On Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I were visiting my mom in Lawton, OK on the occasion of her 80th birthday just two days before. My dad had passed away some years earlier. At the time I was a captain at Northwest Airlines, and we had flown into Oklahoma City a few days earlier “pass riding” on one of my company’s airplanes. Our plan was to reverse that process in a few days to return to our home in Florida. My wife turned on the TV that morning and informed me that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. The “little airplane, tall building, bad weather” scenario came to mind. It had happened very occasionally in the past… a tragedy for a few but little more. Soon video of the second impact showed up and it was obvious we were witnessing something entirely different. Then came the announcement that all civil air traffic was grounded indefinitely. We would not be flying an airliner back to Florida. I opined that we’d have to rent a car for that trip. At my wife’s insistence, I called out to the Lawton airport (about the only place you could rent a car there) and the only agency still with cars was Hertz. I planned to pick the car up the next day and hit the road. Once again, my wife was more in tune with the unfolding disaster than I and insisted that we pick up the car ASAP. We headed for the local airport in my mom’s car and got the last rental car in Lawton, OK just before it left for Dallas. Apparently, all the national rental car companies were ferrying everything they had in that part of the country
to Dallas to deal with the thousands of stranded airline passengers at the two big airports there. The smaller markets were stripped bare.
We hit the road the next morning so I could be in place for my next airline trip. As we now know, there was no hurry on that score.
When the airlines were finally allowed back in the air a couple of weeks later, I was assigned a trip out of Dulles airport (IAD) near Washington, DC. The government had allowed the airlines to position crews and airplanes the previous day. My crew and I stepped off the hotel van at the airport into a solid wall of people both inside the terminal building and out. We knew where the employee entrance through security was but getting there resembled football practice on a hot afternoon. I sure could have used my classmate Charlie Jarvis, an amazing Army running back, as a lead blocker. We finally got to our airplane and the next few days were repeats of that experience. Our military training gave us the confidence to keep the planes in the air even under these most unusual and difficult circumstances. Getting back to normal airline flying was a long-term process with the eventual creation of the TSA in November 2001. My fellow airline pilots that were actually flying on Sept. 11 had a lot of interesting stories.