By Pat Gilmore, former USAF and Delta Airline pilot
Forwarded by MG Hank Stelling USAF (Ret), via Gen Bob Clements USAF (Ret)
As a Delta B-767 captain, at the time of the attacks on 9/11, I was in crew rest in Orlando that morning. I had just turned on the TV in my hotel room only to see the WTC tower on fire, then saw the second airplane hit the other tower.
My immediate reaction was, “Terrorists… we're at war,” followed by the realization that we airline crewmembers had all dodged a bullet; it could have been any one of us flying those planes.
As soon as the news stations flashed the first pictures of the terrorists I knew just how close and personal was the bullet I dodged. There, on the screen for all to see, was a man who had sat in my jump seat the previous July.
His name was Mohammad Atta, the leader of the terrorist hijackers. Atta had boarded my flight from Baltimore to Atlanta on July 26, 2001 wearing an American Airlines first officer uniform. He had the corresponding AA company ID identifying him as a pilot, not to mention the required FAA pilot license and medical certificate that he was required to show me as proof of his aircrew status for access to my jump seat.
An airline pilot riding a cockpit jump seat is a long established protocol among the airlines of the world, a courtesy extended by the management and captains of one airline to pilots and flight attendants of other airlines in recognition of their aircrew status. My admission of Mohammad Atta to my cockpit jump seat that day was merely a routine exercise of this protocol.
Something seemed a bit different about this jump seat rider, though, because, in my usual course of conversation with him as we reached cruise altitude, he avoided all my questions about his personal life and focused very intently upon the cockpit instruments and our operation of the aircraft. I asked him what he flew at American and he said, “These”, but he asked incessant questions about how we did this or why we did that. I said, “This is a 767. They all operate the same way.” But he said, “No, we operate them differently at American.”
That seemed very strange, because I knew better. I asked him about his background, and he admitted he was from Saudi Arabia. I asked him when he came over to this country and he said “A couple of years ago,” to which I asked, “Are you a US citizen?” He said no. I also found that very strange because I know that in order to have an Airline Transport Pilot rating, the rating required to be an airline captain, one has to be a US citizen.
Knowing the US airlines and their hiring processes as I do, I found it hard to believe that American Airlines would hire a non-US citizen who couldn't upgrade to captain when the time came. He said, “The rules have changed,.” which I also knew to be untrue. Besides, he was just, shall I say, “Creepy?” My copilot and I were both glad to get rid of this guy when we got to Atlanta.
There was nothing to indicate, though, that he was anything other than who or what he said he was, because he had the documentation to prove who he was. In retrospect, we now know his uniform was stolen and his documents were forged. Information later came to light as to how this was done.
It seems that Mohammad Atta and his cronies had possibly stolen pilot uniforms and credentials from hotel rooms during the previous year. We had many security alerts at the airline to watch out for our personal items in hotel rooms, because these were mysteriously disappearing, but nobody knew why. Atta and his men used these to make dry runs prior to their actual hijackings on 9/11. How do I know? I called the FBI as soon as I saw his face on the TV that day, and the agent on the other end of the line took my information and told me I'd hear back from them when all the dust settled.
A few weeks later I got a letter from the Bureau saying that my call was one of at least half a dozen calls that day from other pilots who had had the same experience. Flights were being selected at random to make test runs for accessing the cockpit. It seems we had all dodged bullets.
Over the years my attitude towards the War Against Terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been known to be on the redneck, warmongering, rah-rah-shoot-em-up side of things. I've been known to lose my patience with those who say the war in Iraq or anywhere else in the Muslim world is wrong, or who say we shouldn't become involved in that area of the world for political correctness reasons.
Maybe it is because I dodged the bullet so closely back in 2001 that I feel this way. I have very little patience for political rhetoric or debate against this war because for a couple of hours back in July 2001, when I was engaged in conversation with a major perpetrator in this war, I came so close to being one of its victims that I can think in no other terms.
I don't mind admitting that one of the reasons I retired early from Delta last May, other than to protect my disappearing company retirement, was because it became harder and harder for me to go to work every day knowing that the war wasn't being taken seriously by the general public.
The worst offenders were the Liberal detractors to the present administration, and right or wrong, this administration is at least taking the bull by the horns and fighting our enemies, which is something concrete that I can appreciate. Nobody was taking this war seriously, and it seems everyone found fault with the US government, rather than with those who attacked us. I found that incomprehensible.
I also found myself being scrutinized by TSA screeners more and more every day when I went to work, and suffered the humiliating indignity of being identified about half the time for body searches in front of the general flying public who looked at the entire process as being ludicrous. “They don't even trust their own pilots!” accompanied by an unbelieving snicker was the usual response.
Here I was, a retired USAF officer who had been entrusted to fly nuclear weapons around the world, who had been granted a Top Secret clearance and had been on missions over the course of 21 years in the military that I still can't talk about without fear of prosecution by the DOD, being scanned by a flunkie TSA screener looking for any sign of a pen knife or nail file on my person.
It wasn't until six months after my retirement, when my wife and I flew to Key West, FL, last November, that I was finally able to rid myself of the visage of Mohammad Atta sitting behind me on my jump seat, watching my every action in the cockpit and willing to slit my throat at the slightest provocation.
I missed being a headline by a mere 47 days, and could very well have been among the aircrew casualties on 9/11, had one of my flights on my monthly schedule been a transcontinental flight from Boston or New York to the west coast on the 11th of September. Very few people know that, while only four airliners crashed that day, four more were targeted, and two of them were Delta flights.
The only reason these four weren't involved is because they either had minor maintenance problems which delayed them at the gate or they were scheduled to depart after the FAA decided to ground all flights. Theirs are the pilots and flight attendants who REALLY dodged the bullet that day, and my faith in a higher power is restored as a result.
I will see United 93 when I get the chance, and I will probably enjoy the movie for its realness and historical significance, but forgive me if I do not embrace the Muslim world for the rest of my life. The Islamic world is no friend of the West, and although we may be able to get along with their governments in the future, the stated goal of Islam is world conquest through Jihad and it is the extremist Jihadists, backed and funded by “friendly” Moslem governments, whom we have to fear the most.
We must have a presence in the Middle East, and we must have friends in the Middle East, even if we have to fight wars to get them. Only someone who has dodged a bullet can fully appreciate that fact.
For additional background information on the 9/11 attack, click here and scan down to the series of articles under the title, Attack on America.