It was just before one o’clock in the afternoon on September 11th (a sad commentary: we don’t even need to identify the year anymore) when my maintenance supervisor stuck his head into my room to wake me.
“Sir, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
Minutes later, I watched, horrified, as a second plane struck the South tower. And then, as both of the monstrously huge structures tumbled to the ground as if kicked by a petulant child.
My Willow Grove unit and I were participating in a multi-nation exercise at the Naval Air Station in Keflavik, Iceland (this explains why it was the afternoon). A round-the-clock operation, the Keflavik Tactical Exchange gave us a unique chance to evaluate each other’s capabilities should we ever needed to flex our respective militaries. Little did we know that we were preparing for a type of war which belonged to the past.
Because the 21st Century came roaring into each of our lives on that late summer day.
Naturally, the exercise was immediately cancelled. Foreign aircrews (funny that I call them “foreign’” since we were actually foreigners, too) beat hasty returns to their home bases. We were told that American airspace was closed for an indefinite time.
Station security forces went into their highest readiness posture. Watch teams at the main gate beefed up, rings of barbed wire cordoned off perceived sensitive areas, and armed patrols roamed the perimeter.
My watch teams and I, on the other hand, remained at our billeting. Only in Iceland for the exercise, we were considered non-essential personnel who’d only get in the way.
And so we spent the next few days.
I received a worried phone call from my wife during this time. She fretted over my safety. I assured her that I was fine, but omitted the fact that I was more concerned for her and the kids.
You see, my family lives in Hilltown. Which is only a couple hours from New York and only a few from Washington.
The ensuing few days was a frantic search for whatever updates we could glean from the news and how in the world we’d get ourselves and thousands of pounds of equipment back home.
Most importantly, we desperately wanted to know how we could get into the fight. Whatever the fight was.
Four days later, U.S. airspace was opened to military traffic. As I glanced through the window of the Navy P-3 patrol plane which took us home, I was struck at how empty the sky was-with the exception of the one plane which approached us as we crossed into the United States. It came no closer than a few miles before it disappeared.
I think it was a fighter aircraft.
What’s more, the radio circuits, normally full of the cacophony of countless air traffic controllers, were eerily silent. The only ones “on the air” were the handful which guided us home. All else were hushed into silence.
Our route of flight took us just south of Manhattan, well out of sight of land. At that distance, even at the altitude at which we were flying, it was impossible to see any of the city skyline.
But, we did see a huge pall of gray-brown smoke lingering in the air like the death shroud that it was.
As we touched down at NAS-JRB Willow Grove, there was nobody to greet us. There was really not much of anything by way of an acknowledgment that we were back. Somehow, it seemed fitting.
After all, we all had something much more important to do.
Go home to our families.
In memory of:
Commander Bill Donovan, USN
AW2 (NAC/AW) Joseph Pycior, USN
and the thousands whose only crime was going to work that day.