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America's Place in the Sky

We will never be invulnerable, but air travel's still the way to go

September 05, 2004|Howard Morland | Howard Morland, a former Air Force pilot and congressional military policy analyst, is the author of "The Secret That Exploded."

We were 10 minutes west of Little Rock, Ark., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the pilot made the announcement, "You may have noticed we have turned around and are headed back to the east. We will be landing at Memphis. Air traffic control is ordering all airplanes in the sky to land. We don't know the reason why, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with this plane."

I had drifted off to sleep sometime after we took off from Washington, D.C., and was unaware of the turn. Now I was wide awake, noting the morning sun ahead of us where it shouldn't have been. All planes in the sky ordered to land?

I turned to my wife, Barby. "This has never happened before. It's unprecedented in the history of commercial aviation. There's a big story behind this. Huge. Whatever it is, it'll be front-page news all over the world."

Weather permitting, I make a habit of following the route of any flight I take. With a window seat and an atlas of road maps, I usually know exactly where we are. It's my way of dealing with the disappointment of ending an aviation career prematurely at age 34, a quarter-century ago.

The skies were clear from coast to coast, except for early morning fog in the valleys of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. From seven miles up, I caught the sun's reflection off the north face of the glass pyramid building in Memphis. The Mississippi River, with its meandering path, oxbow lakes, barge trains and great bridges, is always a spectacular sight from jet-cruising altitude.

My first thought that morning was nuclear war. There was no conceivable air traffic control failure that would force every airplane in the sky to land immediately. I couldn't imagine a terrorist act, short of a nuclear explosion, that would call for such drastic action.

With the help of the passenger seated in front of us, we tried to convince ourselves it was a local problem. A plane crash had closed the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The pilot's report about all planes in the sky must be wrong.

As our plane taxied to a stop in Memphis, far from any terminal, half the passengers on board pulled out cellphones and started calling friends. The rest of us grabbed air phones from the seat backs in front of us (why didn't we think of that before?).

The pilot confirmed what we were all learning by telephone: multiple, simultaneous hijackings and deliberate plane crashes; both World Trade Center towers in New York had collapsed; the Pentagon was hit. A plane in Pennsylvania was unaccounted for.

At 8 o'clock, as we took off, I had snapped a picture of the Pentagon. I was planning to show the picture to my godson to demonstrate how the building really does have five sides. I suspect it was the last aerial photo of the Pentagon taken before it was hit 90 minutes later by a plane that had left Washington about the same time as ours.

Since that day, when the world supposedly changed forever, we have invaded and conquered two primitive countries and gained and lost the sympathy of the world.

We have searched Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden, and Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, failing in both places. We seem not to have looked for anything in the countries where the hijackers originated (Saudi Arabia and Egypt).

The goal of the hijackers remains a mystery, as does the real reason behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which, under the brutal, secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, was quite effective in suppressing Islamic terrorists. Before we took charge, Iraq was more of an ally than an adversary in the war on terror. These issues will sort themselves out in coming decades.

One thing that did change forever is air travel, or did it?

For me, Sept. 11 will always be an aviation event, with a focus on the pilots. I have flown large airplanes and taught people to fly. I am glad the person who taught Mohamed Atta to fly has never been named, and I hope he is able to forgive himself for inadvertently training a terrorist.

My heart goes out to the pilots of the doomed planes, who had been trained not to resist hijackers.

I certainly would have joined the heroic mutineers of United Flight 93; I could have landed the plane. But they had no chance. The crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 on Oct. 31, 1999, showed that if one of two pilots wants to crash the plane, the other pilot can't prevent it.

People in the world of aviation have always been acutely aware that flying machines are potential bombs, however careful they've been not to inform or remind passengers of this fact. The hijackers weren't fooled.

Flying machines are delicate contraptions. Everybody on board needs to share the goal of a safe landing, and dissenters from this consensus must be subdued immediately, before they get near the flight controls or detonate their bombs.

The miracle is that flying ever became safe in the first place, and that it is still as safe as it ever was. Despite the events of Sept. 11, there is no faster, cheaper or safer way to go long distances. But as we learned on Sept. 11, being safe is not the same as being invulnerable.

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