Like many of you I am reflecting back to 20 years ago today, it was a Tuesday. 9/11 & the Lone F-16. Lest we forget.
Where I Was
I was about to drive into the parking garage under Fairchild Hall at the Air Force Academy. It was a beautiful day and an NCO flagged me down as I began to enter the garage. “Given what has happened today you may want to park elsewhere,” he told me.
“Oh, ok”, I said, I didn’t even ask what was going on.
I simply did a u turn and drove up to the Observatory Lot to park outside. Soon enough I entered the mobile trailer that was temporarily housing DFBL while the 6th floor office suite in Fairchild was being updated.
There was a small black and white TV in the office admin area. I remember two captains there that morning, Eric and Carlene. I remember Eric telling me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Was it a light (small) airplane.” was my question and my assumption.
“They’re not sure yet” was Eric’s reply.
I still didn’t think much of it, I just figured a small Cessna had lost control and slammed into the tower.
I went to my small office in a back cubby hole. I gathered my materials and planned for my Aviation Psychology class. By that time a second plane had hit a second tower. I was shocked when I was told that as I prepared to leave the office. Then we all knew it was not an accident.
I remember remarking to Eric that the planes must have been hijacked because no pilot would intentionally fly his airplane into the World Trade Center. Leaving the mobile trailer, I walked into the ground floor of Fairchild. I walked down the hall I had been in 100s of time as a cadet and an officer. I entered the elevator near the Photo/Media Shop.
I hit the button for the fifth floor. I got out of the elevator and began walking towards my classroom which was near the southeast corner of Fairchild. I passed an open classroom where some cadets were watching a black and white TV on a media cart. One of the towers had collapsed I thought I heard/understood/saw. I asked a group of cadets about it when I entered my own classroom. They confirmed a tower had collapsed while I walked from the mobile to classroom.
Still the enormity of what had happened had not sunk in. I taught my class, showing a video chronicling a rescue of some special forces via air cover during the First Guld War. After the film ended, my cadets (a little in shock) were looking at me. I told them, “Never forget there are people out there that hate us (The United States), and they want to destroy us.” That is why we are in the military. I then dismissed the class.
Eventually we were all sent home. We lived in Douglass Valley, the officer housing area at the Academy. So many moms had walked to Douglass Valley Elementary School to take their kids home early, they dismissed the entire school.
What I Remember
I remember sitting on the back deck of our home overlooking the Rampart Range. By then the picture was more complete. Not one, but two airliners had slammed into the World Trade Centers. Another one had hit the Pentagon. Another was taken down in an empty field in Pennsylvania by a brave group of passengers who refused to sit by idly as a group of terrorists headed for Washington DC.
Meanwhile, I sat on the deck trying to take it all in. Every five minutes or so a lone F-16 Falcon broke the silence and flew overhead. Patrolling the skies over the Academy lest an airliner was heading for the Academy Chapel.
That night I sat with my wife and young family and watched President George W. Bush address the nation from the Oval Office. I remember catching the key phrase in the speech, “We make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
I agreed and I knew what it meant. War was coming.
Twenty Years Since
President Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan the next month. In three months, the US toppled the Taliban which had allowed Osama Bin Laden to train his terrorists, undeterred, while they protected him. I watched as cadets I had trained help topple rogue nations Afghanistan and Iraq.
I watched as for the next seven years under George W. Bush, eight years under Obama and four years under Trump we had a stable Afghanistan where terrorists could not be trained. I watched how in eight months President Biden has let it all unravel and the Taliban are in control again, this time with American weapons. My thoughts and emotions about that topic I will save for another blog.
But for now, I remember, I remember that lone F-16 flying over the Academy skies, eerily piercing the quiet every five minutes or so, 20 years ago today.