We never forget, those of us who were airline pilots and flight attendants on that awful September day. Since then, we’ve added to our aircrew ranks a whole new generation of pilots and flight attendants who were just kids when the twin towers fell. And yet, they are part of the aircrew tradition, inner circle, and the sacred trust to never, ever forget.
Here’s what that cataclysm looked like from the crew view on that day. Those who were crewmembers will remember, those who are new crew will live it in a way like no others, because this is their realm and their legacy to carry forward. And those who aren’t in the crew ranks, well, here’s what that fateful day was like.
From Air Crew Confidential: The Unauthorized Airline Chronicles, the new release from Dark Horse Books:
“Yes, why,” Mandy repeated into the handset. She hoped she didn’t sound peeved, but she was. “Why are we descending?”
And descending fast, barely fifteen minutes after climbing and leveling off at cruise altitude.
“Why,” the first officer repeated, then she overheard the captain talking in the background. “We’re not exactly …”
More garbled cross-cockpit talk that she couldn’t make out. But it sounded urgent. We’re not exactly sure? How are the pilots flying the plane “not sure” why we’re descending?
Gary poked his head out of the forward galley curtains, hands upraised as if to echo her own what the fuck? Mandy searched his eyes but couldn’t decipher the fine line between annoyed and concerned. But Gary wasn’t smiling.
“Look,” the first officer said at last. “We’re pretty busy. We’ll call you back when we can.”
The interphone went dead. The engine roar rumbled back to a whisper and the nose dipped lower. The seatbelt sign chimed on.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Gary commented quietly in passing. He checked the seatbelt and passengers in First Class as Mandy made her way down the long aisle to do the same in coach.
There was at least another two hours of flying time left. Descending? Why? What don’t we know? What don’t they know?
“Miss,” a passenger held up his hand like a kid in a classroom as she passed. “Why are we going lower?”
She made her face blank..
“Oh, just routine,” she lied, now wavering herself on the razor’s edge between annoyance and concern. “Fasten your seatbelt, please.”
She scooted aft before he could ask another question. Turbulence rocked the jet. A couple passengers let loose an “oh!” and one cursed.
Darcy met her in the aft galley.
“This is weird,” she said.
“I called up front. He said they’re busy, will call back.”
The P.A. crackled. Background noise from the cockpit filled the speakers, scratchy, distant.
“Ah, folks, from the cockpit …”
Just spit it out, Bill. Or Bob, whatever name applied to the interchangeable pilot man in the left seat. They were terrible at ad-libbing announcements. The P.A. went dead.
Mandy crossed the line back to annoyance. Come on, guys, give us some idea of what we’re doing. The cabin interphone chimed.
Darcy grabbed the handset just a nanosecond before Mandy could reach for it. The rudder fishtailed and the rear of the plane swayed.
The groan of hydraulic motors driving the slats forward and down from the wing leading edge shook the cabin.
“He says we’re in a holding pattern,” Darcy said at last. “Landing at Billings, Montana.”
What? Why, Mandy wanted to ask but held her peace. Why Billings, and why holding for Billings? There couldn’t be more than two aircraft inbound to that Podunk in an entire hour.
“Okay,” Darcy said. “You’re sure?”
Sure about what? Mandy sighed. She’d actually dialed Crew Sked that morning, but decided to save the sick call for the baby shower Saturday instead. Now she wished—
“He says Air Traffic Control has ordered all aircraft to land immediately,” Darcy said quietly. The aircraft slowed and the deck became level again.
“What? Seriously? Why.”
“He didn’t say.”
“Ah folks,” the P. A. rasped from the overhead speakers, “This is the captain again …”
Just talk, she wanted to scream. And never mind ‘this is the captain;’ don’t you have a name? Aren’t you ‘Captain Smith,’ or Jones or Miller or whatever no-name name pilots always have?
“We’re diverting into Billings, Montana, because …”
Now they’d go illegal for sure, run out of crew duty time, and be shipwrecked in Billings-effing-Montana. Should have just stretched the sick call through Saturday and—
“… because the FAA has ordered all aircraft to land due to some sort of national emergency.”
What? Call lights began to chime in the cabin.
“…. Ah, we don’t have any more information than that at this point in time …”
A hydraulic pump whined again. The aircraft floor seemed to buoy upwards. Flaps. And glancing out the window, ground details spelled out ‘we’re pretty close to landing.’
“We’ll have more info for you as soon as we get on the ground. Flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
That’s it? What the actual frig was going on? She turned to Darcy whose eyes were wider than she’d ever seen on a human. The air grew warm and stuffy, probably because the first officer hadn’t pre-cooled the cabin for the unplanned descent.
“Fourteen-F” Darcy said carefully, her voice quavering. “Got a cellphone signal. He’s says there’s been a terrorist attack on New York City.”
Two plus two, Mandy thought; national emergency, terrorist attack. But where do airliners fit in? She set the thought aside and did a final cabin walk-through. The scowling air noise doubled in strength, then the main gear thumped into place with a thud that shook the floor beneath her feet. They were very, very low. Her cellphone buzzed in her pocket.
“At least two flights hijacked. Are you okay? –Dad.”
The blood drained from her head. Attack? New York? Hijacked? She plopped down on the jumpseat next to Darcy and strapped in. She handed Darcy the cell phone, flipped open like the wide jaws of a faceless joker. A faceless, heartless joker. Darcy covered her mouth and closed her eyes.
Fight it, Mandy urged herself. You’re looking at this through a straw, seeing only a tiny bit of the picture. Classmates all flying today too—what if? If you’re going to predict the future, at least make it something good. Kerry’s based in New York now; Samantha just transferred to Boston.
The interphone chimed and Mandy snatched the handset from the cradle.
“Mandy in back,” the words floated out of her mouth on their own, out of habit only, her mind flying fifty miles ahead of her heart, threatening to implode. What if?
“My partner says we lost one of ours,” Gary said. “Into the World Trade Center.”
She dropped the phone. Darcy picked it up and replaced it on the aft console, then stared at Mandy. She shook her head, covered her eyes.
Rolling, turning, more flaps; tears—no, stop that. Later, maybe later. Avoid the eyes looking backwards, the passengers wired like copper, conducting an electrical current of worry and concern over fragments of details discovered as cell towers answered when the airspeed slowed.
We lost two of ours. Into the World Trade Center.
A molten core, boiling tears of fear and knowing sadness, threatened but Mandy kept the lid on. There was a job to do, procedures to walk through, and things to disarm and stow and check and report and not think, please god not think but just do.
Into the World Trade Center.
They taxied in forever, it seemed. For heaven’s sake, the airport wasn’t that big! She peered out the round exit porthole and a line of jet tails stretched to the edge of the runway—five, six? He couldn’t count them all.
“Boston,” Darcy said, holding up her phone. “CNN says it was our Boston flight.
And Mandy knew, just knew. The she could not forget what she’d learned from Aunt Coreen after her cousin had taken his own life.
“There’s that second or two,” Aunt Coreen had said, “When I wake up. Just a few heartbeats, really, when I don’t yet remember what happened, that he’s gone.”
These, Mandy decided, were those seconds, heartbeats. She didn’t quite know yet. And she didn’t want to wake up, not to the loss, the grief, the fear and pain.
And the certain knowledge that nothing would ever be the same again. More taxiing, turning, creeping, slow. Still moving. The certain knowledge that there was pain and loss, and it wouldn’t go away. Ever.
Darcy took her hand and squeezed. Mandy squeezed back and savored the last few moments of peace before she’d actually have to know, to own, and never forget.
Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved
From Aircrew Confidential: The Unauthorized Airline Chronicles
Available soon in paperback and Kindle (pre-order HERE).