9/11: A Fighter Pilot’s Account

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot with the 494th Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, recalls September 11, 2001.

Here’s the article written by D.S. a US fighter pilot for his blog (and reposted here with his permission) to describe his 9/11 on the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC. I’ve already described how the US Air Defense responded to them in my article “US Air Defense response to the September 11 attacks: known and unknown facts” and how the Air Force One moved across the US to keep President Bush safe. I think it is interesting to know how the UK-based 48FW reacted to what was happening thousand miles away and which sensations an American pilot stationed outside the US lived on the the day that changed the world as we knew it.

My 9/11

Nine years ago today I was stationed at Royal Air Force base Lakenheath, UK flying the F-15E Strike Eagle in the 48th Fighter Wing, 494th Fighter Squadron. It was a normal day and due to the time zone difference we had already flown a morning sortie and had gone to the Officer’s Club on base for lunch. My wife had met me there and we had sat down to enjoy some time together before I had to be back at the squadron. The normal TV in the squadron always had the news on but the volume was never turned up; instead the club usually played some music off their CD player. I’ll never forget someone getting our attention to the TV behind the bar when they news broke in to show one of the World Trade Center towers heavily damaged with thick black smoke pouring out of the upper floors. It was a shocking sight that the entire world would see before the end of the day.

As the entire room’s attention focused on the news, we turned the volume up to hear the broadcaster announce that an airplane of some type had crashed into the tower. No other information was known at the time. They didn’t specify the type of plane or how it had happened, just the fact that some type of plane had crashed. In 2001, I had already been a pilot for over 10 years. The weather in NYC that day was perfect. Not a cloud to be seen anywhere on the TV. I knew in my gut from that moment that the crash was deliberate. I turned to my wife and said, “that’s a creative way to blow up the towers”. I had been thinking back to a previous attempt to take down the towers when a van filled with explosives had been driven into the underground parking lot and exploded. Security on street level had been increased significantly since then, making it all but impossible to duplicate that act. It only made sense that to generate a similar effect you could bypass all that security by attacking the towers from the air. My initial thought was that a terrorist had taken a small plane and crashed it deliberately into one of the upper floors to make a statement.

That had reminded me of a small plane that had been crashed into the White House a few years earlier when I used to live near Washington DC. That had made the evening news and I was so curious I went down to take a look at the wreckage. I managed to get to the White House before they had moved any of the wreckage away. The plane had crumbled up next to the building and done very little damage. (Small planes can’t pack very much explosive power, even when fully loaded with fuel). Based on that previous observation I figured this time the plane must have been packed with explosives to cause the kind of damage to the WTC tower we were seeing on TV.

After watching the news for a few minutes, I knew my life was about to change drastically for the foreseeable future. I had been around long enough to know that with any type of terrorist attack, the US was likely to respond with force. Being in the UK, we were already several thousand miles closer to potential targets than our US based forces, so it was logical that we might be quickly tasked to response to such an attack. I had a short discussion with my wife about what was likely to occur in the next few hours and that it would probably be best if she went home until I could call her with an update. We said goodbye and she left for home as I headed back to the squadron.

I arrived back at the squadron and some folks hadn’t even gotten the news yet. The full scale of the mornings events on the east coast hadn’t even occurred yet, so we were still just learning about the first attack on the WTC towers. As I started to inform my squadron mates on the initial news of the crash, we started getting details in that it was a commercial plane involved. The moment the news sank in that the terrorists had hijacked a commercial airliner and crashed it into the tower killing everyone on board, we knew what lay ahead for us. It’s called war.

Most of us had been deployed to combat before. A lot of the squadron had been involved in Operation Allied Force, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Northern Watch, and even a couple had been around since Desert Storm. We all knew this was going to be the beginning of the next “Operation”. As we were all trying to figure out the scope of the attack, the news broke real time of the second plane hitting the other tower. The feeling of shock and disbelief hit all of us as quickly as a punch in the gut. As news of the Pentagon crash reached us it finally start to sink in that this was bigger than anyone could have ever imagined. At that point it wasn’t just an attack that we were watching on TV, it was an attack on all of us.

The base went to it’s highest alert levels to defend itself against a possible attack. We had practiced drills like this before, but this time it was for real. I had never seen anything like it before. The entire base went on total lock down. I’m glad my wife was already home because folks still on base weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The base was secure. It would take an army to get through our security forces. We still had jets that were out flying local training missions. They were told to immediately return as fast as possible and conduct a combat arrival to minimize risk of being shot at. Crews flying at the time didn’t know all the details, but they knew something big must have happened to be given those instructions. They lit the afterburners and all came back to base supersonic. In fact, the sonic booms caused the local police to get calls of possible bomb explosions which generated much confusion for several hours. After we had safely recovered all the wings fighters back to base, they were immediately reconfigured for combat. Live missiles and weapons were loaded and the fighter wing started to prepare for offensive combat operations. Our long range fuel tanks were uploaded under the wings and each jet was fully loaded with fuel for a possible long range strike mission. As our jets were being configured for war, our aircrew were being prepped for a possible deployment.

We initiated a squadron recall, contacting every person in the unit. Confirming their location and position to make sure everyone was ok. Most were already at work, some were on leave and not in the local area. All leave was cancelled and folks started coming back to base. Some were told to stay home and start packing. Others already at work were told to call home and have our wives start packing us up. Most of us already had a deployment bag ready. It was a hit and run bag that we could grab with no notice and take with us. It would get us by for a week or two, but given the time, most would like to grab a few more things. Next was to pack the squadron. Each office in the squadron is ready to deploy. Most shops or offices in the squadron keep a hit and run locker that can be loaded on a transport in pretty short order. When given the word, we started loading our lockers on a pallet out behind the squadron. When the pallet was ready, it would be loaded onto to a cargo plane or tanker capable of carrying it with us to our destination. None of us knew where we were going, how long we’d be gone, or when we’d be coming back. All we knew was this attack wasn’t go to go unanswered and we’d be ready to launch as soon as the word came down.

Within a few short hours, we were ready to launch. The squadron was packed, our bags were ready, the jets were fueled, we watched the news. The base was still locked down and we all sat and watched the news as the full details were now becoming clear as 4 jets had been hijacked and crashed and the entire airspace over the United States had been shut down. We stayed in our ready rooms until it was too late for us to launch that day. At some point it became clear to our leadership that we had time to go home and get some sleep, we probably weren’t going to be leaving that day. When the call was made, we all left for home, leaving just a few at the squadron to monitor the phones, just in case.

Arriving home, you can only imagine the shared concern our families had over what had that day, as well as what future lay ahead. My bags were neatly waiting for me by the front door. Just to be safe, I put them in the trunk of the car. I packed a few extra things in a spare bag and threw that in the car as well. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had gotten a call in the middle of the night telling us to come in, it was go time.

We went to sleep that night, Sept 11th, 2001, knowing that the world had changed. It wouldn’t be long before our jets would be flying combat missions over Afghanistan. They were there in 2001, they are still there today, and they will continue to be there in the future as long as they are needed to answer our nations calling. Little did I know that day at lunch in the Officer’s Club, that in the next 9 years, I would spend almost 3 years deployed to the Middle East spread over 5 different deployments.

It has been a major part of our life. For an old guy like me, it’s consumed almost 25% of my life. For some of our younger members, it’s almost half. For some’s military service, it’s all they know. It’s not something we remember once a year, it’s something we live every day. Four of my friends have been killed in combat and those memories will never fade.

As long as there are extreme people in this world that want nothing more than to utterly destroy our way of life, we must never forget that day, nine years ago today, 9/11/01. May those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country never be forgotten.

Freedom is not free.

This article, courtesy of @Shotgun15e, was originally posted At 08:46:26 LT on Sept.11, 2011, exactly 10 years after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, between floors 93 and 99.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.