Ten Years Later: Air Traffic Controllers Remember 9/11

Uploaded by usdotgov on 01.09.2011

[Music] At 8:46AM on the morning of September 11, 2001,
the United States went to war on terrorism,
but over 30 minutes earlier, at 8:14,
FAA's air traffic controllers were already at war.
I first got a page at 8:35 in the morning
on September 11th was that we had a possible hijack -
an aircraft from Boston, currently over Albany, New York,
at 31,000 feet and heading southbound.
We were coordinating with the regional operations center,
the Washington operations center,
as to what we knew about American 11.
You know, getting that information out, being the eyes
and ears for those - not only the command center,
but also for senior leadership in the FAA and government,
to try to get them that information that we had.
In the middle of that, we also got United 175,
which was another aircraft departing from Boston,
a Boeing 767, who had reported to us
that they had heard something suspicious on the frequency
over in Boston Center, and it sounded like an aircraft
in trouble - possible hijack.
There were reports coming in very quickly of aircraft
that had possibly gone NORDO and stopped talking
on departure out of Boston.
Once that information was received,
it was pretty clear what was really unfolding
in New York City.
It immediately strikes you that this is not a drill,
this is not a suspected activity, this is confirmed.
We have a significant event taking place
in our air traffic system on that day.
We had already watched American 11 fly into one of the towers -
we lost a primary target.
At the same time, the TRACON was telling us they have an ELT
in that area.
So we knew that we lost an airplane at that point.
But as the second aircraft was also hijacked,
and the first aircraft hit the World Trade Center,
I immediately made the connection
that this was not a single event.
This was an attack upon our country.
Our occupation - air traffic - was under attack
by enemies of the country.
And at the same time, everybody, while dealing with that,
was dealing with the fact that most people had a friend
or a neighbor or a family member, somebody they worked
with very closely that actually worked
in both of those buildings.
So the challenge there was dealing with those kinds
of emotions while at the same time dealing with the crisis
that was unfolding and changing by the minute.
Immediately, I instructed the Operations Manager,
Bruce Bariss, to stop all aircraft - all departures -
in the New York metropolitan area.
Because with two hijacked aircraft converging
in the New York area, you have to clear the airspace
because you have an obvious safety threat,
not only a security threat, against other airborne aircraft.
Our front line managers went back out into the workforce,
and said, "Okay, we gotta put these aircraft on the ground."
So they were working with the controllers
to then tell the pilots, "You're gonna have to land."
We told them, "You're not leaving our airspace,
you're gonna have to pick an airport,
get a hold of a company, tell us where you're gonna go
and where you're gonna land."
Very difficult for our controllers,
and as you can imagine, with the hundreds of flights just
in Boston Center alone, what that would take,
when the other side of the mic has never done this before,
has never heard of it, and all of a sudden we're implementing.
Incredible feat by our workforce.
And probably one of the little known things that is shared
about New York Center is that it is also an oceanic air traffic
control facility.
So this meant at very early in the morning,
as flights were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean to land
in the United States, we had already initiated protocols
to shut those arrivals off from the oceanic areas.
And they had to make tough decisions, such as either turn
around and go back to Europe, or go to alternate destinations,
which many of them did in Canada.
There was no playbook.
You know, and we were reacting to try
to make our best guess estimates as to how we're going to react
to each and every individual flight that was out there.
This is it, this is the only way we can protect our country,
this is what we're going to do, and we're going
to move forward from here.
Ten years later is interesting.
It takes time to process, you know, this type of situation.
You know, we stay - we've got a small little group
that still stays in contact.
The fog of war was very evident that day.
You know, ten years later...
it's, sometimes, it feels like yesterday.
We as a nation definitely have changed since then.
But we as air traffic controllers have changed a lot
in those ten years also.
When I look back on that tragic day,
the thing that hits me the deepest is my pride in how all
of our air traffic folks in the New York area came together
and rose to the occasion and did the right thing and did it
so well that it amazed the rest of the world.
They did an incredible job under, you know,
war-like conditions, and they did it
with unbelievable precision.
You know, I hope we never, ever have to do it again,
but I know they can handle it.