Jumpseat: September 11 — We Didn’t Forget

A captain's perspective, 10 years later.



(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?

Speculation ranges from a strike on the Capitol building to a collision with the White House to an assault on Camp David. Perhaps the entries made into the FMC could offer a clue. To the best of my knowledge, the entry information has never been thoroughly analyzed. But it’s not important. Further devastation was thwarted by the heroics of the crew and passengers of United 93. The 757 impacted in a nonpopulated area near the now-famous town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The fact that United 93 departed late from Newark Airport made it the last airplane to be hijacked. And for that reason, passengers through cell phone usage were able to disseminate information that had accumulated from the previous three hijackings. Cell phone usage was possible because of the erratically low altitudes that the airplane attained. Exactly what transpired?

Much of the scenario has been pieced together through a timeline of sources: onboard conversations, radar track, ATC transmissions, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). In regard to the CVR, the transcript was released by the FBI. Although the flow of verbalization is chaotic, the transcript is nothing less than disturbing.

Having been involved as the lead critical-incident stress management member of my union’s investigation team during the aftermath of a devastating crash, I can tell you firsthand that the individual who volunteers to listen to the actual recording never walks away the same person. Never.

For United 93, it was Capt. David Dosch. Dosch was the best friend of United 93’s Capt. Jason Dahl. I had the recent privilege of speaking with Dosch. Although Dosch was more than accommodating throughout our conversation, pain still resonated in his voice.

Because the CVR tape was a continuous loop, only the last 30-minute interval prior to impact was captured. Dosch speculated that the copilot, LeRoy Homer, had left the cockpit to use the lavatory. Documentation indicates that, while the copilot was absent, Dahl responded to an ACARS message from the flight’s dispatcher. The message warned of a terrorist attack. Dahl queried the dispatcher via ACARS, asking for further verification.

Shortly thereafter, probably when the copilot attempted to re-enter the cockpit, the breach occurred. Two terrorists forcibly entered the flight deck. Screaming heard in the background provides evidence that a flight attendant was involved with attempting to prevent entry.

Some of the recordings indicate that Dahl attempted to resist. In addition, speculative evidence through the CVR suggests that a crew member somehow disabled the autopilot system. Judging by the erratic altitude and path of the airplane, the hijackers seemed unable to maintain control as they had been trained. Because of this control issue, the English translation of the Arabic dialog between the terrorists also suggests, a decision to abort the mission was under consideration.

In any case, the difficulty that the terrorists were experiencing allowed passengers time to attempt a takeover battle. As we are all painfully aware, the battle did not lead to survival. But we rightfully recognize and applaud the passengers’ efforts.

Unfortunately, lost in this recognition is a public acknowledgement of the flight crew’s efforts. This acknowledgement is absent from the subsequent speeches of many national public officials, including President George W. Bush. Was this an honest oversight or a deliberate act? I can guarantee you that not one pilot on those four ill-fated flights took an invasion of their cockpit without a fight.

Familiar with the persona of Jason Dahl, David Dosch has no doubt that his friend would have resisted till the end. Dosch describes Dahl as an omnipotent force. He was a workaholic who enjoyed the fun aspects of life, one of them being a love for sports cars. Dahl was a check airman for United. Just prior to 9/11, he was transitioning back to regular line flying. Sadly, Dahl had traded his original trip in order to have the time off to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife in London.

In an eerie twist of fate, Dahl had brought his son to Dosch’s 767 recurrent training session almost one month prior to 9/11. After the son had been subjected to the abuses of engine failures and other such emergencies in the simulator, Dosch announced that he would resume flying. Dahl remained at the simulator control panel. With the virtual reality of a New York City skyline displayed, Dosch flew a knife-edge pass between the Twin Towers. The memory of that innocent day still sends a chill through Dosch’s spine.

Despite the personal loss experienced by the Dahl family, a positive outcome has arisen from Dahl's death. With the help of Dosch and many others, Sandy Dahl, Jason's wife and a former flight attendant, have been managing a scholarship fund. The scholarship's purpose is to provide finances for a student pursuing a professional flying career. An applicant is required to complete an essay titled "Why I Want to Fly." Dahl had done exactly the same at his alma mater, San Jose State. Anyone at almost any university flight school can apply. Visit the website at dahlfund.org.

With 10 years having passed in the blink of an eye, have we learned from our mistakes? Are we providing a more secure product for our customers? I would like to think so. Regardless of new regulations, the creation of the TSA, full-body scanners, carry-on restrictions, air marshals, armed pilots, etc., the real improvements aren’t visible. The real improvements are in the minds of the flight crews.

The judgment that empowers us to safely operate the airplane also empowers us to make subjective decisions about our passengers. Be assured that most crews would rather suffer the embarrassment of political incorrectness than become another terrorist statistic.

Even with this post-9/11 attitude change, complacency occurs. Complacency is one of our biggest enemies. The bad guys are betting on it. Perhaps we can remain one step ahead of terrorist creativity rather than one step behind. Security procedures seem to reflect our reaction to the prior terrorist attempt. Shoe bomber: All passengers remove footwear for screening. Underwear bomber: Well, you get the point. Regardless, we can never let our guard down.

Hopefully, we are moving forward to a future that doesn’t include suicide underwear bombers. Until that time, airline crews will continue with their best efforts in keeping passengers safe. As for Sept. 11, 2001, none of us will ever forget.

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