(September 2011) I am almost certain that on Dec. 7, 1951, the scars of Pearl Harbor had not faded from the memories of most Americans, even 10 years after the attack. I can guarantee the same for Sept. 11, 2011. For airline pilots, the scars will take much longer to heal. Why?
Airline pilots took the day personally. In a few horrifying moments, our passion for flying was transformed into an inconceivable evil. Prior to 9/11, airline pilots were confident with the concept that the exclusive weapon in our arsenal was the ability to fly the airplane. That ability was leverage. Our policy manuals provided us with simple guidance: Cooperate with the hijackers. Don’t jeopardize the safety of the passengers by resisting. This guidance was based on the outcome of past occurrences.
The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985 by Lebanese Islamic extremists should have been a wake-up call for the industry. Had the captain of that flight, John Testrake, survived cancer long enough to witness Sept. 11, he may very well have said, “I told you so. … ” When the shock of 9/11 wore through to our psyche, airline pilots were angry. Certainly if the attack had happened aboard one of our own flights, we could have done something to prevent the unthinkable.
Let’s face it. We weren’t armed physically. And more importantly, we weren’t armed mentally. Who among us could have imagined an enemy that not only had total disregard for other human life but no regard for his own?
When we were done licking our wounds, airline pilots got into the ring. We weren’t going to wait for somebody else to find a solution. Committees were formed. Government agencies were contacted. Pilots volunteered to be trained and armed. Airline policies were renovated practically overnight.
As we analyzed the circumstances of that tragic day, the similarities with Pearl Harbor became obvious. An attack on U.S. soil. The element of surprise. A diabolical plot. A breakdown of intelligence-gathering.
A major difference of 9/11 compared with Pearl Harbor is that our own technology was used against us. And nobody imagined that an airline pilot would be on the front lines. Notwithstanding the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, airline pilots were the first official casualties on our soil in a war against an enemy that didn’t wear a uniform.
Shortly after the day from hell, the events that led American Flight 11 to impact the North Tower, United 175 to slam the South Tower and American Flight 77 to obliterate a section of the Pentagon were revealed in chilling detail. As more information was released, United Flight 93 became the star of the show. United 93 had failed to complete its mission. What was its mission exactly?