How Air Force One faced uncertainty at 45,000 feet on 9/11: 'No one knew what was going on'

When news of the deadly attacks broke, the 43rd POTUS George W. Bush was visiting a school in Sarasota, Florida


                            How Air Force One faced uncertainty at 45,000 feet on 9/11: 'No one knew what was going on'

Millions of Americans were glued to their televisions on the fateful morning of 9/11 that changed the world forever. They couldn't help but watch in horror as hijacked planes flew straight into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building.

However, one small group of very important people were stranded mid-air as they received only bits of information (as well as misinformation) while the tragedy unfolded. This group was aboard the Air Force One, and one of them was the leader of the free world — the President of the United States.

“I could tell you one thing emphatically, and that is: No one knew what was going on," Secret Service agent David Wilkinson told producers of History Channel's '9/11: Inside Air Force One', that premiered on Wednesday, September 11, at 9/8c.

Firefighters walk towards one of the towers at the World Trade Center before it collapsed after a plane hit the building on September 11, 2001, in New York City. (Getty Images)

On September 11, 2001, security experts surrounding the President deemed the safest place for him to be was on Air Force One, as they constantly tried to communicate and respond to sporadic reports of various perceived threats.

When news of the deadly attacks broke, 43rd POTUS George W. Bush was visiting a school in Sarasota, Florida. He was rushed to Air Force One just moments after he delivered a brief statement of reassurance to the nation.

"Terrorism against our nation will not stand," he said. There were many false alarms that rang out as the presidential flight took off at 9.55 am, one of them being that someone with a stinger missile might be waiting at the end of the runway to take out the plane.

"As we started to taxi, the Secret Service advised that someone has come up to the end of the runway with what they perceived to be a long-gun," Air Force One Pilot Col. Mark Tillman told the History Channel.

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks to Vice President Dick Cheney by phone aboard Air Force One September 11, 2001, after departing Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Draper/The White House/Getty Images)

While the report, fortunately, turned out to be false, Tillman exercised caution and turned the aircraft around and took off in the opposite direction at the steepest angle possible.

According to Wanda Joell, a flight attendant on the Air Force One at the time, the sense of urgency to get off the ground couldn't be missed as the plane "took off faster than she had ever felt it take off".

Moments after takeoff, a jetliner hit the Pentagon after possibly intending to target the White House. At this point, no one knew how many more compromised planes would be heading towards Washington DC, forcing the Secret Service to effect a change of plans before they decided it would be unsafe to take the President back to the nation's capital. 

Air Force One was flying in a holding pattern over the Gulf of Mexico, when the flight crew learned that the White House had received an anonymous threat stating, "Angel is Next."

At the time, Angel was the codename for Air Force One.

An F-16 escorts Air Force One from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to Andrews Air Force Base on September 11, 2001. (Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library/Getty Images) 

Col. Tillman and Master Sgt. Will Chandler, chief of security, grew increasingly wary of the threat to President Bush and were uncertain if it had come from within the plane. They immediately instructed guards to position themselves outside the plane's cockpit.

Furthermore, Secret Service agents scoured the aircraft for potential bombs and blocked anyone from crossing over to the front of the aircraft which held the presidential quarters.

“Think about that," Bush's White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "In the safest of safest of the inner of the most inner sanctums for the President, Air Force One, the pilot had reason to believe there could be an inside job.”

Meanwhile, Col. Tillman flew the plane to an unusually high altitude of 45,000 feet to gain an edge over incoming threats. However, flying at such a high altitude meant communication channels were hampered, fading from 20 to just two lines as the situation on ground became sketchier.

Bear in mind, the Air Force One wasn't equipped with email at the time. And apart from radio and phone connections, TV reception also became more inconsistent.

Master Sgt. Dana Lark, superintendent of communications on Air Force One, grew paranoid to the extent that he thought "sabotage". "I won't lie," he said. "It crossed my mind that somehow somebody had gotten to the system aboard Air Force One."

President George W. Bush talks on the telephone as senior staff huddle in his office aboard Air Force One. (The National Archives)

Shortly after, the flight crew received a warning from Houston ground support that an unidentified aircraft was on their tail. President Bush peered out of the window to see two fighter jets approaching his craft, as everyone onboard accepted their fate.

Suddenly, Col. Tillman received a reassuring radio message. "We hear... 'Air Force One, this is Cowry 4-5'," Tillman recalled. "You could hear the Texas twang in their voice. They explain to us they're a flight of two F-16s, and they are our cover. And that was the coolest thing ever in my life."

At this juncture, the President had grown considerably impatient and insisted he must return to Washington to address the nation. This was the most seismic event in US history — the Twin Towers had collapsed, Flight 93 had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon was hit — American citizens needed a word of reassurance from their Commander-in-Chief.

After a couple of more hoaxes and miscommunications, the President safely arrived in Washington DC at 6.44 pm, and was finally able to address the nation from the White House.

"This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace," he said at the time. "America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

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