The events of September 11, 2001 will forever be etched in the minds and souls of everyone who witnessed the terrible attacks of that day in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Richard Wyeroski was an FAA Operations Inspector and worked the Farmingdale Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) for over 4 years. Farmingdale was 18 miles from the Ground Zero attacks in New York City.
The following is Wyeroski’s account that he wrote 6 years ago of his actions as the horrific events unfolded. We thank him for permission to post his story:
‘Ben Sliney had just started his new job on 9/11 as Director of Operations at the FAA’s ATC Command Center in Herndon Virgina. As he watched the news he saw the second plane hit the towers, Mr Sliney took emergency action on his own. He ordered all aircraft in the air to land immediately.
All over the United States and over seas, aircraft were ordered to land or were turned away from the United States by ATC. In all 4,500 aircraft landed in little more than two hours. Mr Sliney is credited as an unsung hero of 9/11/2001. His order saved untold other aircraft from the same fate by unknown terrorists. His action was later acknowledged and supported by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Transportation Chief Norman Manetta and the Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Jane F. Garvey.
It is hard to believe that almost five years has passed since that horrific day. Most of us will never forget where we were and what we were doing. The day that changed America forever will never be forgotten. My simple story is part of that day along with thousands of others working for the government on 9/11/2001.
4 times a year I was scheduled to work a detail called “Accident Stand by Duty”. On 9/11, I was on accident stand by status for that week and my shift was to start that day at 1600 hours. In the morning I was down at the beach having breakfast with a neighbor. I returned home in time to watch the second plane hit the towers.
Immediately I called my office and the Operations Supervisor said to come into the office. With lights flashing on my FAA G car, I raced to Farmingdale at more than 100 MPH and to, my surprise, picked up a police escort on the way. He must have noticed the government plates and figured I was going some place in a hurry. Arriving in front of the office there were police cars all over the place. They were turning people away from the airport. I went up to the FSDO only to find that the office was closing by order of the Regional Administrator at JFK.
All Inspectors were ordered to go home and stay there until further notice. The FAA ordered an emergency TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) of 30 miles around, what was later to be called, “Ground Zero”. As everyone remembers, all airports were ordered to close and no aircraft were allowed into this restricted area. No time since World War II had such emergency measures been taken.
Farmingdale FSDO has jurisdiction over every airport on Long Island except Kennedy and LaGuardia . There are four towered airports: Westchester County, Republic, Islip MacArthur and Westhampton Beach.
The non towered airports are usually very busy acting as relievers to the towered airports. When all aircraft were ordered to land and stay there, it was easier to close the towered fields and have police presence there. However the non towered fields are lesser known to everyone and they would be much harder to close down and stop all operations.
My first action was to contact the management of these fields by telephone and tell them to shut down and not allow any movement of aircraft, including starting engines, for any reason. I instructed them to report anyone that looked suspicious to the police. No one knew what to expect next.
Another attack was expected by the government and this caused a very tense situation, to say the least. Normally, the week spent on accident stand by duty consists of being on call to respond 24/7 to emergencies related to aircraft accidents. The beeper goes off or The FAA Communication Center, (in the Regional office at JKF) would call, sometimes, in the early AM to tell of an accident and where it was. Occasionally, the Suffolk Police Helicopter unit would transport FAA personnel to the scene to save time or, in the event the accident was not accessible by a road.
The work schedule was off hours and on weekends. The FAA accident vehicle is a jeep for driving off road and is equipped with a bio hazard suit, cell phone, beeper and the accident bag that contained all required forms and equipment to do the job, including a camera. Usually the time is spent doing ramp checks, surveillance of airports, and providing forms to pilots that needed to renew something or to replace a tattered pilot certificates. Most accidents and Incidents were, fortunately, non fatal and thankfully, most off airport landings were successful with the pilot walking away.
9/11/2001, would be a day unprecedented to say the least. There were no procedures to follow. The office was closing and I was told to go home and wait. I wanted to do something, anything, I could not go home and wait! I was mad, scared and confused at the same time. So I decided to cruise the airports that were under the FSDO jurisdiction starting with Republic Farmingdale.
Republic probably was the hardest hit of all the airports being only 18 miles from “Ground Zero.” It would be closed for quite some time along with other GA airports within the 30 mile flight restriction around the World Trade Towers. Most of the Operators and flight schools I frequented were glad to see me. They felt the same as I did and wanted to know what they should do. All I could tell them was the same thing over and over again. Shut down and secure all your aircraft. No aircraft were even allowed to start engines or taxi.
No one knew what to expect next. An aircraft taxing or with just engines running could be construed as being a terrorist trying to steal an aircraft to do more harm. In any event nothing moves! The police cruised most of the airports around Long Island that day and very… long night. I spoke to many of them and restated the instructions that nothing is allowed to move!
I became concerned about the small non towered fields, like Bayport Aerodrome, East Hampton and Montauk Point. I called and could not reach Montauk Point. It is a very long drive and there were so many things going on all at once. I elected to try to go there when I could. Spadaro Airport is another small field that I could not reach by phone and I made a note to go there just to make sure it was closed down and nothing was moving.
I left Republic Airport and stopped at Bayport Aerodrome the manager of this small field, which was under the Class C Airspace of Islip MacArthur Airport was there and he had the field closed down. Brookhaven was the largest of the non towered fields. There are a few hundred aircraft based there. Ray, the manager, was glad to see me and we discussed the problems he had. When people noticed the government plates on the jeep they would come up and ask questions that I wish I had answers for. I eventually covered all the airports that day. I know most people were glad to see the government vehicle and talk with someone from the FAA.
There are stories of some pilots being chased to the ground by military jet aircraft and helicopters, because they were unaware that an emergency existed. In the air, airlines contacted their aircraft and warmed of terrorists killing flight crews and crashing airplanes into buildings. One of my 135 charter operators called me to tell me about his wife, a flight attendant with United.
The Captain had ordered all the flight attendants get behind the food and beverage serving carts in the front of the airplane. The Co Pilot stood by them with the crash ax with orders to stop anyone who tried to approach the cockpit. There were other reports of suspicious individuals that disappeared quickly when the aircraft landed and the doors were open.
I will never forget 9/11/2001. It has been five years since that day. Fortunately there were very few mishaps considering the monumental task of shutting down all flight operations in the United States. There were many stories reported of heroism in the air. The Pilots and ATC Controllers did a great job bring the planes down. I will always have respect for the thousands of government workers and general aviation personnel that helped that day. I know we will over come it all and may God Bless America.’
Richard Wyeroski is a pilot with 8,500 flight hours with ATP/CFI all ratings and an A&P Certificated Mechanic with Inspection Authorization IA. He has been a pilot since 1969 and a mechanic since 1992.
Image: Flickr [scotthudson]