Air Traffic Controllers Remember 9/11

9/11 and the Air Traffic Controllers

Ten years ago as people around the world stopped whatever they were doing to watch the chaos of 9/11 unfold, a small group of people stayed on the job. They were focused on nothing but the tiny screens in front of them, screens with images representing people in the sky. These were the air traffic controllers, and they did a magnificent job.

See “Are We Safer in the Air Since 9/11?”

As U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put it, “Their professionalism and courage in the wake of the attacks was not only remarkable, it was crucial to restoring the safety and security of our airspace.”

Controllers “Achieved the Impossible”

It’s staggering to recall the immensity of the job those controllers faced on that terrible day as four large jetliners were taken over by terrorists. No one knew what would happen next, but the controllers knew they had to get the 5,000 planes still in the air, back on the ground, and they had to do it as quickly and safely as possible. And they did do this, accomplishing this incredibly complex undertaking  in under two hours. A few years back, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said these men and women had achieved the impossible. “It was something that had never been contemplated,” said John Carr, “something that had never been practiced.”

The Department of Transportation has just released this video of some of the controllers who were on the job that terrible day. You may notice these controllers, who are still on the job, seem somewhat unemotional and very professional as they recall the events of Sept. 11, but that is precisely what is required for the work they do.

Dreams of Saving the Planes

Not all controllers are quite so controlled. A few years back, ABC reported that one of the professionals working Dulles Tower when American Airlines flight 77 hit the Pentagon kept dreaming of that day. In her dreams, the controller said, she saw herself reaching into her radar screen before the terrorist-controlled aircraft could hit its target, and gently scooping up the plane, carrying it out of harm’s way.


Published: September 6, 2011