by Ron Pile
The tiny speaker in my ear crackled to life. “United Nineteen Sixty Eight, DFW Tower, cleared for takeoff, runway three six right.” I turned onto the runway and eased the throttles up to the takeoff position. “Okay Dave, your airplane.” I felt the seatback pushing me down the runway. The 737 bounced and rattled faster as we accelerated. I called out the speeds, Dave eased back on the control wheel, the nose came up, and the ride suddenly got smoother. As long as I’d been doing the job, I had never lost that feeling of exhilaration as the whole unlikely contraption became airborne.
Day three of this four-day trip was lining up to be a nice day for flying. It was kind of long–just under twelve hours on duty—but last night’s layover had been restful and today should be easy. Three legs—this one from Dallas to Washington Dulles, then to O’Hare, then over to White Plains, NY for tonight’s layover. There was hardly a cloud over the whole country. The first officer was Dave Vasquez who was as pleasant and professional as they come. It was his turn to fly the first and last legs. I’d be at the controls for the second.
As we climbed in the clear, smooth air, we were handed off to a few more controllers along the way. Soon we were talking to the regional Air Route Traffic Control Center, better known to us as Fort Worth Center.
As we passed twenty-eight thousand feet, we got a curious call. “Uh, United Nineteen Sixty Eight, Fort Worth Center, uh. . . Washington Center is now closed. Say your intentions.”
Dave and I exchanged perplexed looks. “What do you suppose he means by that?” Dave asked.
“No idea. They probably had a radar outage or computer failure or something. They’ll probably get it straightened out before we get there.”
“Fort Worth Center, United Nineteen Sixty Eight, we’ll just slow down a little and keep heading that direction.”
Between the initial cryptic query and the clipped response, I suspected the controller was pretty busy off the air, so I didn’t want to bother him by asking questions. But within a few minutes, we got an even stranger call.
“United Nineteen Sixty Eight, the FAA has declared a national emergency and ordered all aircraft to land immediately. Now say your intentions.”
“What the hell . . . can they do that?” I asked Dave rhetorically.
“I don’t know. Sounds like they did.”
“Uh, Fort Worth, we’ll have to check with our dispatch. Standby.”
I typed a quick message to our dispatcher on the ACARS: “ATC SAYS WE HAVE TO LAND. WHERE DO YOU WANT US”
I expected some questions from our dispatcher, or at least a delay while he made inquiries. Instead, within a few seconds the response came. “RETURN TO DFW,” was all it said. I sent off a quick “OK DIVERTING TO DFW.”
“Center, United Nineteen Sixty Eight, I guess we’ll turn around and go back to DFW.”
“Roger, turn right heading two zero zero, descend and maintain flight level two four zero.”
Though the transition was smooth, the passengers were sure to notice the engines going from climb power to idle. I would need to make an announcement when I could, but I didn’t have any idea what I was going to say.
I got busy setting up for the DFW landing. I got the airport information, pulled out the approach charts, and began reprogramming the FMC for our arrival.
Soon, we heard other aircraft getting similar calls. A couple of them inquired as to what was going on, but the controller wasn’t answering any questions. You could tell he was overloaded, and didn’t have time for extraneous conversation.
Before long, someone transmitted in the blind: “Anybody know what’s going on?” A different voice: “Someone flew an airplane into the World Trade Center.”
Dave looked at me with raised eyebrows. We were both trying to make sense of that information. I took a guess. “Probably some private pilot snapped, and loaded up his Cessna with dynamite and flew it into a building. Sounds like somebody in the FAA overreacted.”
I finished programming the FMC, gave Dave a quick landing briefing, then took a deep breath and jabbed the PA button. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention. This is your captain, and I’m afraid I have some bad news. Apparently there has been some sort of terrorist attack in New York City, and as a precaution, the FAA has ordered all airplanes to land as soon as they can, so we are in the process of heading back to Dallas. We should be on the ground in fifteen or twenty minutes. We hope the folks on the ground will have more information for you. I want to stress that there is no indication that there is any threat of any kind against this flight, but all aircraft are being told they must land. If we get any more information, or anything changes significantly, we’ll let you know. Otherwise, we’ll be on the ground shortly. Thanks for your attention.”
DFW approach control was busy, but the final approach wasn’t inordinately long, and Dave made one of the smoothest landings I’d seen. Once we got off the runway, I realized there were airplanes parked everywhere. Apparently no flights had taken off for a while, and there were lots of arrivals. I was surprised to find out we wouldn’t have to wait for a gate. As we were being guided in, I noticed a customer-service agent waiting on the jetbridge. The entry door opened before the engines had spooled down. When we heard the agent making an announcement, we stopped the checklist to listen. We heard most of the announcement in snippets through the closed cockpit door.
“Two 757 airliners, one American and one United, were flown into both towers of the World Trade Center in New York . . . another airliner was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC . . . All civilian air traffic has been halted . . . no information as to when commercial flights might resume . . . check with the customer service counter . . . please be patient . . . this is a very dynamic situation . . .“
Dave broke the stunned silence in the cockpit. “The world will never be the same again.”