For those of us in the aviation industry, September 11 is a day of reverence. The 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed the landscape of aviation, but the lasting mark is resilience. Just a few days after the attacks, the national aviation system stood up and took back to the skies, showing the backbone of the country. We witnessed firsthand the selflessness, comaraderie, kindness, pride and patriotism of our fellow crew members and all those we met along the way.
Below we hear from Delta pilots who flew the line those first days back up in the air—their thoughts, their fears and their emotions. Their stories are a reminder of the many heroes who stood up in the face of adversity and the strength of our nation, the true lasting legacy of that day.
Captain Bob Kruse, Delta Air Lines
On Thursday, September 13, 2001, the passengers from our 9/11 flight were bused to Washington, D.C., and we were instructed to ferry the empty DC-10 to Detroit.
Entering U.S. airspace, all was eerily quiet. No radio chatter, no contrails, nothing. ATC told us we were among the first commercial aircraft allowed to fly in the United States. Parking at the old international terminal in Detroit, I called my boss and was happy to tell him, “One Douglas DC-10 returned to Northwest Airlines. We’re going home.” We later boarded a special section Northwest 757 and flew home to Minneapolis.
My feelings during the event? Shock, anger and, later, resolve. I was so very proud of our entire crew, especially as they did everything that they could for our passengers. I mourn for those who died, and to this day pray for their families. We learned a lot of lessons that day (I know I did) and will make damn well sure that it never happens again.
Captain Bob Kruse
Captain Cathy Jacob, Delta Air Lines
When flying resumed on September 14, chaos reigned. Planes had landed at the nearest available field, people had made their way by land, and I suspected pilots were needed. Though not scheduled to fly I called Scheduling to see if I could help. The response was emphatic.
“Can you get to an airport? Any airport?” the scheduler asked. I said that I could drive to Cincinnati. “Go!” he said. “We will have a flight for you when you get there.”
The plane was nearly empty, but we quickly took off bound for LGA. I will never forget the sight as we turned at the Verrazano Bridge and flew up the Hudson that bright, sunny day. The two towers were still billowing smoke.
I thought of the lives lost, the families left behind and the profound effect that day had on all of us. I still couldn’t believe someone would do this to so many innocent people. I was dumbfounded, sad and angry all at the same time.
Captain Cathy Jacob
First Officer John Schramm, Delta Air Lines
I flew the first flight of the day on September 14, one of the first flights out of ATL following the airspace shut down. My wife was understandably nervous and called me prior to pushback. Onboard that day we had an armed U.S. Air Marshal, an armed Secret Service agent and—sitting in first class—the actor Adam West. Yes, the original Batman from television. I told my wife that even if bad guys got past the armed federal agents, no way they would get by Batman. How could a flight be any safer?
Captain Steven Aue, Delta Air Lines
On September 13, 2001, I arrived at DFW from my airport hotel in uniform for a crew reposition flight. I counted at least 30 pilot and flight attendant uniforms waiting to begin boarding the MD-88 parked at the gate—yet Delta was going to cancel the flight because there were no pilots available to fly. I told our gate agent that I would fly this airplane out and to just find me a first officer. After 45 minutes of phone calls and coordinating, a local first officer was assigned, and we went onboard the jet to do our preflight checks.
During my briefing with the flight attendant, we had to think of a password to enter the cockpit. Since this was a new requirement, neither of us really knew what to do. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It doesn’t matter.” I quickly considered everything that had happened over the past couple days and replied, “That’s a perfect password,” and that’s what we used.
Settling into the left seat was surreal. My world had forever changed, yet the normal operation had not. I shook off those feelings and looked at my first officer to begin the checklists. At 1600 local time that day, the only traffic moving at the airport was an American B-777 under tow, a Delta B-727 flying to ATL, and our flight to CVG. We took off, spoke to departure control ATC, and the controller told us to turn left, direct CVG. And with that, we were back in the air.
Captain Steven Aue’s schedule from 9/13/01
First Officer Kirk Appell, Delta Air Lines
I was a 727 first officer based in CVG, starting a scheduled four-day trip [on September 14, 2001]. Our flight was one of three that departed CVG on the initial spool up for departures. Destination: ATL. We had roughly 10 passengers. Everyone—crew and passengers—was a little edgy. My wife was nervous with the unknown ahead. Our actual departure was about an hour late. After we flew to ATL, we flew to Houston for our scheduled layover.
That flight had 12 FBI agents reporting back to their office in Houston. While driving back from Virginia, they noticed flights coming into and out of ATL. They decided to fly rather than drive the rest of the way. The FBI agents were our only passengers. As you can imagine, we felt very safe on that flight, which was roughly 90–120 minutes behind schedule. Our whole four-day trip flew as scheduled except all departures ran an hour or two behind schedule.
What did surprise me was that we had to go through security at each airport. We, the pilots and flight attendants, were delayed due to the long lines and heightened security. I was told later that if all airport employees were subjected to the security checks, the airport would not be able to function. This has since been changed—thank you to ALPA for KCM!
Captain Andrew Ball, Delta Air Lines
On Thursday, September 13, 2001, Crew Scheduling called; they wanted me to fly that night. I was surprised to say the least, even more so when they told me that the first officer and I were the only two pilots in the entire company who were being allowed to fly. This was back in the days of Northwest Airlines, and I was flying RJs for Northwest Airlink Express I. Calling dispatch, I was surprised again to find that only my flight and an NWA DC-9 were being allowed to depart Memphis that night, with only 10–15 total flights in the entire country. My thoughts were that this was going to be a flight to remember.
Arriving at the airport, the place was devoid of passengers yet crawling with law enforcement. Only the bare minimum staff had been allowed to work our flight—one person in OPS, three rampers and our three-man crew. The airport was as sterile as it would ever be. Otherwise everything was “normal,” and we departed for Chattanooga, Tenn.
It was a very dark moonless night and dead quiet. I asked the controller who else was in the air; he said we were the only ones on the radar for 500 nautical miles or more in any direction. At that moment I had a sudden feeling as if I was in the Steven King movie The Langoliers—in a different dimension of time. A short flight, nonetheless, it seemed to pass in slow motion; however, when we switched to Chattanooga Approach Control, things got real very fast. Approach asked us if we had been advised of our “situation.” No! He stated that they had been trying to get us notified, but we switched frequencies so frequently that we kept getting missed. There had been a specific bomb threat on our aircraft “N” number and the NWA DC-9 out of Memphis. The DC-9 apparently returned to the gate, but we were already airborne.
About 40 nautical miles from touchdown, our choice was simple. Thinking as rationally as I could, both the F/O and walked around the aircraft. The plane was empty except for four bags of sand (200 pounds ballast) and the crew’s belongings. The interior had been thoroughly inspected multiple times and was empty. Regardless, we took all necessary precautions and landed without incident. Inspection again after landing revealed nothing. We walked through the equally void Chattanooga airport and went to the hotel.
Returning the next morning to operate the return flight to Memphis on September 14, we found approximately 12–15 passengers sitting in the gate area. I can only describe it as funeral-like. Everyone was on their best behavior and not saying a peep. We departed on a beautiful, clear, calm, blue-sky morning, a stark contrast to the night before. It truly felt like a new beginning. We heard only one other aircraft transmission en route, only the two of us on radar that morning. This time I felt like we were two cells that would slowly start multiplying until the skies would be full again.
Captain Andrew Ball
Captain David Beckler, Delta Air Lines
I was a 737-200 captain at the time for Delta, and I flew one of the first flights into EWR on September 14, 2001. As we drove to downtown Manhattan to layover in the theatre district at the Milford Plaza, there was the heavy burden and weight of the emotional fog, along with the actual haze, smoke and acrid debris that filled the air over Ground Zero and beyond. It was just one of those eerie, sad, surreal moments you never forget; the United States was so viciously attacked and so many innocents were killed.
After arriving at the hotel, I walked to Ground Zero to pay my respects to my fellow crewmembers, pilots, Americans and the children who lost so much. As I approached the first secured and guarded barrier, I showed an NYPD officer my ID badge and asked him if I could proceed to pay my respects. He allowed me to pass, and although I’m not sure how close I actually got to Ground Zero, I will never forget the stench of destruction, the very reduced visibility, the obscured glow of red lights, and the people just trying to live their lives again. It was truly a war zone and something I’ll never, ever, forget.
We lost so much that day. I feel a profound loss for the victims, their families and friends, and an equal respect for first responders and others who helped. I am grateful for those who have continued to fight for us and our country, before, now and into the future. 9/11 must never be forgotten. It literally changed the entire world in which we live.
Captain David Beckler
Captain Gregg Matous, Delta Air Lines
I was a Delta Air Lines first officer in 2001. As far as I know, we were the first flight to depart from Tampa after 9/11 and one of the first flights to arrive in Atlanta. We were proud that we were flying.
When we landed in Atlanta, I wished we had an American flag to hang out the window. As we taxied to our gate, a tug driver stopped, got off his tug and saluted us as we taxied by. It was one of the proudest moments of my professional life!
Captain Gregg Matous
Captain Doug Lawrence, Delta Air Lines
I was a Northwest pilot during that period and had just completed DC-10 captain simulator training. I was scheduled to go on OE on September 12 or 13—I don’t remember the day. After 9/11, though, I knew the job would be thoroughly overhauled before I would get to touch a DC-10 wheel.
When I did get the call to go to MSP for OE I had an eye-opening experience at our sleepy little six-gate airport. Three things stuck out the most:
- Armed military guards everywhere with M-16s
- Constant announcements about airport status and whether flights would depart on time, or at all
- The wait and uncertainty
I spent hours on the phone with Crew Scheduling trying to come up with a plan to just get to the job. As it ended up, all flights everywhere out of my airport were cancelled. I drove home with a sick feeling of just how much hassle would be caused to crewmembers worldwide. The next try was a little better, and I did finally get out after much frustration and doubt. The good part is that I did finally touch that DC-10 wheel.
Pilots from many airlines contributed their stories. You can read all the submissions at alpa.org/9-14. Thank you to all who shared their stories. We must #neverforget.