9.11.19

Today’s thoughts are going to be more along the lines of “stream of consciousness,” so please bear with me. I have written about this before, so I apologize if it sounds a little like a re-run.

I was in a unique position on 9.11.01. I was flying an airplane. I was flying with a company check pilot on a FAA mandated recurrent check ride (something we had to do as commercial pilots every six months.) We announced our arrival and intentions to the airport to which we were flying (no control tower, just announce where you are and look for other traffic), and a voice came back (which was very unusual for that airport at that time of the morning), “Well, you can land but I will not let you take off again.” Well, the check pilot (an experienced pilot with a major air carrier) got kind of huffy and said back, “What do you mean, we cannot take off again?” (or words to that effect). The strange voice came back, “Because of the attacks on the towers in New York, all air traffic is grounded by order of the FAA.”

Shock, and dumbfounded silence.

What do you do when your happy place is turned into your casket?

I grieved for all the victims of that horrible attack, but I guess my heart went out to the pilots and their families just a little bit more. There is a kinship among pilots, a kind of social attachment that only can be experienced by someone who has commanded an airplane. Talk to a pilot and he or she can tell you exactly when and where he or she first soloed. I had a pilot friend who took everyone out to eat every year on the anniversary of his first solo. We all understood.

In 2001 the doors to the cockpits were not secure. In the cockpit of a major air carrier the space is extremely cramped. The pilots had their backs to their attackers, and stood no chance to defend themselves. They probably fought as best they could – but with multiple attackers coming with complete surprise, they really had no chance.

A group of people gathered around the TV and watched the towers fall – again and again and again. In somewhat of a stupor I walked out onto the parking ramp where my plane sat, almost as if it was saying, “Hey, we have a job to do – why are we not in the air?” I looked up. At that moment not a single airplane was in the air – except for our nation’s air defense planes.

Not one single airplane in a nations of hundred of thousands.

A co-worker and I were housed in a hotel for the next several days (three, if I remember correctly). Finally the FAA allowed planes to fly again, but under extremely strict guidelines. We had to file very specific flight plans. We had to use a special call sign. There would be no deviations, no special requests granted.

As the city of Albuquerque came into view the Air Traffic Controller in the regional center “handed me over” (as pilots say) to the Albuquerque approach controller. Because we flew in and out of Albuquerque daily, we sort of knew the controllers by their voices. There was a tenseness and a kind of sadness in everyone’s voice that first day back in the air. The voice who responded to my initial call was a familiar one, although I could never know who I was talking to. After the required information was exchanged, I said, “Sure is good to hear your voice again.” He responded, “Sure is good to hear your voice too.”

I lost it.

Its kind of hard to fly an airplane through tear filled eyes, but I managed to get mine down. The day was absolutely beautiful, a splendid example of a September day in northern New  Mexico. The airport was overflowing with parked jets. The contrast in feelings was surreal. The beauty of the day was beyond description. The sadness and the bitterness of the reality of a world gone mad was palpable.

We were all, pilots and air traffic controllers, just happy and comforted to hear the voices of people we had never met, but upon whom we relied for our lives and livelihoods on a daily basis.

“We will never forget” is so often said, and is genuinely expressed, no doubt.

I will never forget 9.11.01, nor the day I flew back into Albuquerque and heard those words that I never expected to hear.

I wonder what it will be like when we see Jesus, and we can say, “Sure is good to hear your voice!”

But, even more, I wonder what it will be like to hear Jesus say, “Sure is good to hear your voice again too.”

Let’s be careful out there today, okay?