For most, Tuesday, September 11, 2001 began as an ordinary day.
* * *
My first student of the day was Bryan. An excellent student, he had become familiar with procedures at Palwaukee so when it was time to land I had him call the tower for instructions.
That was the end of ordinary. For non-pilots, listening to air traffic controllers can be confusing to say the least. But for experienced pilots, the carefully crafted phraseology provides exactly the information needed to safely and efficiently mix with other traffic – especially in busy environments near other airports. And O’Hare Field was a mere seven miles to the south.
But this controller sounded nervous as he responded, “All aircraft are ordered to land immediately.”
My first thought was this dude is in training. But in forty years of flying, I’d never heard a controller say anything like that. No matter how green.
I grabbed the mic and replied, “That’s why we called. What are our instructions?”
The nervous voice repeated, “All aircraft are ordered to land immediately.”
Me, “That’s what we’re doing.”
At this point a familiar voice – one that knew our call sign belonged to the flight school – took over and cleared us back to the airport. Having taken care of business I asked, “What gives?” The only thing he would say was we should turn on the TV as soon as we get on the ground.
Brian turned to me and asked, “Does this happen often?”
* * *
The prior evening our college son Jeff called to let us know that he’d be making a trip to New York representing his school to prospective students. Knowing that NYC can be dangerous and Marie might worry, Jeff assured his mom that he’d be very safe: He was staying at the World Trade Center Marriott.
Tuesday morning, Marie’s phone rang. In a concerned voice, Jeff told her that something must be up. He was connecting in Chicago and it was crazy. People were scrambling all over the place and “CANCELLED” was scrolling across flight boards like a bad movie.
* * *
Our oldest son Scott is a flight attendant for USAir (now American). Tuesday morning he left the crew hotel in Manhattan, looking forward to the last leg of his four-day trip: LaGuardia to his home base, Charlotte. Enroute they got lucky – when ordered to land, the nearest available airport was their intended destination. As soon as he landed he called Marie and let her know he was safely driving home.
* * *
That Tuesday morning, three of the four men in Marie’s family were in the air in different roles. Just a few hours later, all three were safely at home.
* * *
Epilogue: Bryan’s lessons were interrupted for a few weeks, but he did go on to solo on his 21st birthday. Wednesday, Jeff found a ride back to Ohio Wesleyan. The New York trip was never rescheduled. Scott’s work schedule was disrupted until airline flights resumed.
For me, Thursday brought yet a new adventure. Watch for “Flying after 911.”