Flying – The Day After

Captain Steven H. Philipson, CAP
September 13, 2001

Yesterday I went flying.  Normally that wouldn’t be anything unusual, but yesterday was not a normal day.  It was Wednesday, September 12, the day after the attack on the World Trade Center.  Flying yesterday was a bizarre and emotional experience.  I’m writing this account both to share the experience with others and as a record for myself of that peculiar and difficult day.

Exceedingly few aircraft were in the air on Wednesday.  So what was I doing flying that day?  I was on a blood transport mission for the American Red Cross as a pilot for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).  It was not a mission I expected to get.

On Tuesday morning I was awakened by a frantic call from one of my student pilots (I’m a flight instructor).  He was near hysterical in disbelief and shock with news of a jet having hit one tower of the World Trade Center.  I switched on my television as I spoke to him, and as we talked we saw the second plane hit the other tower.   By now I was well into shock and disbelief myself.  My student and I agreed that we should not fly a lesson that morning and that we’d talk more later.  I returned to my bedroom and told my wife what had happened, then just tried to contemplate the situation for a while.

It shortly occurred to me that there was a good chance that CAP might be asked to perform some tasks to support the Air Force or some government agency, so I called my Squadron Commander, Larry Edwards, to see if we’d been activated yet.  We had not, but I suggested that Larry call up the chain of command to see if anything was in the works.  After I hung up with him I thought about it some more and called him back with a suggestion — even if we did not have an official alert, we should probably alert our squadron members to be ready just in case anything came down.  Larry agreed that this was a good idea and we started making calls to our members.

Even before we were done an official alert was issued.  By order of the National Commander we were to get as many aircraft and crews ready and standing alert as was possible.  I called another of my Squadron’s Emergency Services rated pilots, Richard Palm, who agreed to answer the call with me to man the CAP airplane assigned to the Palo Alto squadron — N96658, a Cessna 182.

We met at the airplane before noon and were ready to go shortly thereafter.  By then we knew that all civil aircraft in the United States had been ordered to land, and the skies were empty of aircraft.  We stood on the ramp at Palo Alto and slowly scanned the sky — there wasn’t a single airplane to be seen for hours.  This is something that probably no one had experienced in at least 60 years — the airspace here is extremely busy, with at least 9 airports including 3 major air carrier airports within 25 miles of Palo Alto.   Eventually we did see one aircraft — a 747 that had been over the Pacific when the grounding order came.  It was destined for Los Angeles but was diverted to San Francisco.  What we didn’t see were two F-16 fighter jets that were “escorting” it to landing.  It wasn’t until several hours later that it occurred to me that the F-16s weren’t there to protect that plane, but rather to shoot it down if it deviated from its assigned flight path.  That thought stunned me — just hours earlier that would have been unthinkable, but in those few short hours the world had dramatically changed.

Richard and I stood alert all day.  After a few hours we really didn’t expect to be tasked with a mission but we remained on alert anyway.  We were joined at our squadron building by several other squadron members  who just wanted to be there in case they could be of any help.  In the early evening we were told to stand down for the day and received thanks for the response — in California alone some 57 CAP corporate and member owned aircraft were staffed and ready to go within three hours.

On Wednesday morning another alert went out but with lesser urgency.  Each unit with a corporate aircraft was asked to provide one crew who could be ready to depart for the airport on short notice, but the crews didn’t have to stand ready at the airplane.  Richard and I again accepted this assignment.  I took all of my flight gear with me when I left my house but told my wife that given how things had gone on Tuesday I really didn’t expect that we’d be asked to do anything.   I had to go to the airport in the morning anyway as I had a ground lesson to give (we certainly weren’t planning on doing any flying).

As I drove to the airport I was surprised to see that someone had placed American flags at each overpass on the freeway.  I was even more surprised at my emotional reaction.  Some stranger had made a statement to thousands of people that he didn’t know that we all stand together.  It was comforting and bewildering at the same time — that someone would do that, that something had happened that made it meaningful to do that… it was indescribably sweet and painful at the same time.

Somewhere around 1:00 PM my pager went off — it was a mission, and a long one.  I called Jan Ostrat, one of our Mission Coordinators in CAP.  We had been given the task of moving blood for the Red Cross from Oakland to San Diego and Portland.  Jan offered me my choice of destinations.  I opted for Portland.  He told me that we had to move six 16″ square boxes of blood from Oakland to Portland, and asked if I thought that we could fit that in a C-182.  I wasn’t sure, but thought that we should be able to squeeze that many boxes into the plane if we really worked at it.  Then began a mad rush to prepare for the trip.  I had to get weather, plan an instrument flight rules flight, then coordinate with air traffic control (ATC) before departing.

It was while I was getting my weather briefing that I got my first taste of how the shock of the events of the day before were causing deterioration in my ability to function.  I was using the computer terminal at my flying club to get the weather, and meanwhile other club members were watching news reports on two TVs they brought in from home.  The TVs were on either side of me — it made for a powerful effect.  While I was trying to decode the arcane language of weather contractions I was also listening to an interview of a woman whose husband had been on the flight that crashed near Pittsburgh.  She talked about speaking to him by phone after the hijackers had taken over, and how he had told her that he and the other passengers were going to “do something.”  Then she spoke of telling her two children, one five years old and one about two, that their daddy had died and wouldn’t be coming home.  I lost my father when I was three, and now I have two daughters, one twelve and one two.  The thought of that woman’s loss and the children’s loss was devastating to me.  It was too close to home.  I couldn’t make any headway on that weather briefing and had to beg the indulgence of the other club members to turn off the sound on the TVs.  I just couldn’t think while listening to that.

When I had the route planned I called Flight Service.  The briefer told me that I was the first guy he spoke to all day who was actually going to fly.  He typed my route of flight into the ATC computer as we spoke, verifying the correctness of the route.  That was a bit of a surprise in and of itself — normally they just take the route and type it in later, then we get a corrected route when we pick up the clearance before departure.  Since the briefer didn’t have anyone else needing his attention this time he typed it in while I was still on the phone.

Once we had the route worked out he had me call Bay Approach for a transponder squawk code.  They spent a few minutes checking my information (name, aircraft N-number, authorization from Washington for the flight, etc.) and then gave me a squawk code — to be used for all three legs of the flight.  That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that being done.  They then asked me to call back Flight Service and tell them the squawk.  I did that, and then there turned out to be another question, so there was one more pair of calls to Bay and Flight Service.  Then it was off to the airplane to depart.

Richard had been preparing the airplane while I got the weather and filed the flight plan.  We topped the oil, added some fuel (this was going to be a long flight), and finished inspecting the airplane.  While we were paying for the fuel a woman pilot walked up to ask the lineman to refuel her airplane after he was done with ours.  She talked to us for a few minutes and added the kind of gesture we’re probably going to see a lot — she offered her services and her airplane in case they might be needed.

We made a few last minute preparations — took out everything from the airplane we didn’t need and brought along some oxygen masks (nasal canulae, actually) just in case we decided to use oxygen enroute. We also made sure that we had a copy of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) on board, just in case we needed to refresh our memories on the interception procedure.We then started up and called the tower to depart.  I think we were the first departure from Palo Alto that day.  On a typical day there are well over 100.

ATC gave us the most direct route I’ve ever heard of for an IFR flight from Palo Alto to Oakland — after takeoff right turn heading 060, radar vectors to the ILS runway 27 right at Oakland. Oakland was under some stratus clouds so we actually flew the ILS approach.  We were in the air for about 17 minutes, and it took us all of 29 minutes engine start to stop to make the trip.  That’s less than it usually takes under visual flight rules.

We pulled up to Kaiser at Oakland at about 3 PM to find a Red Cross van waiting and another CAP aircraft already loading.  Then we were told that there were not six but seven boxes of blood for us to move.  And surprise, the boxes are too big to load through the baggage door.  OK, so we’ll load them through the main cabin doors.  Then we found that they were too big to go over the seat backs to be put in the baggage compartment.  This shouldn’t be a problem — the seat backs on a C-182 fold down.  Whoops — somewhere in the life of this airplane someone removed the unlatching mechanism for the seat backs.  There was no lever to be found to release the seats.

A little inspection of the mechanism showed a good place to apply pressure, and I used my Leatherman tool to push the releases — voila!  We folded down the backs and managed to wedge three boxes into the baggage area, and then four on the rear seat.  The clearance from seat cushion to headliner is only about 31 inches — we had to compress the seat cushions to slide the boxes in two high.   There was only about 2 inches of space between the boxes side to side.  We placed our pilot gear on the floor in front of the rear seats but had to move the front seats forward a bit to do so.  This made it difficult to get into the airplane but we managed.  We were really maxed out on volume — there wasn’t space to put anything else in the plane. Fortunately, we had burned off enough fuel on the flight across the bay to allow for the weight of the extra box.

Now that we were loaded we had to pick up our clearance for the long leg from Oakland to Portland.  I called flight service again and gave them our assigned squawk.  They came back with a clearance route and a new squawk.  I questioned the briefer about this and he said “Hey, you’re right.  That’s not correct.  Hmmm…   Hang on a minute while I check with Bay — I don’t want you seeing any F-16’s tonight.”  I answered “That used to be a joke.”  And he replied “Yeah, but it isn’t one tonight.”  Eerie stuff.

The word came back that they indeed wanted us to use the new squawk and off we went.  We started up again at 3:41 PM and were quickly cleared for takeoff — there was virtually no other traffic at Oakland.   Not a single airliner was moving on the ground or in the air.  I’d never seen that at Oakland before either.

The flight up to Portland was long and strange.  We heard a total of 5 other civil aircraft on the radio as we flew — two CHP aircraft, two CDF firefighters, one of whom was having engine problems, and one other air ambulance flight.  And we heard ATC talking to flights of fighters.  We couldn’t hear them as they transmit on UHF frequencies and we use VHF, but ATC transmits on both at once (so pilots can tell when they’re talking to someone else) so we knew they were there.

Our computer-generated flight plan included forecasts of very light or calm winds at our cruising altitude.  It didn’t work out that way.  We had headwinds of around 15 knots most of the way which made each leg of the route just a little longer.  They were feeling plenty long to begin with as it was very quiet on the radio and we had lots of time to think.  Every so often Richard or I would comment to each other on how we were feeling.  Things like “Every time I remember why we’re here I can’t believe it.”  Or “I really need to NOT think about that interview I heard”  or simply “I wish it would all just go away.”

Then there were the simple realities of everyday life complicated by the strangeness of this day.  About halfway to Portland I realized that my bladder was not going to be able to make it for another hour, let alone another two which is how far it was to Portland.  On a normal day I’d just tell ATC that we needed to make a stop, pick a place and land, hit the rest room, and then resume the trip.  On this day I really didn’t want to be making requests for unplanned stops!  So something had to be done in flight.  I normally keep a relief pack in my airplane (a bag which contains an absorbent gell which locks up whatever liquid you pour into it), but this was CAP’s airplane and not mine.  I did have a 20oz bottle of Diet Coke I was working on with just a few ounces left in it.  Well, it could make a mess if I missed but I didn’t have much choice.  I handed control of the plane to Richard, finished off the Coke, then proceeded to refill the bottle… to within an ounce of full, without spilling a drop.  We got a good laugh out of that, and we really needed a good laugh.

I also began to recognize the subtle incapacitation that the stress was causing.  As we approached Portland Richard asked me how I planned to transition from our enroute clearance to an instrument approach.  It was only then that I realized we had been cleared to an initial approach fix for an apporach that was out of service.  Normally I’d pick up that kind of problem immediately but today I just didn’t see it.  And it was only much later that I remembered that I always carry a relief pack in my flight case.  Yeah, I was definitely not firing on all cylinders.  It was really a great help to have another instrument rated pilot there with nothing to do but pick at my errors.  Between us we made one reasonably competent pilot.

The weather at Portland was beautiful and we got a visual approach.  After four hours of tense flying I made only a fair landing, bouncing gently down the runway on the main gear instead of putting it on the ground smoothly.  The 15 knot wind shear and downdraft on final approach didn’t particularly help, but I recovered from those complications uneventfully.  By now it was nearly 8 PM.

We were greeted at FlightCraft by five people who didn’t seem to have much else to do.  They told us that they had seen only one other aircraft arrive that day — an air ambulance flight that was still there.  This at a 24 hour facility that normally hums with constant activity.  Another Red Cross van was waiting for us and we unloaded quickly.  The blood was off the airplane and they departed within about 5 minutes of our arrival.  I chatted briefly with the lineman who came out to refuel our aircraft.  I told him about the interview I had heard earlier and had to choke back tears while I spoke.  He told me he had heard that too and he understood — he had small children too.  There was a sense that we were all in this together, which I suppose we are.

The line crew directed us to the rest area and vending machines in the lounge.  We needed a break and some refreshment, and fortunately the machines there held a few things that were a resonable facsimile of real food.  After we had a bite and some drinks we called Flight Service again for a weather update and clearance for the return trip.  The briefer got pretty excited and had some difficulty giving us the weather: “All I’ve been doing all day is answering the phone and saying no, no, no, and now I can’t remember how to give a briefing!”  We got yet another new squawk which I questioned again.  And again I got the response — “let me check this for you — I don’t want you seeing F-16s tonight.” Yeah, that’s reassuring.

When we went back out to the plane we found ourselves alone — the line crew was gone.  We rechecked fuel and oil and climbed aboard for the return trip.  We heard nothing at all on any of the radio frequencies at Portland — we were the only aircraft moving.  After takeoff as we climbed out I turned left over the center of the airport to look down on the airline parking ramp and saw something that was not unexpected but was still hard to believe.  I keyed the mike and said “Tower, CAPFLIGHT 458.  I’ve never seen an airport this size with a jet at every gate before.”  And tower replied “Yeah, well, neither have we.”

The flight back was faster as we had tailwinds instead of headwinds.  Also, knowing that we had delivered our precious cargo made things feel a little lighter. Still, there were plenty of signs that things were not normal.  Shortly after takeoff from Portland we were given a heading to fly and cleared direct Red Bluff, which was nearly 300 miles away.  We couldn’t even get a whisper of the Red Bluff VORTAC on our nav receiver — we were way outside its range.  And well before we got to Red Bluff we were cleared direct Scaggs Island (Napa), again too far away to hear.  Richard cracked a small joke: “Yes, as a matter of fact, we DO own the whole damn sky.”  It certainly felt that way.

Of course we knew we weren’t completely alone.  When we checked in with Seattle Center we were told to stand by as the controller was dealing with an emergency.  He was talking to the flight leader of a group of F-16s, and the leader had a problem.  We only heard the controller’s side of the conversation but were able to piece together what was happening.  The flight leader reported a PCS-1 failure (hydraulic system) and was asking for “the cable,” meaning that he thought it possible that his brakes wouldn’t work and wanted the arresting cable rigged at the end of the runway in case he needed it to stop.  He also asked to be brought in last so that he wouldn’t create a problem for the rest of his flight if he fouled the runway.  ATC then separated the flight into two sections — the flight lead and the rest of his group.  The controller was trying to put some space between the two groups and the pilot evidently objected to the delay.  The controller explained why he was doing it, but the pilot evidently didn’t agree — we then heard the controller say “Roger MARSA,” which stands for Military Assumes Responsibility for Separation of Aircraft.”  Things seemed to move along quickly after that.  We didn’t get to hear whether the flight made it down OK, but we didn’t hear anything about it in the news either so everything probably worked out.

When we were handed off to Oakland Center we really didn’t hear a thing for a long, long time.  After about 45 minutes I couldn’t stand the silence any more so I keyed the mike and said “Center, CAPFLIGHT 458.  You still there?”  I got a single word reply.  “Yup.”  So I asked further “Are we the only plane you’re talking to?”  And he answered “I’ve got one little dot crawling across my screen and it’s you.”   Still, every so often we would see fast movers in the distance and knew that they were almost certainly fighters.  It was very eerie.

A considerable time before we reached Scaggs Island we were cleared direct Oakland, direct Palo Alto.  On a normal night that’s too good to be true but tonight there was no traffic to worry about so there was no reason to not give us that.  We checked weather and as we expected saw that we’d need to shoot an instrument approach to get back into Palo Alto, so I asked for direct San Jose (the initial approach fix for Palo Alto).  ATC gave that to us immediately.  I dialed up San Jose VORTAC and could receive it, so then I tried the DME (distance measuring equipment).  To my surprise it popped up with something like 85.3 miles to San Jose.  DME works in a competitive manner with aircraft closer to the station or with stronger signals getting first priority.  Since airliners have DME transmitters with 10 times the power of those on our airplane and since signal strength drops off rapidly with distance, the most I’d ever seen was something like 65 miles to a station.  I was intrigued and thought it’d be interesting to see what other DME stations I could receive.  I tried a few which were a little further away and then tried El Nido — which popped up as 125 miles distance.  This really surprised me as I didn’t know that the receiver could show that far a distance.  It normally reads out as two digits of range plus a decimal point.  Now it read three digits of range with no decimal.  I’d never seen that before and didn’t even know it could do that.  But tonight it couldbecause there was no one else competing for the attention of the navaid.  And then Richard added to his earlier quip:  “Not only do we own the whole damn sky, we own all the damn navaids too!”   That was good for another sorely needed laugh.

As we neared San Jose we finally heard another aircraft — another air ambulance headed into Oakland.  As I listened to ATC talk to him and we were within a few miles of  San Jose I began to wonder to myself when ATC would begin vectoring us for the final approach to Palo Alto.  It was then that Richard asked me what type of holding entry I was planning on for the procedure turn at San Jose for the approach to Palo Alto.  Duh!  It hadn’t occured to me that ATC wasn’t going to provide us vectors for the approach and that we’d do it all under our own navigation. Stress and fatigue were definitely working on me and I was not running my normal “what if” scenario analyses — I was behind the game.  Normally even under fairly light  traffic conditions you’ll be vectored for the approach so that they can fit you in between other arrivals and departures.  Since there was no one else there, I suppose the controller saw no reason to vector us.  So I spent a frantic 30 seconds or so figuring out what technique to use and made my decision just seconds prior to arriving at San Jose.  I ended up flying a near perfect teardrop entry but would have been really screwed up if Richard hadn’t asked that question.  Yet another example of good crew coordination under stress!

The approach to Palo Alto was uneventful and I made another only-fair landing.  Not too bad after about 9 hours of flying.  When we shut the airplane down it was 1:25 AM.  Then we had to refuel, park the airplane and prep it for the next crew who might get another mission in just a few hours.  By the time I got home it was 3 AM.  And then it was up at 7 AM to help get our 12 year old off to school… life goes on.

Looking back, it was a very long and weird day of flying.  A 1000 mile IFR flight in a light airplane is moderately demanding to begin with, but with all the horrific images in our heads and thoughts of families and lives ripped apart, and the drum beats of war in our ears it was much more stressful and tiring than usual.  It was unnerving to see and hear so little traffic and to be in the air when almost nothing else was.  Still, it felt very good to be serving our country in this small way.  And I was much more aware of the flag sewn onto the left arm of my flight suit than I’ve ever been before.  Somehow it felt a little brighter and lighter than it ever felt before.  I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s — I’d never have believed that I’d have that kind of feeling.  Yet there it is.  I suppose that there will be a lot of unexpected feelings and thoughts in days to come.  But I surely hope that we don’t have any more days of flying like this one again.