9/11: The Saga of the Skies

Chaos and control over Washington, while the Pentagon burned.

(USAF / Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis)

In her new book, Touching History, author and airline pilot Lynn Spencer has written a meticulously documented account of all that unfolded in the skies over the United States on September 11, 2001, when the nation’s air defense network and all of commercial and private aviation faced an unprecedented crisis. The following excerpt focuses on the defense of Washington. At this point—coming up on 11:30 a.m. EST—the World Trade Center towers have fallen, an airliner has flown into the Pentagon, and the hijacked Flight 93 has crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. All air traffic has been ordered to land at the closest airport, save for the few military aircraft that were directed to head to Manhattan.

Combat Air Patrol over Washington, D.C., 11:25 a.m.

As yet more military aircraft arrive in the skies over Washington, pilots’ flying skills and judgment are being put to a daunting test. Pilots are calling on all of their training to improvise solutions and to reach past their comfort zone to attend to the demands of this unprecedented crisis.

Langley Air Force Base F-16 pilot Borgy Borgstrom is now running out of fuel. His flight lead, Dean Eckmann, directs him to a refueling tanker plane that has been positioned just off the coast. When Borgy arrives at the tanker, his eyes widen to see the immense aircraft in front of him. Oh shit! he thinks. The plane is a KC-10 jumbo jet, the military version of a DC-10, and he’s never refueled on one before; he’s used to refueling on the much smaller KC-135 plane.

“Hey, Otis,” he calls in a panic, using Eckmann’s military call sign. “It’s a -10!”

“Yeah, so?” Eckmann responds, not quite sure what the problem is.

“I’ve never tanked on a -10 before!” Borgy urgently replies.

“It's okay,” Eckmann reassures. “Here’s what you’re gonna do…”

He coaches his wingman through the process, which is somewhat trickier than refueling on a KC-135. Borgy is learning on the fly, quite literally, today.

Several minutes later, he rejoins the combat air patrol with a call to Eckmann.

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