Waypoints

Mission accomplished

September 1, 2011

Tom HainesAs New York City’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge slides under my Bonanza’s wing and I see the Statute of Liberty, the Hudson and East river corridors, and all of Manhattan laid out before me, I feel a sense of accomplishment, completing a mission planned a decade earlier.

With friend Rick Thompson in the right seat, we motor north up the east side of the Hudson, mindful of the helicopter traffic and making the mandatory radio calls at reporting points along the way. The city gleams in the bright white light of this beautiful summer Saturday in July 2011. One World Trade Center, the new building that will replace one of the original WTC buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks reaches above the surrounding skyline toward its designed height of 1,776 feet—a building so symbolic that even its elevation in feet means something.

I relish the moment as we trek up and then down the Hudson, glad that this once-threatened corridor is open for traffic, something that seemed almost unthinkable nearly a decade ago (see “GA Remembers 9/11: Adjusting to a Changing World”).

A different river, a different world

Flash back to another summer day. Ancient trees overhanging Maryland’s Monocacy River form a sun-dappled tunnel as we paddle along in Rick’s canoe on this pristine Sunday morning. At times, this tributary of the Potomac River becomes so shallow that we have to portage briefly. I imagine what it must have been like for Native Americans as they plied the area centuries ago.

We had long talked about this canoe trip and finally, on September 9, 2001, the planets aligned and we made the time to do it. As often happens when we’re together, the talk turns to airplanes. Rick is not a pilot, but is a longtime student of aviation and frequently talks of buying—or more likely, building—an airplane. He’s built a couple of boats and restored an MG; I have no doubt he can build an airplane.

We talk of places to fly and I describe for him a recent flight I had made down the Hudson River corridor with its breathtaking views of the city. We agree that it’s an addition to our bucket list, which includes a host of activities, such as this canoe trip, that will take years to complete. But as we glide quietly past Frederick Municipal Airport near the approach end of Runway 23, little do we know that in less than 48 hours our planned New York trip will be threatened forever.

The day aviation stood still

Two days later, Executive Editor Mike Collins leaned into my office doorway and reported that an airplane had just hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. Early reports were that it was a cabin-class twin. I looked outside at the stunningly clear September morning and, knowing that the big high pressure system dominated the entire Northeast, realized this wasn’t a weather-related accident.

The entire magazine staff gathered in our conference room to watch on television as smoke billowed from the tower. The CNN reporter was already debating about what type of airplane it was. As we watched the scene against the bright blue sky, we gasped collectively as, out of one corner of the screen, another airplane—clearly an airliner—plunged into the second tower. The reality hit us instantly. This was no accident. New York was under siege. Four minutes later, at 9:06 a.m., the FAA ordered a halt to all air traffic headed to or through New York airspace. Thirty-nine minutes later, the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center, acting on its own authority, ordered all aircraft in the nation to land.

Meanwhile, questions arose about the whereabouts of two other airliners. One would eventually end up striking the Pentagon; another crashed into a Pennsylvania field—its passengers preventing the terrorists from reaching their goal of crashing into the Capitol or White House.

Bucket list

Later that night, neighbors retreated from the incessant news coverage to our cul de sac where we relived the dreadful events, knowing this would be a day we all would remember. Under the silent skies, I remembered the flight Rick and I had planned just two days earlier. “We’ll never get to do it,” I said quietly to no one in particular. I was convinced that the New York airspace would be shuttered to transient flights indefinitely.

Weeks later, I was happy to be proved wrong when after extraordinary effort by AOPA staff, with great support from members who advocated their positions to the FAA and Congress, the airspace restrictions on general aviation flying began to lift, including those over New York (see “Above New York,”).

On this tenth anniversary of that numbing day, I encourage every pilot to put a trip through the corridor on their bucket list. And as you motor by those gleaming new towers, remember the tragedy and be thankful for our enduring freedom to fly.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow at twitter.com/tomhaines29. Read our special section online about 9/11 from the November 2001 issue.