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Pilot’s View of September 11

Q: What was it like, from a pilot’s point of view, on the morning of September 11th? What were your thoughts and impressions?

I watched the events unfold with a kind of horror and morbid fascination. And after my immediate, reflexive shock, I started to sink into despair over how, I suspected, those of us in the airline business were going to suffer.

I was flying from Boston that morning — deadheading to work as a passenger — as were both of the World Trade Center aircraft. I watched American flight 11 take off. Our plane departed just after it, on runway 9, and I passed directly over Manhattan just a few minutes before the attacks. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told about halfway through the flight, we would be diverting. Pilots love to dish out semi-comforting euphemisms, and this little gem would, in time, be one of the more laughable understatements I shall ever hear a comrade utter. It wasn’t until I joined a large crowd of passengers in a concourse restaurant that I learned what was going on.

The most vivid impression was the video of the second 767 hitting the building — the one shot from the ground in a kind of 21st century Zappruder film. The picture swings left, picks up the United jet, its gray-painted fuselage and tail logo clearly visible, moving swiftly. Very swiftly, in fact. My trained eye notices the plane is traveling at a much higher velocity than it would be normally at such a low altitude. The plane rocks slightly, picks up its nose, and like a charging, pissed-off bull making a run for an unfortunate matador, it drives itself, accurately, into the very center of that building. The airplane simply vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. It’s as though the plane has been swallowed by a skyscraper of liquid. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and violent, spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

To me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper floors of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. But it was the groaning implosion, the buildings dropping and the white clouds of wreckage funneling like a pyroclastic tornado through the streets of lower Manhattan, that catapulted the event to one of pure, historical infamy. They fell down. The sight of those ugly towers collapsing onto themselves is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen in my life.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.