be very much the case at least in the short term.


Sorry for the rant, but I'm really pissed off.
By that time the events had evened out and nothing else traumatic was happening, and it became obvious that we were now in rescue/recovery mode of potentially thousands of  people. This allowed me to become even more frustrated -- and even more mad.

I began to walk. I left the hotel room and just walked a random direction. I probably walked about  mile, then turned around, walked past the hotel for another mile, then walked back again. I tried to think through what we'd just seen, why something like that would happen, how it could happen. I imagined the terror of the people in back of the airplanes, seeing skyscrapers flying by at window level, wondering if they really understood what was happening, hoping to God they didn't. Mercifully, they could not see out of the front of the airplane so they had no idea when it - whatever "it" was - would happen, just...end of data.

Then I thought about all the people in those buildings, people that saw the airplane coming and not understanding what was happening, and those that just felt the blows and didn't know what was going on. I thought about those later on who were in so much pain and fear that they chose the certain death of leaping from the building versus the nearly-impossible - but not zero - chance of life after fire. How much pain must one be going through to make that choice?

And did anyone actually think the buildings were going to fall? I didn't. I know I would have been one of those guys above the impact level that would have gone up and sat there on the roof waiting for aerial rescue. And I would have died. And what of the rescuers? I can't imagine any of them truly believing deep in their hearts that the structure of the buildings was at risk, but displayed a courage beyond comprehension simply to voluntarily climb that building to lead perfect strangers to safety. And their reward was death.

All of this was beyond my comprehension as I walked. I remain stunned to this day that human beings can be capable of knowingly creating such pain and suffering.

Back at the hotel I stood at the window and thought some more. My window overlooked the approach of the north-south runway of the Albany airport and the airport was eerily silent; whereas the prior evening I had sat there with a beer and my feet up on the window ledge watching commercial traffic flowing in and out, that day the quiet was only disturbed by a rare flight-of-two fighters (A-10 Warthogs and F-16 Falcons, IIRC), probably there to get a fillup. The remainder of the day was spent riveted to the TV and exchanging emails with family, friends, co-workers. Thea was worried trying to get in touch with one of her cousins who was a United Airlines flight attendant (she wasn't on duty). I tried to volunteer my services/airplane for use (no one responded, there just wasn't anything I could do).

All of us felt the need to do something, yet all were frustrated that we couldn't. So we spent the rest of the day watching the TV waiting for good news, getting none, and eventually falling asleep to the tube, while a large part of New York City (and Washington DC) dug through the rubble, looking for survivors...

The world was completely changed when we woke up that following morning, Wednesday the 12th. The country was still in stasis, with probably all of us still watching TV, hoping for even the tiniest of good news. The FAA gave no indication that they were going to open up the airspace any time soon; a group of my co-workers were stuck in the Atlanta airport trying to get home to the northeast. I knew I needed to get home as well so I checked out of the hotel and went to the Albany airport; my plan was to simply sit in the airport (in front of the TV) and wait for the airspace to open up again. As I wrote to my manager:

My goal [today] is to try and get home. The FAA is not releasing information as to when they'll allow civilian traffic, and they are sticking to their "noon at the earliest" mantra. So, I'm going to check out from the Marriott this morning and go to the FBO [Fixed Base Operator] and wait.


If they allow air traffic this afternoon, I will fly home and be available at the home office. If, however, it appears there will be another day's delay, I plan to call Hertz and rent a one-way car to drive home. If, at worst, the skies neither open up nor are there car rentals available, then I will try to get back into the Marriott for another day. I should be available by cellphone all day, except when I'm in the air.


I understand you're still in Atlanta? I don't know what to recommend, short of renting a car and driving home. The ride from there to the northeast is a real nice relaxing drive, but you may have to drive all the way up to Newburgh or even the Mass Pike to get around New York if the Tappan Zee is closed (I don't know if it is.)


Regardless, our inconvenience is far overshadowed by the events unfolding.

By noon the airspace had still not opened up so rented a car and drove back to CT. I dropped off the rental car at the Bridgeport CT airport (where my airplane was based, and where my personal car was parked) and drove home. As did you, I spent the next few days trying to get back to "normal" as best I could. We tried to go about our daily business while we watched the news for more information, all trying to make sense of what happened. We all slowly went back to the real world, and I worked on preparing for my next work engagements.

The FAA opened up the airspace system to civilian traffic on Thursday, but with significant restrictions. All air traffic had to fly under IFR ("Instrument Flight Rules"), with a flight plan, with transponder squawk, and maintain constant contact with ATC (you'd no doubt get a visit from an F-16 if you had radio troubles). There were temporary "no fly zones" around New York and DC (the latter, later to be made permanent) and of course the VFR corridor through New York, which went right by "Ground Zero" was closed. No VFR ("Visual Flight Rules") traffic was allowed. I waited until the weekend for things to settle in, and on Sunday the 16th a friend and I took a quick IFR flight to the Albany airport to retrieve my airplane. Here's what I wrote when I got home:

A quick note about Dave Feinstein's and my flight today. Dave gave me a ride in his two-seater to Albany to pick up my Tiger, stranded there Tuesday as the result of a poorly-timed business trip.


It was certainly an absolutely gorgeous day to fly, as Dave put it "a shame to be flying IFR on a day like this." We departed eastbound out of BDR then were vectored northbound to join the Victor airway. I think we both did it at the same time, turned and looked westbound. It was a beautiful clear day, one of those ones where you can see the City immediately after clearing the tree line, with the skyline being only 40 miles away. There was a slight haze in the sky, but we could easily catch it.


I didn't say anything at first, as I was initially puzzled. Despite the fact that you'd have to be living under a rock to not know what happened this week, New York City looked odd. Before Tuesday I could have picked out that skyline from a 40-mile lineup any time; this time I wasn't sure what I was looking at. I glanced a bit to the left and the right looking for the usual landmarks, finally realizing that this was it, this was New York City. Dave said it first: you really notice the absence of the twin towers.


There was no visible smoke, no fire. There was nothing from 40 miles away to give up the horror this country experienced or the anger we all must feel every time we think about it. There was only...a city. "What city was it" required local knowledge of geography and a compass rather than a quick glance. The most prominent and easily recognizable remaining landmark in the skyline from 40 miles away is, fittingly, the Empire State Building, re-crowned with the jewel status it once held, back in a time before I was probably in kindergarten.


As for the IFR flight, it was a non-event, no trouble getting clearance, and no noticeable tracking by our Boys in Blue. Had you emerged from that proverbial rock today and filed IFR you would have noticed nothing untoward, other than your airport being eerily quiet. The radio chatter and traffic level was not unlike a typical IMC ["Instrument Meterological Conditions", i.e., cloudy/rainy weather] day, and to me appeared to be very much like an IFR flight with a blue up/green down windscreen instead of all white. Of course, getting cleared to land straight-in to Albany from 10 miles out was kinda weird, but whatever...


I'll not allow the current environment to keep me from using the Tiger as I need to, as it seems to be working fine for the IFR-capable crowd. However, I will certainly prioritize my trips (no more $100 hamburgers and an hour of pattern work for a short while.)


Keep in touch, and pay your AOPA dues...
It was more than a week before light airplanes were again allowed to fly VFR. Yet even the Hudson River VFR corridor re-opened once all the major rescue work was complete (much to my amazement).

And that was my week. Life, as expected, went on, the remainder of us wondering what, how, why. Thea and I even flew ourselves later in the month to Ohio and Indianapolis to visit friends and for the United States Formula One race (which was threatened to be cancelled, but wasn't). The US airspace - and the VFR corridor - was eventually re-opened back to normal (though there's a big chunk of "do not fly" airspace over DC.)

Coda: I happened to be in NYC on another consulting engagement that following March when they switch on the "Tribute in Light". I wasn't aware of it in advance, but coincidentally had ventured over to Ground Zero to be nosy. I found and browsed the area by a Roman Catholic church where the cards, letter, flowers, and "Missing' posters were, and the whole thing really unnerved me. We all have our different ways to grieve; mine is to "never forget" but try. We'll see. History tells us what our country - and the rest of the world - did in the intervening decade to "address" the events of that day.

Ten years later we still wonder, but as has been said, "Time heals all wounds". I think "heal" is an inappropriate word in this case, but as President Bush said, some day it'll just be a date on the calendar.

And I think that's a good thing.

GA