64: Grounded

64: Grounded

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America


Remember the hours after Sept. 11 when we came together as one! It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.

~Senator John Kerry

“Delta Two-Fourteen, Denver Center. Climb and maintain flight level three-four-zero. Expect scattered light chop.” With those words I started another morning shift at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center. It was 6:05 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time, on September 11, 2001. The skies over central Colorado were filling with aircraft crisscrossing the Rocky Mountains and the seven surrounding states that I and my fellow air traffic controllers managed.

It was about forty-five minutes later when an America West Airlines pilot queried me about some type of aircraft event. I hadn’t heard anything and replied as such, but told him I’d check it out and get back to him. Another pilot keyed in about hearing something strange as well. Right after this brief radio exchange I was relieved from my radar control position for a break. With the pilots’ comments fresh in my mind, I walked down to the lunchroom to see if anything was being reported on the television.

The cafeteria was packed but eerily quiet. I made my way around the edge of the crowd to see the television screen. What was displayed explained the shocked silence in the room: the North Tower of the World Trade Center was smoldering with flames shooting out of the windows near the top floors.

“What the hell happened?” I asked the guy standing next to me.

“A jetliner crashed into it. Can you believe that?” he replied.

I didn’t respond, stunned by what I was seeing. Suddenly a gasp filled the room as the South Tower was struck by a second airliner careening into the side of the building. My thought was to get back to the control room and see what was happening and how, if at all, I could help.

Entering my area of specialty, I relieved the controller who was at the console. The frequency was filled with chatter, speculation, and uncertainty. Word was filtering through the airwaves and from the airline company dispatch offices that two aircraft had been hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center. Having just witnessed the second explosive crash, I briefly explained that indeed, there had been two incidents involving aircraft and the Twin Towers.

A second controller sat down next to me, as was happening at each radar screen down the aisle. There was a sense of emergency, yet in our sectors of airspace, nothing out of the ordinary was happening. We felt the need to take action, but whatever that was, wasn’t clear to us. Word from the Operation Manager’s watch desk was only to stay vigilant, keep doing our jobs, and stay calm. Then, the assistant controller handed me a flight strip, a piece of paper normally used for flight plan information. This one was filled with words that confirmed what I had witnessed. I was instructed to read it on frequency to the pilots.

I did so, telling them that an incident involving several aircraft and a breach of the national airspace system, as well as national security, had occurred and that everyone was to begin planning an alternate destination for their flight. This statement only raised more questions from the pilots. Remaining vigilant for any flights that appeared off course or non-responsive to my control instructions, I relayed again that the possibility existed that flights might not be able to land at their intended destinations and that alternate plans needed to be made.

Over the next twenty minutes information was brought to our attention that two more aircraft had indeed crashed: one into the Pentagon and the other in a field in Pennsylvania. My mind raced with the possibilities of losing one of the aircraft under my control. I scanned each data block and aircraft trajectory. Everything appeared normal.

The assistant controller next to me was handed a second flight strip, which he read. Under his breath I heard him say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” I asked.

He simply handed me the paper and told me I needed to read it to all aircraft on frequency. I read the note first to myself, not believing what it said. I drew a deep breath, trying to steady my voice and myself.

“Attention all aircraft: Due to national security measures and a threat to the national airspace system, all flights are to be grounded.” For the first time in my thirteen years of work, my voice cracked, the enormity of the morning’s events taking over my emotions. A second deep breath allowed me to continue: “Prepare to land at the nearest airport that can accommodate your aircraft. I say again, you will be instructed to land and expect a clearance to the nearest airport shortly.”

I un-keyed the frequency and slouched back in my chair. What the hell was going on? This couldn’t be happening. A comment from a pilot snapped me back to the moment at hand.

“Denver Center, this is American Two-Twelve. Did I hear that correctly? We are being forced to land? We’ve got too much fuel on board to land right away. Where are we supposed to go?”

Behind me several controllers were collecting data on what aircraft were in the skies, including their departure and landing points, to better determine the most effective way to clear the skies of all aircraft. For the first time in aviation history, there would be no one flying over the contiguous United States. Ground-to-ground phone calls were being made to airports concerning parking availability, runway configurations and capability.

One by one I cleared each flight to its new destination, often with some pushback and obvious concern by the pilots. I passed along what information I could, but understandably that was kept to a minimum. The work behind the scenes to coordinate the changes of destinations, accountability of each flight, monitoring their progress continued. Never before had I witnessed such a large-scale effort by so many to bring a life-changing event to conclusion.

By approximately 10:45 a.m. MDT, all 4,000 flights that were in the air across the country had landed without further incident. The National Airspace System had been cleared of every flight.

Emotionally drained, I left work and watched the remaining events of 9/11 play out via the news media. For the next two days we sat at our radar screens, staring at nothing. It was nearly as stressful as working a busy sector.

On the morning of September 14, 2011, a single engine Beech Bonanza airplane, bound for Southern Texas, departed from the Loveland/ Fort Collins airport, the first private aircraft to be allowed in the air. Commercial flights had resumed in limited capacity the previous day.

In the fall of 2013, I met the pilot of that Beech Bonanza aircraft while serving as his fly fishing guide in Northern Colorado. We’ve remained friends ever since.

~Dean K. Miller

More stories from our partners