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David Dunlap - Delta 767 Pilot: 9/11 Story

Sept 7th: flew to NYC. The weather was nice and I strolled down to the financial district. The Captain I was flying with thought that I did such a good job that he wrote me up. We have little “attaboy” forms, and he handed me one on the crew bus. I wasn’t surprised. I used to do my job pretty well.

Sept 9th: at home, went to look at new furniture.

Sept 10th: flew out of LAX with Paul W. Had smoke in the cabin. It turned out to be a hot air-conditioning pack. I realized that the A Line (head flight attendant) was a little high strung. The other flight attendants came up one by one to say “Hey” (you can tell if it’s a good group if they take the trouble to visit with you.) I showed them all pictures of my baby, Sam. I had his pictures in a book I keep my charts for my current trip in. One of the flight attendants was especially nice, I remember her name, Donettelli, because I have been trying to learn Italian for the past couple of years. She came up and admired my baby, and gave Paul and me a good natured hard time. Other than that it was a nice flight.

We landed at Boston and taxied in. Paul managed to misunderstand some taxi instructions, and I managed to not back him up. The result was that we had to make a very jerky and serpentine ride around the airport. It’s just the kind of thing pilots hate: “showing your ass.” Everybody on the frequency gets to hear Delta screwing up, and a select few get to see it. I gave Paul crap, but not too much, as the unwritten decorum of the cockpit dictates. Paul is a good guy and didn’t try to blame me for his mistakes. Of course that made me wish I could have backed him up better.

We got to the hotel and I went down to Legal Seafood to meet my dad and my brother Rich. Rich had been in a terrible accident earlier in the summer. He was taking a bicycle trip in France and was hit by a bus. Broke everything, almost died, the whole nine yards. I had only seen him once since the accident and looked forward to seeing him again on the layover. He was still in a wheelchair but the prognosis was good. Better than that, I saw that he and my dad were getting along well. They had a long-running communication problem that seemed to have been made insignificant by my brother’s brush with death. My parents had rushed to France and done a heroic job of being there for him.

During the course of the conversation, my brother expressed worry about my chosen field. I told him, based upon my firm grasp of statistics, that, “Nothing bad will ever happen to me in an airplane.”

I went back to the hotel room and couldn’t sleep. I was excited to get back home, as we were going to have some friends staying over, and I really missed my little family. When Sept 10th became Sept 11th I was watching a PBS documentary about the history of New York City.


Sept 11th: got up for the early show, really tired, got on the van with a couple of express crews. They talked the whole way, drove me nuts. Got to the airport. Don’t remember security, vaguely remember getting coffee from Starbucks. Got the plane ready, talked to the flight attendants.

I’d been doing that trip for the last couple of months and every time, ATC would give you a full route re-clearance right before you were supposed to push back. I made preparations for that, but they didn’t do it (much to my relief.) I really wanted to get home early because we were going to have friends visiting and I had 4 days off. The Capt and I were getting along well, turned out we were both big Simpsons fans. We laughed about an episode where two characters both think that death is imminent and one (both men) looks at the other and says “Oh what the hell…I love you!” To which the other replies, “Well, thank you for making my last moments on earth socially awkward.” I joked to Paul that if anything happened to us that day, I was going to tell him I loved him and the rest was up to him.

We had to wait to push back while American (the first plane to hit) got out first. After we pushed back we screwed up the taxi instructions again and joked that the controllers would be glad to see us go. We took off going east, out over the water. The flight director wanted me to go 250 knots but I knew if I kept the nose up a little higher we would reach the altitude for the westbound turn sooner and save a couple of minutes. After we turned to the west I hooked up the autopilot so that I could look for the house I grew up in. I had never been able to see it, and it was an amazing clear fall day. Again I had no luck.

We flew to altitude rather quickly, and started bugging the flight attendants for food. The company had finally started to supply meals to the crews in the form of box lunches. They aren’t very good and the breakfast is all sugar. We were hoping to get a First Class omelet or two. The flight attendants were a good bunch and they told us that they would come up as soon as they could.

As we waited, odd things started to happen. Airplanes were flying in unusual directions and I saw what I thought were people holding. I couldn’t figure out why they would be holding on a day like that. We switched to a new frequency and heard the controller say, “I’m not at liberty to say.” That struck me as odd. He then told another plane that all of the airports in the New York area were shut down due to an “incident.” Paul and I both looked at each other. What kind of incident would shut down more than one airport. “Fuck...I hope they didn’t nuke the place.” We laughed about it, but we figured it was something stupid like a power outage. While Paul worked the radio, I sent a message off to dispatch, asking them what was up. They sent back a message saying that a plane hit the WTC. Still no realization of what was going on. We figured it was a doctor in a Bonanza. Paul dialed up an AM radio station on the ADF and we listened to the guy say it was a plane out of Boston.

Then we started to get some pretty extreme vectors. I remember Paul joking that we ought to bitch at them (normally, any vector off course on a smooth clear day is seen as bad ATC work and would attract some complaints). We both laughed about it. Of course we wouldn’t bitch at them, as they clearly had their hands full. I found out later that they thought we had a hijacker on board and wanted to see if we would respond. We flew south then north then back west again.

The chronology of the next events isn’t entirely clear to me. We were told that there was a plane on freq with a bomb on board and asked if we could see it. We looked for it and I believe we saw it out of our left window. Hard to say for sure, we had a couple of targets out there and it was hard to differentiate aircraft type. The lead flight attendant had just brought up two First Class omelets, and I managed to take one bite. I had been very hungry, but my appetite was starting to disappear. It was about that time that we heard over the AM radio that another plane had hit the World Trade Center. Actually, I think I heard the commentator say, “Jesus Christ!…A second plane has just struck the World Trade Center!” Flight 93 had passed off our left wing now and Paul and I had both thrown the food to the back of the cockpit. I remember him saying that the “shit is hitting the fan.”

As I said, the AM radio banter that I was half listening to kept saying something about the planes being out of Boston. Now that was starting to make me wonder. Then we received a message on the ACARS (a kind of aircraft email system). It was a short message from our dispatcher saying “Land immediately in Cleveland.” Paul typed back a quick “OK” A few minutes later we received a second message that said something like “Confirm landing in Cleveland. Use correct phraseology.” Paul and I looked at each other; there is no correct phraseology on the ACARS. That was the moment that I really started to worry. I remember thinking, “They think something is going to happen to this plane.”

Of course, changing the destination of a scheduled flight is no small thing. There is a lot to do. Paul and I started to do pull out charts and get computers reprogrammed. It was just about that time that we heard the controller tell someone that they’d lost contact with flight 93.

Fuck.

Something was going on and we are right in the middle of it. My first real concern was that there was a bomb on board. When the controller said they lost contact, I assumed that the plane blew up. I had no idea that there was a heroic struggle taking place in that 757 as it flew past us. As we descended Paul and I both knew that bombs are often set to go off with changes of altitude.

When you go through pilot training you spend the whole time trying to imagine yourself in awful situations and figure out how you would save the day. Pilots always put on the old “aw shucks, it’s easy” routine, but the fact of the matter is we take the safety of the people in the back very, very seriously. Your worst fear as a pilot is that you will make a mistake and hurt people, or have a solution to a crisis and overlook it.

As we descended into CLE I had a feeling that this was going to be my opportunity to save the day. I was flying, so Paul was doing the real busywork – talking to different people on various radios, making sure the flight attendants were in the loop, making sure I was in the loop. I was just flying. Flying and going over every little thing I ever learned about any system or procedure on that 767. If something catastrophic happened, if a bomb went off or someone tried to come through the door, if half the plane fell off, I was damned if I wasn’t going to save the day…or at least try hard enough so that they spoke well of us at recurrent training. (I remember hearing that the Captain of TWA 800 had broken wrists and ankles when they finally recovered his body. That means he was still flying when he hit the water. He never gave up.)

As hydraulic schematics danced in my head I heard a controller say to Paul, “I understand you’re a trip today.”

Fuck.

Back in the pre-9/11 days, the thought was that hijackers just wanted a ride somewhere. It was thought that the best thing to do was to let them do what they wanted and then get the plane on the ground and delay, delay, delay. That way law enforcement could come up with a plan and look for an opportunity to act. One of the ways that you could convey to an air traffic controller that you were being hijacked was, instead of saying “Delta flight 1989,” you would say “Delta trip 1989.” That way, ATC could get the ball rolling without tipping off the hijackers. It wasn’t something that you ever expected to hear from ATC.

Paul told them that we were, in fact, not a trip. The controller seemed to understand.

Paul said, “Let’s just get this thing on the ground.”

The descent into Cleveland took a small eternity. I wanted a tight high pattern right to the numbers, but they gave us excruciatingly small descents and kept us so wide on downwind I could hardly see the airport. I realized that they were descending us over the lake. Comforting. I’m sure they were worried about the people on the ground. I heard the next day (and read in the newspaper) that we were escorted by a couple of F16s. I can’t confirm that, although I fly with a lot of fighter pilots and it won’t surprise me if I fly with the one who was “escorting” me.

On the descent I remember being asked three separate times if we were a “trip.” Each time we said no and each time it gave me a chill. Finally they turned us on final; they must have been satisfied that we were in control of the aircraft. I lined up with the runway and made an incredibly good landing. The tower controller had been telling everyone, “Taxi immediately to your gate…” Not the usual controller fare. The aircraft in front of us had turned left off the end of the runway, as had the one before him. I was anticipating and planning the same. As we rolled out, however, the tower told us to turn right off the runway. I figured that the normal path to the gates was clogged and they were taking us around the other end. As we backtracked down the taxiway we were told to “turn left onto taxiway bravo and wait there.” I looked at the airport diagram and noticed that taxiway bravo was in a very remote part of the field, about as far from the terminal as you could be.

We stopped the airplane and Paul set the brake. He was taking a moment to decide what to say to the passengers. (He had already told them roughly what was going on, and it turns out some of them had made phone calls in the air and knew in full detail the events of the day.) While he collected his thoughts, I called my wife. I got the machine, and told her I was on the ground in Cleveland. That was a bit of good luck; the baby let her sleep that morning so she heard my voice before she ever turned on the television. Then I called my dad. He answered, but he hadn’t heard what was going on. If I keep flying for another ten years I will probably match the amount of time the old man has logged in airplanes. His job sends him around the country constantly. He’s a real road warrior.

“Hey dad, I just wanted you to know that I’m in safe on the ground in Cleveland.”

“Good for you…”

Under normal circumstances, being in Cleveland isn’t something that inspires Dad. I told him to turn on the TV and hung up.

As Paul talked to the passengers and the flight attendants, I gave ops a call. They told me that we should sit tight and that the FBI was going to come out to greet us. (Actually it was a little more complicated than that, ground told me to call ops, ops told me to call ground, neither one seemed to be very forthcoming with info, but in the end the message was sit and wait.)

I had been relieved to be on the ground, but now the tension was rising again. This sure seemed like delay tactics to me. No one would give us a straight answer and the ops and ground people kept asking us things like, “Are you broadcasting in the clear?” and “Are you sure you can talk freely?” I just wanted to get the fuck off the airplane. Paul was trying to keep the flight attendants and the passengers in the loop, while still keeping control of the situation. He was coming in and out of the cockpit and I was thinking we should shut the door and leave it shut. I started to think if there was anything I could do. We are trained to do things. All over our procedures say that in the event of a hijacking, the crew should try to escape. Not your first thought as a pilot: “ Ok, I’ve got all these people in my charge, at the first opportunity I’m going to run like hell…” On further inspection the policy makes sense. You can fly the airplane, but if you leave, the airplane can’t fly. Only it seemed the airplane might be able to fly without us. I wasn’t sure of much on that day, but I was damn sure that airline pilots didn’t fly into those buildings. No way. Why would you? If you’re going to kill me and every one else on the plane anyway, we’re going in the Hudson River, you dirty son of a bitch. No, those guys were dead or incapacitated.

So what to do? I came up with a way to disable the plane if the need arose and opened up the window. I figured I could grab the rope and be out in 10 seconds. Paul got off the PA and asked me what I was doing. If anyone tries to get in the cockpit, I’m going out the window. His initial reaction was to chuckle, then he thought for a second and said under his breath, “That’s not a bad idea…” He cranked open the window and we sat there on one of the nicest days I can remember, with a cool breeze blowing, listening to the WTC falling as we watched men in white shirts and black pants gather on the periphery of the airport.

We had one of the flight attendants up in the cockpit and we were talking about what was going on when we saw a small fox walking across the grass. It was a nice little diversion. We all stopped to silently watch him traipse across the field. Then the fox suddenly sprang up in the air and came down on a large rodent which he proceeded to tear into bloody chunks. We all winced. “I didn’t need to see that,” someone said. I agreed silently.

After an hour some of the passengers started to do the math about a bomb with a timer on it. We were due into LAX in another hour and a half, and they wanted to get off of that airplane. We had one woman on board whose mother was on the American flight. They were both airline employees, her with Delta and her mother with American. Since the flights left at the same time, they probably figured it was easier to split up and to meet in LA. The woman was understandably upset. (My mother told me that her dentist treated a woman who was on my flight. She was with a group who had split up and were on their way to Hawaii, again half on us and half on American. ) We began to push harder for someone to come and get us off the plane. I was worried someone would blow a slide, then we would have a real mess on our hands.

Finally, two hours later, we got word that SWAT and the FBI were coming out. Upon receipt of the news Paul jumped up and went in the back to make a PA announcement. We had pretty well figured out that none of our passengers posed any threat by then, and it can be a good thing to have a face with a voice. It makes the people know you give a shit about them. On his way back into the cockpit Paul cracked his head on the circuit breaker panel. I’ve seen at least four captains do that move. The panel is right where your head needs to be when you do the yoga involved in sitting down. The result of that, however, was that when the time came to lean out of his window and give the “all clear,” Paul had blood running down his head. The agents seemed concerned, to say the least.

I have never been happier to see a gun in my whole life. I realized when the Agent came aboard with his Glock at his side how vulnerable I had felt for the last few hours. It is a hell of a thing to feel like you can’t defend yourself. The FBI had everybody take all their belongings and line them up on the tarmac while they corralled us and loaded us into buses. Dogs worked the inside of the aircraft while SWAT kept an eye on us. The cops were wearing body armor and carrying automatic weapons. In one of the many surreal events of that day, the flight attendants started flirting with the SWAT guys, asking them for hats and tee shirts. It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do for some reason, standing there in the middle of a perfectly quiet airport on a beautiful fall day. I thought to turn on my phone before I left it in the long pile of personal effects. I just wanted to see if my wife had called me back. I had 17 messages waiting for me.

We all loaded into vans and headed off to the FAA building that was stationed nearby.

The agents interviewed us all, crew first. I felt bad because I had nothing useful to tell them. (The FAA guy sat in at the meetings and told me that he was going to need a copy of my license before I left. Typical. What was he going to do, cite me for having it laminated? It was all I could do not to laugh at him. He’s still waiting for that copy…) Since we went first we waited longest afterwards. Another two or three hours went by sitting in the FAA building. At first I tried to mingle with the passengers, but that got weird really quick. Some guy told me that we had to “start the healing.” I think I told him that we had to finish with the hurting first. Since I was still representing Delta, and I was all out of pleasant banter, I sequestered myself with a couple of the flight attendants. We all did a pretty good impression of carrying on a meaningful conversation, and were left alone.

We got back out of the aircraft and got our stuff. Then we waited some more for the airport manager to find us rooms (no small accomplishment.) We were driven to the hotel in volunteers personal vehicles, as no traffic was allowed near the airport. We had to exit through the FAA building and walk out to a vacant parking lot, where we were picked up in a minivan and a pick-up. There had been a lot of discussion about going to the bar. That’s the standard joke, anything bad happens – we debrief in the bar. But I was worn out. I just wanted to talk to my wife and get some sleep. I went to my room and called her. She was shaken up pretty bad. My wife is an MBA and a former businesswoman. Pretty much a rock, but this was too much. I could tell from her voice that she wasn’t going to feel anywhere near right until I walked in the front door.

That conversation rattled me a little, then I turned on the television.

I can’t tell you how it felt to watch that United 767 hit the side of that building over and over again. We saw that plane on the ground at Logan. We probably walked past the crew, and the terrorists (something that haunts me to this day). We saw him taxi out. We were flying the same plane to the same place. The only difference was the paint job. It was only then that I realized how close we had come to being that crew. I still wait to hear that our plane was on the list, but the terrorists missed their connection or somebody forgot the Koran. I realized also that I wouldn’t be doing any sleeping.

I came down to the bar and people were buying drinks for the crew. The hotel had called out for pizza and I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything that day. I was oddly un-hungry. (I stayed that way to: in the intervening two months I lost thirty pounds.) I just sat nursing a beer and watching the United jet hit the WTC on a big screen TV.