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Musings: The new normal

Fifteen years after 9/11

I remember all too well September 11, 2001. I was an airline pilot, in uniform, walking out the door of my hotel room in Oklahoma City, when my wife called to tell me to turn on the news. I knew as soon as I did that what had happened was no accident, and nothing I knew would ever be the same. The industry changed, the rules changed, and the definition of “normal” changed.
Illustration by Taylor Callery

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, nobody knew…anything. I was initially told that there was a ground stop until 3 p.m. Eastern. It was the only thing I could laugh about for days.

My flight attendant’s mother had just undergone major surgery a few days before our trip, and she was so upset and hysterical I thought I might have to take her to the hospital. In the hotel lobby, I met a Delta crew that had been forced to land in Oklahoma while en route from Atlanta to Salt Lake City. They quickly caught up with the news on the restaurant TV, and we discussed what we thought this would mean to the industry, our respective airlines, and the country as a whole. Nothing good, we agreed, was on the horizon.

Everyone was hungry for information. We had no idea how long we would have to stay. Our airplane, coming in from Cincinnati, never got off the ground. New security rules were already being written. Phone calls to the chief pilot’s office were frustratingly short of details, but we had more info than the Delta crews in our hotel. That was a first (and a last). Finally, my temper starting to give way, I demanded a date that we could count on going home—no matter what. Wait until Friday, I was told. If you don’t have an airplane by Friday, get home however you can.

I went for a walk later, and the sky was dark blue. I realized that the skies over the United States had not been this quiet since December 16, 1903. There were no contrails, no airplanes in sight, no engines in a local traffic pattern. It was eerie.

Finally, Scheduling called on Thursday night. We were leaving the next morning. I called my wife first, then my crew, and we all went to bed, not sure what to expect the next day.

The airport was chaos. Thousands of passengers had crammed the terminal. The walk through security was taking forever. Nobody, it seemed, knew the rules. Passengers were taking off belts in one line, shoes in another. Crews were ushered to the front, and our bags received more scrutiny than usual. On the faces of the passengers, I saw desperation and dismay combined with gratitude and hope. We all wanted “normal,” but we didn’t know what that was anymore.

At the gate, I told the agent we weren’t leaving until every seat was full. We had a jumpseat rider from another airline, but nobody knew the new protocol, or even if there was one. I called my dispatcher. He had no idea what the rules were. “I’m taking him,” I said. He agreed. We left late, but full.

This was our second shut-down and re-start in a few months, thanks to a strike that had lasted most of the summer. In fact, we were still bringing pilots back to work when the 9/11 attacks happened. But the experience of having to suddenly put all of the pieces back together again gave us a leg up on our competition. We’d been there. People all across the company were extending themselves, doing things that needed to be done, even if it was well outside the scope of their jobs.

Never for me, before or since, was the mayhem on the radio so reassuring as it was when we approached Cincinnati. I knew many of the voices, including the approach controllers. The frequency was rapid fire, clipped. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I was thrilled. When approach finally called me, I acknowledged his command, and said what I think a lot of us were thinking: “It’s good to be home.”

There was just a brief pause. “Welcome back. We’re glad to have you.”

Then he went on the next flight on the frequency.

Two weeks later I had a layover in New York, and my crew and I went down to lower Manhattan. I’ll never forget the thousands of missing person fliers I saw, or the taste of the dust and the smell of death that was still in the air. Ashes still smoldered. The massive piles of rubble and twisted metal were clear reminders of the enormity of the tragedy. We visited the firehouse that had lost so many when the towers fell. We talked to numerous people who had lost friends and family. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

I’ve gone back to Ground Zero twice since then, first a few years later with my wife. The pits where the buildings had stood were visible, and the basic clean-up was mostly done, but the scar on the city was clearly evident. In 2012, we returned—this time, with our kids. The memorial was open, and the reflecting pools were completed. The Freedom Tower was virtually complete, the equivalent of the United States flipping a glass-and-steel bird to terrorism. I could only hope that my kids will never have such an I know where I was… event in their lives.

In 2001 I made my living flying 50-seat RJs, whose future on September 10 appeared limitless. Oil selling at $140 a barrel changed that, and airlines began moving to bigger airplanes. Avgas at $7 a gallon was not unheard of. Now, oil prices have stabilized and the smaller RJ is clearly near the end of its run (which is a shame; it was a great airplane to fly).

But the fortitude of the American spirit and the grit of which we are made continues to shine through. Aviation survived, bloody nose and all, and is in some respects stronger than ever—and certainly leaner. JetBlue, which had only been in operation a few months at the time, has not only survived, but thrived and now is a major player that helped rewrite the rules of passenger service. Legacy USAir is gone, as are legacy Northwest, Continental, and America West. Closer to home, Cessna and Beechcraft have morphed and changed, and Mooney has fought like a wounded tiger just to stay alive. Cirrus has emerged as a force in the market, as has Garmin.

And all of us have a new appreciation for the determination of a person who says, “Let’s roll.”

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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