A Day of Infamy
The words, A Day of Infamy, shot out from the front page of the Globe and Mail depicting the horrific events of September 11/2001. Coined by the media as “the Attack on America,” it will be a black day in history where people will remember where they were and how it affected them.
Halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, while flying from Frankfurt to Toronto, we began hearing escalating chatter over the air to air frequency of 123.45 MHz. (A frequency pilots use when flying over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to communicate amongst other airplanes). Two days before, the topic of conversation was rather mundane pertaining to the turbulence encountered over the mid-Atlantic heading eastbound, and as usual it was mostly dominated by American pilots. However, that day of September 11th, the topic of conversation was surreal. Could I believe what I was hearing, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center and possibly another fifteen minutes later? More and more conversations verified this as Datalinks from their respective dispatchers began pouring into the flight decks. We listened to George Bush’s short speech on BBC via HF (High Frequency) radio acknowledging the attack as an act of terrorists. Ironically, the night of my layover, I was watching CNN at 3.00 a.m. Frankfurt time because of ‘overseas insomnia,’ that ran a documentary on the terroristic life of Usama bin Laden.
Nearing landfall we learned that American airspace was closed. We too datalinked a message to our dispatch asking to confirm that the events that happened were true as it still didn’t seem to be sinking in. It was verified followed by instructions to avoid American airspace and to lock the flight deck door. The ‘in charge’ was briefed followed by the flight attendants and it was decided not to tell the passengers as mayhem could have broke out. As westbound flights were identified by Gander radar they were told they had to land in eastern Canada. One could see airplanes making sharp turns to places like Saint John’s, Stephenville, Gander and Halifax.
While enroute the captain decided to move the fire axe closer to make it readily accessible. I’m not sure if he meant to use it or to hide it from a potential intruder. He asked me if I could or would use it if need be. I said probably not although one never knows what one would do when backed into a corner.
Our flight was allowed to continue though re-routing was required. While over the Maritimes we found out Toronto and Ottawa airports were closed. We were to land in Montreal (Dorval) although that wavered between Montreal (Mirabel), Quebec City and Bagotville. Well into the descent, the captain made an announcement to the effect we were landing in Montreal because the Toronto airport was closed giving no details as to why. It’s a known fact passengers want to hear the truth when faced with delays, diversions or cancellations although we kept it short.
Over eastern Canada the airways were surprisingly quiet. We found out that Air Canada had shut down operations completely, which until now, only a past strike had accomplished. On descent into Montreal it was ghostly quiet with only a KLM flight sharing the frequency.
During taxi another very short announcement was made to let people know customer agents would be meeting them to answer all their questions. Rumours and wild stories flew as the doors opened and ground crew rehashed the day’s events. Flight attendants were visibly upset and tension was high amongst the passengers when in the terminal. Flight operations found us a truck stop type hotel some forty minutes from Montreal and we considered ourselves lucky as stranded passengers inundated hotels. (A day later one pilot hitched a ride back to Toronto with a trucker). Some forty-five airplanes landed in Halifax with the airport authority closing one runway to accommodate them all. In Gander, there were more people at the airport than what lived in the town itself.
While watching television in the hotel room, graphic pictures of the World Trade Center crashing to the ground confirmed the atrocities of that day. Memories of the many layovers at the Marriott hotel based at the foot of the towers came back and how I worked out in the hotel gym overlooking the Statue of Liberty. What was she thinking that day seeing the foundation of peace and liberty crumble before her eyes?
This horrific day has made many realize that terrorism is upon us. It has made pilots realize they can become human missiles; something until now was unthinkable when flying amongst the very safe airspace of North America. As George Bush phrased it a day later, “yesterday has changed tomorrow.” It was a sad day for human kind and a sad day for aviation. This Day of Infamy will never be forgotten.