Above & Beyond: Pushback: Newark Airport, 8:45 a.m.
What 9/11 looked like from one airliner’s cockpit
THE CHIRPING OF THE ALARM CLOCK woke me from a deep sleep. I cursed when I saw "5:30 a.m." and hit the snooze button for five more minutes.
"Who could possibly need to leave New Jersey this early in the morning?" I thought as I made my way to the shower. The flight's departure time was a sensible 8:45 a.m., but I had to wake up far earlier so I could shower, pack, and drive the hour and a half to Newark Airport.
The drive across the Hudson River took longer than usual. Seething, I crossed the George Washington Bridge at 10 mph. But no matter how bad the traffic, the view of the Manhattan skyline was always majestic.
The drive, especially for New York-and Newark-based pilots, was usually the most stressful part of the day. I was looking forward to getting to the airplane for my three-day trip. For me, flying has always been therapeutic, whether it's a multi-million-dollar airliner or a $50-an-hour rented Cessna.
I met the rest of my crew at Operations.
"Ever laid over there before?"
"Yeah, there's an excellent Mexican restaurant near the hotel."
"Perfect. Just what the doctor ordered."
"See you up at the airplane."
Climbing into the cockpit, I felt like my days was about to get better. There's something relaxing about making a nest for yourself in a cockpit seat, accomplishing all your preflight checks, and being able to stand at the door and greet passengers.
When we finished our cockpit checks, the main entry door slammed and locked behind us. The head flight attendant poked her head in the cockpit and announced, "Cabin's ready."
Pushing back, the tug driver had us facing east. We waited for him to disconnect and give us the all-clear signal. After starting our engines, I reached down to pull my sunglasses out of my flight bag and caught what seemed like a flash of lightning out of the corner of my eye.
"Did you just see that?" the captain asked.
I looked up and saw thick black smoke beginning to drift across lower Manhattan.
"What happened?" I replied. "Is that smoke coming from the World Trade Center?"
"It looked like an explosion," the captain said.
"Was that smoke there when we pushed?" I asked.
"I don't think so."
We spent the next few minutes wondering if we had seen secondary explosions due to an out-of-control fire. Whatever the case, the sight was horrifying.
"I hope they have a way to get those people out of there," I said.
Since our tug driver had already disconnected from his intercom and pulled the tug away from the airplane, I got on the radio and called Operations. Knowing they usually had a TV on somewhere in Ops, I thought they might clue us in on what we were seeing. But they seemed surprised by what we were describing. This was the first they had heard of it.
As we switched over to Newark ground control to start our taxi, it was obvious that everyone on the frequency had witnessed the same thing. In between taxi instructions, a crew member on one of the other aircraft on the frequency asked, "Any idea what's going on across the river?"
"Stand by, we're checking" was the terse response.
As we taxied south toward runway 41, we watched the horror unfolding only miles away. In the few minutes we had been taxing, the smoke had definitely become more intense.
The intercom chimed in the cockpit. One of the passengers had noticed the smoke and asked a flight attendant what was going on. We told her we weren't sure. We were still thinking it was simply a terrible fire in one of the Trade Center towers, and we hoped it would be under control soon.
As we waited in the long line of airplanes ready for departure, another crew member asked ground control if they had any updates. This time, the ground controller hesitated, the replied, "We think we know what it is, but we don't want to say it over the radio."
One of the navigational aids that we use in the airplane is an Automatic Direction finder, which is essentially an AM radio receiver. During playoff seasons, we occasionally tune into radio stations to get sports scores for our passengers. Today, we frantically turned to a New York City news stations.
The radio was reporting that it appeared an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. The initial reports said it was a small twin engine airplane.
We wondered if it was a LaGuardia-bound commuter airplane that had had engine trouble and had been unable to hold altitude. Maybe it was a sightseeing flight, common along the Hudson River, that had strayed off course?
As we looked across the river at the billowing smoke, I picked up another airplane flying low across the horizon from south to north. This was a common arrival pattern for LaGuardia airport, but the aircraft seemed much too low and much too fast. I followed it along, pointing it out to the captain. Both of us watched in stunned horror as it hit the other tower.
Damn, somebody got mesmerized looking at the fire and wasn't paying attention to where he was flying, I thought. But then—no. No one could be that distracted.
The captain and I looked at each other, but neither of us could find words. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the ground controller. "All right. Everybody shut them down. I just saw a 737 or an MD-80 hit the second tower. The World Trade Center is under attack."
Attack? I briefly though about the scene in Diehard 2 in which the terrorists reprogrammed navigation aids, causing airplanes to crash. No, couldn't happen. Too far-fetched.
I began to think about the safety of our passengers. I looked over at the captain. "Do we really want to be sitting here with our engines shut down if New York is under attack?" I asked.
"Hell no!" he said.
I looked at where we were in the lineup and saw an intersecting taxiway that would give us access to the runway. I immediately began pulling up data from the computer to see if we could take off with the amount of runway remaining. It was going to be close. We decided to switch to the tower frequency; if everyone in front of us was indeed shutting down, we wanted to see if we could back-taxi down the runway for take off.
The tower frequency was controlled chaos. Three aircraft on an approach were being sent around and handed back to approach control. We heard another captain, who had the same idea as us, ask if he could back-taxi for takeoff. The controller replied that Newark airport was now closed and all aircraft should return to the gate.
"Does that captain's emergency authority override that?" I asked.
"I don't know," the captain replied. We tried to decide just how badly we wanted to get airborne right then. Listening to the radio reports in the background, I had repeatedly heard the word "hijack." We decided that we really couldn't be sure of the security of our own aircraft.
We switched back to ground control and told them we would be pulling out of line and returning to the gate. It was a long, slow taxi back. Ground control frequency was strangely quiet. As we pulled into the gate and shut down the engines, the captain looked over at me and said, "I think we just witnessed history."
A few nights later, I reached over to set my alarm again for the first time since September 11...and started crying. I thought about how different things were when my alarm clock went off that morning, and I wished I could snap my fingers and go back to the days when the most significant problem of the day was the morning traffic.