One of the last in the air on 9/11
Air Facts Journal

Our crew had a great layover in Narita, Japan on September 10, 2001. But I was looking forward to getting back home to celebrate my son’s 10th birthday two days later. After a short run in the morning, and lunch at the hotel, we boarded the crew bus in the afternoon and headed to Narita International Airport. The preflight and briefing were normal. The dispatch office reviewed the weather and winds, alternate airport forecasts, and our route of flight over the Pacific ocean for our flight back to Los Angeles. After reviewing our landing currency, the Captain determined that I would be the pilot flying our MD-11 home that night and First Officer, Sean, would be assigned the role of relief pilot. This would work great for me as I would get the highly desired middle break during our 10 hour flight home.

md-11

The Captain determined that I would be the pilot flying our MD-11 home that night

After takeoff, we settled into our normal routine getting the oceanic clearance from Tokyo and heading out over the Pacific at 34,000 feet. We were later than normal due to a typhoon that had passed directly over Tokyo. The air was crystal clear since the storm had cleared out the clouds and late summer haze. We had an awesome view of Mt Fuji in the setting sun and we all remarked that the excitement was over as we settled in for a long, uneventful, and relaxing flight home.

After my crew meal and three hour duty shift, I was more than ready for my rest break. My phone chime woke me up from a deep sleep hours later and I headed back to the cockpit to relieve the Captain so he could get some well deserved sleep. As I walked up the darkened aisle toward the flight deck, I noticed several flight attendants huddled together in the mid-galley talking in hushed tones. No big deal I thought to myself as they must be getting ready for the next cabin service.

Arriving at the flight deck door, I performed the normal cockpit entry procedure but received no response. After waiting a moment, I tried again with no luck. Well, that’s odd, I thought to myself, I wonder what’s going on. Finally the door cracked open and the Captain was standing there with our lead flight attendant. In his hand were multiple text messages from flight control and our dispatcher. “Good, it’s you,” he said, “get in here.” Everyone looked very serious and I remember Captain Jim saying, “Okay, this is bad, really bad” —immediately I thought we had an engine failure, electrical problem, hydraulic system fault, or other type of emergency. Then he said, “Terrorists have hijacked several planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center.”

world trade center

The Captain informed me that terrorists have hijacked several planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He showed me the messages from Flight Control and several read, “Beware Cockpit Intrusion” and “Confirm the Flight Deck is secure”. I was stunned and then Jim said we were diverting to Honolulu. “Why not Anchorage?” I responded (it was much closer and right along our great circle route of flight across the North Pacific). Jim said, “We can’t because they’ve closed all US airspace”.  He told me we were initially directed to divert to Portland, then Vancouver, British Columbia after they closed the airspace, but since our airline was not serving Vancouver, we would have no company support when we arrived. Jim and Sean had agreed that Honolulu (HNL) would be the best option for us and our passengers.

Honolulu was not an approved airport for our MD-11 so Jim had to use his emergency authority to go there. The extreme seriousness of this day was becoming very apparent now as I looked over to Sean in the right seat putting our new route to Hawaii into the Flight Management System (FMS) as we turned south. Honolulu was more than three hours away.

During the next few hours, we desperately tried to get more information from Flight Control. That’s when we got word that the twin towers had collapsed and the Pentagon had been hit. Captain Jim had disabled the airshow system that showed our route and arrival information in the cabin. He didn’t want to cause any panic, but he knew that the passengers would begin to be suspicious as the sun was coming up in the east as we headed south.  Then Jim looked both of us in the eye and said, “All our families and friends are watching the news right now and are very worried. They’re probably not getting any information from the airline on our status or where we are. So here’s what we’re going to do, each crewmember is going to come up here to the cockpit one at a time and make one call on the satellite phone to their spouse or a family member to tell them we’re safe and will be landing soon.” I thought that was one of the many great decisions that he made that day.

Soon the air-to-air common frequency we monitored to communicate with other aircraft began to be filled with chatter from other carriers about crews that had decided to barricade their cockpits stationing beverage carts in front of the flight deck door with multiple flight attendants stationed right outside. As we neared the Hawaiian Islands, approach control kept asking all the various heavies converging on Honolulu to divert to Maui, Hilo or Kauai. Some did which overwhelmed those smaller fields. This was a surprising request. How could they expect several 747s, A330s and MD-11s to land and park on the ramp at those smaller airports?

Jim asked what we had to do to proceed to HNL and were told, “Declare yourself an Emergency aircraft,” which is what we did. Also concerning were more messages from Flight Control asking if any of our passengers were suspicious or acting abnormally. We kept wondering if they knew something about our flight they weren’t saying. Little did we know or realize that all other flights from our airline had landed hours earlier in the US or Canada. We were one of the last flights they had airborne due to our long diversion over the North Pacific..

On our initial contact with Honolulu approach, we were told that we would be intercepted by Hawaiian Air National Guard F-15s and be inspected before being allowed to proceed to HNL. They relayed that only pilots in full uniform could be in the cockpit. We scanned the horizon trying to get a visual on the traffic. Soon two F-15s appeared in formation off our left wing. One inspected us up close and the other trailed behind us. They followed us all the way to the airport and were told that if we made a missed approach, to make an immediate right turn or risk being fired upon. I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy movie. It was simply unbelievable. I kept thinking of my last New York layover and what was happening there now. I couldn’t imagine what the situation was actually like there in the city at that moment.

F-15

We were told that we would be intercepted by Hawaiian Air National Guard F-15s and be inspected before being allowed to proceed to HNL.

After completing the approach briefing, we were given our descent clearance and I initiated the Vertical Nav profile that was loaded into the FMS. As the thrust levers rolled back, I asked for the descent checklist. I remember Jim saying to me, “Mark, I don’t care how bad your landing is, but whatever happens, don’t go around.”  He was right. Within 30 seconds flying time from our final approach course to runway 8L, was Hickam Air Force Base, battleship row, and Ford Island, not to mention numerous high rise hotels in downtown Honolulu filled with hundreds of people.

We descended through a scattered deck of cumulus around 6,000 feet and had the Honolulu airport in sight prior to passing Barbers Point. The approach and landing were normal outside of a slightly elevated heart rate on short final as I was extremely focused on my airspeed and runway lineup. Once clear of the active runway, we had a short delay for a gate assignment while taxiing past numerous widebody aircraft from Thai Airways, Hawaiian, American, JAL, Cathay Pacific, United and Delta. As we taxied in, Jim chose to make a passenger announcement for the full reason for our diversion. After a few minutes of stunned silence, we heard crying in the cabin.

Once inside the airport, we were surprised to see uniformed National Guardsmen with automatic weapons in the terminal and at the security checkpoints. Outside the terminal, as we waited for our crew van, we saw military humvees and numerous police cars blocking all civilian traffic from approaching the terminal. It seemed like, in a matter of hours, Honolulu had been transformed from a tropical vacation paradise into a wartime fortress. After checking into our layover hotel, I finally got to my room and hesitated turning on the TV for several minutes as I tried to prepare myself for what I knew would be shocking scenes of destruction.

world trade center memorial

As we taxied in, Jim chose to make a passenger announcement for the full reason for our diversion. After a few minutes of stunned silence, we heard crying in the cabin.

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