PRIVATE PILOT ALAN PETERSON OF Metamora, Michigan, was flying his Piper Saratoga to Cambridge, Maryland, on a beautiful Indian summer morning. It was a perfect day for flying: Skies were clear and visibility unlimited over most of the eastern half of the United States. An hour from his destination, an air traffic controller at Washington Approach radioed Peterson: He was to land his aircraft immediately at the nearest available airport. Thousands of commercial and general aviation pilots flying in U.S. airspace had just received the same message. Peterson landed at College Park Airport, a general aviation facility a few miles from Washington, D.C.
Lee Schiek, the airport manager, also got a call from a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller. Schiek was told to anticipate unexpected arrivals. In addition to Peterson’s Piper, Schiek would have to accommodate 12 aircraft from as far away as Oklahoma and Florida.
The closure of U.S. airspace that had begun on the morning of September 11 continued for an unprecedented 96 hours. Over the subsequent weeks, most of the nation’s air traffic system gradually eased back into operation. Airlines resumed flying within days. But private aircraft operating under Visual Flight Rules were grounded for weeks. As a result, aircraft fuel sales, maintenance, and flight instruction, the lifeblood of small airports, stopped. The National Air Transportation Association estimates that in the weeks after September 11, businesses based at the country’s 5,000 general aviation airports lost $400 million. By the end of October 2001, most of these operations had returned to some degree of normalcy. However, three small general aviation airports in Maryland—College Park, Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field, and Potomac Airfield—remained in lockdown for almost six months, because of their proximity to Washington, D.C. All are within 15 miles of the Washington Monument; Executive/Hyde and Potomac are both only five miles from the huge Andrews Air Force Base complex that houses the Presidential fleet. The 360 pilots based at the airports were not allowed to operate from them; their airplanes were grounded indefinitely. After months of waiting to learn when they could get back in the air, a group of the pilots heard from U.S. Secret Service special agent George Lusczko, who told them, “Your aircraft or any aircraft can be a delivery system for chemical or biological agents.”
It took less than three weeks for the federal government to put together a $15 billion package to compensate the airlines for their September 11-related losses, but as of May 1, tenant businesses at the three small airports had received no federal grants; owners and employees alike had to struggle on their own. Paychecks stopped coming. Personal savings were depleted. Denied access to aircraft, some businesses were forced to move to locations beneath airspace not shackled by new security restrictions. Flight schools suffered the most: Saddled with aircraft and insurance payments and field rents on some of the nation’s most expensive real estate, these traditionally low-margin/no-reserve businesses spun into deep trouble within days of the attacks.
“On September 11, I saw our government at its finest hour in terms of its ability to close this airport, get our planes out of the air, and get this facility secured,” says Schiek. But after months of straining to navigate among the shifting obstacles set up by a federal government that was itself straining to respond to the crisis, Schiek had another appraisal. “I saw our government at a somewhat different level of responsiveness,” he says.
Schiek began his aviation career as the manager of the College Park airport in 1972. He left six years later to pursue his career in airport management and construction. In 2000, he semi-retired and returned to College Park as its manager again. “What amazed me about this place is how little it had changed” in the 22 years since he left, Schiek says. “It’s almost like a time warp.”
College Park is the world’s oldest continuously operating airport. In 1909, the Wright brothers, looking for a place to teach military would-be aviators how to fly an aircraft they had developed for the Army, chose remote College Park as a safer alternative to the field at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia. (The Wrights had been making demonstration flights at the latter, but the commander there felt that the flights were disruptive.) Today an almost religious reverence for powered flight permeates the place. During the nearly six-month shutdown, pilots of law enforcement aircraft were enlisted to make token touchdowns on the single 2,600-foot runway to preserve the airport’s “oldest continuously operating” status. The airfield is also home to a restaurant, a museum, and an avionics and aircraft repair shop—College Park Aero Services—owned by Randy Cox. On September 11, Cox was at nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport, checking the automatic direction finder in a customer’s airplane on the general aviation ramp at Signature Flight Support. At about 10 a.m. Signature workers quickly hustled everyone inside the general aviation terminal. A group of professional pilots were clustered around the big-screen television in the lobby. “Their mouths were open and their jaws were hanging down to the floor,” Cox recalls.
Cox got in his car and took the Baltimore-Washington Parkway back to College Park. His cell phone didn’t work; millions of users dialing at once had collapsed the system. By the time he got to College Park, the air, usually filled with the sounds of aviation, was dead quiet: no noises of jets bound for Reagan Washington National Airport, no Lycoming piston engines clattering on the home runway. Even automobile traffic noise seemed absent. Then the calm was burst: From nearby Andrews Air Force Base, an F-16 fighter took off with a roar.
At Potomac Airfield in Friendly, Maryland, field owner David Wartofsky sat in his office listening to the radio chatter. He heard a controller vectoring a formation of F-16s for an intercept. The airport’s Superunicom automated information system was sending out electronic transponder interrogations, and Wartofsky feared the fighters might interpret the transmissions as hostile—“that they were being painted by an unidentified surface radar,” he explains. He quickly unplugged it.
Flight instructor Alphonse Musafiri was in a Piper Warrior over the Potomac with a student when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. He had no problem seeing the smoke from the fire. He could smell it in his cockpit, and he feared it might be part of a chemical attack. Shortly after noticing the smoke, he landed at Potomac and swung off the runway just as two police cars moved in to block it.