Airborne in an F-14 on 9-11

On September 11, 2001, I was a young naval aviator flying in the back seat of the F-14 Tomcat.

For those of us who remember September 11, 2001, the passage of time is not linear. While the earth has orbited the sun 20 times since, that day has the fresh imprints of events that occurred yesterday. While we see the calendar and can understand that two decades have passed, that day refuses to recede into the distance like more ordinary events of similar age should. The objective indicators of time simply do not square with the vividness of recollection.

On September 11, 2001, my squadron, VF-211, was in transit from our home base in Oceana, Virginia, to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, to conduct two weeks of exercises in preparation for a routines 6-month deployment in January 2002. Roughly half of our 10 jets had already landed in Fallon. I was in the second wave, and at 0800, my pilot and our wingmen briefed for a 1000 departure.

At 1000, we launched into a gorgeous clear blue September sky. As we raised the gear and climbed away from the runway, I contacted Norfolk departure control: “Departure, Nikel 11, flight of two, passing 1500 for 12,000.”

The controller’s response threw me: “Nikel 11, Norfolk departure, climb and maintain 5,000, we are going to need you to RTB [return to base].” I responded, “Departure, Nikel 11, unable, we are enroute to NAS Fallon.”

The controller, sounding just as confused as I felt, said, “Nikel 11, Center is not accepting any handoffs. All aircraft have been instructed to RTB.”

A handoff is when the departure controller passes control of the flight to the center controller—in this case, Washington Center. If Washington Center was not accepting handoffs, this meant that the airspace was effectively closed, and we could go no further. My mind racing, I thought perhaps one of our jets had crashed transiting to Fallon. Turns out I was, like, way wrong.

I asked the departure controller for any clarification he could provide, and he replied, “There’s been an incident at the Pentagon.” Without the slightest appreciation for what that meant and why it resulted in the airspace closing, we flexed our plans and prepared to land. First, we had to dump about 12,000 pounds of fuel each to make landing weight. While doing that, I tuned the back seat radio to a UHF frequency that was occupied by a TV station. We could then hear the live news coverage—something about explosions in New York and DC, possible bombs at the State Department, a helicopter crashing into one of the twin towers, and other fog-of-war confusion that shed little light on the reality of the situation.

We landed, secured our jets, and walked to maintenance control, where the maintainers were listening to a radio broadcast. Just then, we heard the report that one of the twin towers had fallen, and the gravity of the day bluntly set in.

Back in the ready room, with the base at Threat Condition Delta for the first time in my life, I (as the squadron AV geek) managed to get some fuzzy reception on the old tube TV in the corner. This allowed us to see the indescribably shocking images of the events about which we had been hearing.

We spent the next 10 hours in the VF-211 ready room with the crew that remained in Oceana, where we sat on ready alert and briefed how best to intercept an airliner. We tried our best to prepare each other for the possibility of engaging an aircraft full of innocent civilians. Thankfully, that day ended without us having to do so.

The next day was a blur—we spent the entire day in the ready room on alert, as we did the day before. On the 13th, with the national airspace still closed, we received special permission from NORAD to transit to Fallon, as our pre-deployment exercises now took on new urgency. The September 13th flight across the country was the most surreal flight I have ever experienced, with no radio chatter or air traffic the entire way across the country.

Our planned January cruise was moved up to November, and a flurry of intense training exercises followed. We arrived in the Arabian Sea in December and began flying missions into Afghanistan. We had tee shirts made that said “Combat Cruise”, thinking few other squadrons would have this unique opportunity. Turns out we were off by about 19.5 years.

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