Flying with phantoms

A pilot waves goodbye to the World Trade Center.

By Phaedra Hise

Published September 12, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

As the World Trade Center and Pentagon burned, then collapsed, I thought about the tens of thousands of people trapped inside. I thought about the many times I had seen those same people, had waved to them from the cockpit of my own airplane. Flying down the Hudson River past the World Trade Center was a legendary thrill that pilots have enjoyed for years, and one I'll never have again. The memories of those flights and the images of the waving people haunted me as I watched the news.

The question, for me, about this horrible tragedy is not "How could it happen?" but "Why didn't it happen sooner?"

When I first heard news reports, I assumed that two very small airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. After all, single-engine planes like mine have been flying for years along the Hudson Corridor. It's the preferred route to keep clear of the jumbo jets using Kennedy and La Guardia. On my trips along the East Coast, I always request the corridor, fly south from Boston to Sing Sing prison, turn right and fly over the river past Shea Stadium, Central Park and the Statue of Liberty, then head for Verrazano Bridge and continue south toward Atlantic City, N.J.

There's another corridor between Washington and Dulles airport, which I've used frequently since I moved south. As long as pilots stay below 3,000 feet, they don't even have to talk to air traffic control until they're ready to land. When I've flown north toward Dulles, I've had great views to my right of the Mall, the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Since Washington is a city of mainly short buildings, I never saw anybody wave back from the Pentagon.

Flying through the New York corridor is a spectacular tour that all pilots look forward to making once they earn their licenses. It's a little nerve-wracking, partly because you're so close to the buildings, and flying lower than usual. It can get hairy because you have to keep a sharp lookout for all the other planes, helicopters and the occasional jet using the corridor. I have to admit that although I was many times within spitting distance of New York's major landmarks, it never occurred to me that one of those other planes next to me might choose to dive into one.

I had never considered airplanes as criminal vehicles. Clearly I hadn't read the Nelson DeMille novel "The Lions Game," in which a bad guy travels untraceably in small airplanes, flying below radar and landing secretly to do his dirty work. Nor have I read the Tom Clancy thriller that ends with a suicidal airline pilot diving into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress. And apparently, according to Slate's Tim Noah, the white supremacist tract "The Turner Diaries" features an anti-government lunatic flying his plane into the Pentagon.

Of course, Japan's Kamikaze volunteers demonstrated in World War II that an airplane can become quite an effective missile if the pilot is willing to go down with the ship. And in 1997 a SilkAir pilot in Indonesia apparently committed suicide by crashing his flight full of passengers, just as it seems the EgyptAir pilot did in 1999. They just didn't think to take any office buildings with them.

I realized when I switched on the television that this one was different. Someone had finally figured out how to scoot past airport security, grab a fuel-loaded plane and use it to bomb a building. The gaping holes in the side of the World Trade Center made clear that these planes weren't small, like mine. They had been commercial airliners. If it had been one plane, I might have assumed it had mechanical trouble that threw it violently and tragically off course. But the two holes meant that the planes had been aiming for targets. And the only way a commercial airliner would fly right into a building, I knew, is if the crew were dead.

Pilots are trained to save the ship first. If that's not possible, they concentrate on saving the passengers. If it's clear that everyone on board is doomed, then their last goal is to avoid killing anybody on the ground. A good illustration of this came last February, when Alaska Airlines pilots asked air traffic control for vectors out over the ocean so they could troubleshoot control problems with the tail. The pilots knew their eventual crash was a strong possibility. They just didn't want to take half of Los Angeles with them.

Ironically, the lower planes fly, the less attention air traffic control pays. I can glide over the Hudson or alongside Washington in my single-engine plane at 1,000 feet and never talk to a single controller -- it's legal. But airliners don't have the same freedom, so it wouldn't have been as easy for them to reach their targets. They're on strict flight plans. Any deviation provokes a response from the controllers, who would have been radioing the plane and demanding to know why it changed its routing. But unfortunately that's all they can do: talk. They can't direct the plane. They can't hastily erect aerial barriers around key landmarks.

The airspace around the Pentagon is highly restricted. But that just means that it is marked on the chart, and if a plane gets too close, air traffic control will warn the pilot to steer clear. But the restricted space is only about a mile in diameter. A jumbo jet steering around it can turn sharply and be in the space within seconds.

In a few days, or weeks, the smoke will clear and I'll be able to fly my airplane again. Surely there will be drastic changes to our flight and air travel systems, new procedures to learn and new precautions to take. And the next time I fly over New York, I'll fly over a black hole in the city and pass the phantoms of the friendly people who used to work in the World Trade Center building. They are gone now; but I'll be thinking of them, and remembering how they used to wave back.

Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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