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Reflecting on 9/11, our forever day

Why GA was nearly lost, and how it was saved

Editor's note: This story was updated September 10 to include new information about flight restrictions.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York; Arlington, Virginia; and a small town in Pennsylvania, Shanksville, which is forever linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was a coordinated and meticulously planned operation against the United States that took advantage of general aviation.

A popular myth that gained currency among the public was that hijackers had shown no interest in learning how to land, and that their intent should have therefore been obvious. This was not the whole story: The four al-Qaida operatives who took over the flight decks had all passed checkrides for pilot certificates, one private and three commercial pilots who trained in jet simulators with a plausible cover story about jobs back home.

The nation soon went to war, one that came to be known as the “forever war,” and for years after sought to prevent future attacks by imposing significant restrictions on access to certain airspace, including some that rendered large cities off-limits to VFR traffic for months; had it not been for the efforts of AOPA and other aviation advocates, GA might have transformed into something far less accessible, and might have even become unrecognizable to a generation of pilots.

Preventing the loss of freedom to fly as we had known it became one of the most important missions in AOPA’s history. That effort began within hours of the attack, with a phone call from AOPA’s then-President Phil Boyer, which then-Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta took shortly after making the unprecedented decision to shut down the national airspace system.

Photo courtesy of the FBI.Mineta testified in 2003 before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (better known as the 9/11 Commission) that he first learned of the attack “a little after 8:45 a.m.” (American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.), when his chief of staff, John Flaherty, interrupted a meeting with then-FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and Mineta’s Belgian counterpart to inform the U.S. government officials privately that the media was reporting “that some type of aircraft had flown into one of the towers of New York’s World Trade Center.”

Mineta testified that government leaders had no idea in those first moments what type of aircraft was involved. Garvey called the FAA operations center while Mineta advised his Belgian counterpart waiting in the conference room that they would likely need to postpone. Within about an hour, Mineta ordered every aircraft in the national airspace system to land as soon as practicable at the nearest available airport while armed fighters established combat air patrols over two major cities. Mineta testified that he watched United Airlines Flight 175 strike the South Tower of the World Trade Center on live television as Flaherty was breaking the news that the first aircraft had, in fact, been an airliner.

Anyone watching cable television that day saw this moment when it instantly became clear that none of this was an accident. Anyone aware of what was happening (such as people in New York who watched the jetliners strike) felt the fear of being under attack, with an unknown number of us still in peril. It took time for a full picture of the nightmare scenario to come into focus, but millions of people understood at 9:03 a.m. that a purposeful act of terrorism and mass murder had just taken place.

“At this point things began to happen quickly,” Mineta testified.

Graphic courtesy of the FBI.

First moves

Mineta soon relocated to the White House, which was being evacuated as he arrived, and made his way to the center of the national command operation. The 9/11 Commission’s final report published in 2004 revealed that the White House was one of two probable remaining targets of the al-Qaida operation that struck next at 9:37 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. As Mineta hustled to the White House, he and the rest of the federal government were not yet aware that a fourth airliner was already, or was about to be, under the control of a terrorist who turned the California-bound flight toward Washington, D.C.

Aboard the aircraft, a few of the 40 passengers and crew had determined they would do whatever they must to stop that. The cockpit microphone captured the sound of their pounding on the locked cockpit door.

By the time anyone in the government or military knew what was happening, the heroes who mounted the first effective defense of their country on 9/11 were dead, their remains and their belongings buried deep beneath a Pennsylvania field where the Flight 93 National Memorial will host a ceremony to honor them on September 11, 2021.

The 9/11 Commission did not fault the actions of the Northeast Air Defense Sector personnel who learned of each hijacking too late to intercept any of the four airliners, or the FAA staff in air traffic control facilities who distinguished themselves later by safely executing an order to land thousands of aircraft in a matter of hours:

“We do not believe that the true picture of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel at NEADS or FAA facilities,” the report states. “NEADS commanders and officers actively sought out information, and made the best judgments they could on the basis of what they knew. Individual FAA controllers, facility managers, and Command Center managers thought outside the box in recommending a nationwide alert, in ground-stopping local traffic, and, ultimately, in deciding to land all aircraft and executing that unprecedented order flawlessly.”

Mineta recalled in his 2003 testimony that his decision to ground all but a very few civilian aircraft (medical flights) was made around 9:45 a.m., about an hour into the attack:

“I gave the FAA the final order for all civil aircraft to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible. It was the first shutdown of civil aviation in the history of the United States,” Mineta testified.

By shortly after noon, U.S. airspace was all but empty, with 4,500 aircraft safely on the ground, many far from their intended destinations “in highly stressful conditions,” and all inbound international flights had been diverted.

Not long after that, Boyer managed to get a call through to Mineta, counting on the relationship the two had already established to catch the secretary’s attention. Boyer recalled the key message of that call in a recent AOPA Live® interview: “Don’t shut us out and let the airliners fly.”

Boyer said AOPA’s policy and advocacy work had created preexisting relationships with Mineta and many other key government figures, both politicians and career public servants, that set the stage for a largely successful defense of our freedom to fly that began with that first conversation with Mineta. Boyer also dispatched to FAA headquarters Melissa Rudinger, who at the time led AOPA’s policy work on airspace and air traffic control. Rudinger, now the executive director of the AOPA Foundation, recalled Boyer’s instruction as something like, “get down there and don’t come back.”

She arrived at FAA headquarters not a moment too soon, Rudinger said. Other civilians who arrived later never got through that door.

AOPA was the only general aviation advocate allowed into FAA headquarters on 9/11. Photo by David Tulis.

“I had an FAA badge,” Rudinger said. She doubts the FAA command center would have been otherwise accessible to nongovernment personnel. That, and being a familiar face, got her all the way up to the situation room on the tenth floor.

“I was the only civilian ever in that room,” Rudinger said. “When I say there, I mean 20 hours a day … In the end, we all worked together.”

There are three more parts to this story about how 9/11 affected—and continues to affect—GA. It took 20 years for the circumstances of the day and the lasting effects to become clear; to develop into new laws, policies, and procedures; and for flying to become what we now call “normal” in aviation’s present.

The aviation side of the story began years before the attack, a series of events including checkrides and missed opportunities that, with the benefit of hindsight, inform a clearer view of what Boyer, Rudinger, AOPA, and the aviation industry as a whole were up against. 

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Four of the 19 hijackers needed to know how to fly.

Three were university students recruited by al-Qaida while studying in Germany; the fourth had trained at U.S. flight schools long before he was asked to hijack an airliner and turn it into a suicide bomb.

They had followed for much of their lives the same path as many students from Middle Eastern countries who study in the West to improve their career prospects. They behaved in the United States in many respects like any other foreign pilot aspiring to a professional flying career. They employed versions of this cover story to deflect suspicion.

The remaining 15 hijackers, presumably including those who murdered the airline pilots and cleared each flight deck for the pilot-trained operatives, were all “muscle hijackers” trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. They used edged weapons—knives and box cutters—smuggled (or allowed) through airport security checkpoints to presumably kill the pilots and control the survivors. They left the rest in the hands of the pilot-trained hijackers who navigated the aircraft to targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., using portable GPS devices purchased for the attack, presumably because mastering the aircraft navigation systems was beyond the scope of their brief forays into simulator training. (More than one broadcast messages over air traffic control radio frequencies that were apparently intended for the cabin.)

Striking any particular target, even two of the largest buildings in the world, required a degree of aircraft control precision. Not every terrorist who tried to learn to fly progressed far enough to plausibly sign up for time in Level C flight simulators. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had operational control of the attack, and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader with aviation murder-suicide at a scale never seen before in mind, appear to have had a hard time finding operatives with the right mix of skills and aptitudes.

Bin Laden hand-picked the terrorists assigned to the “planes” operation, according to the 9/11 Commission report. Bin Laden remained on the FBI most wanted list until U.S. Navy SEALs killed him in Pakistan on May 1, 2011. 

The al-Qaida plan had evolved in the years leading up to 9/11 from bombing airliners into turning airliners into bombs. After the attack, a Pentagon official would call it a “failure of imagination” to have not anticipated such a possibility, and the 9/11 Commission concurred: “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

The first al-Qaida operatives assigned to the “planes” operation arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000, nine months before other al-Qaida terrorists under bin Laden’s direction used a small boat laden with explosives to conduct a suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors and wounded at least 40. By then, those first would-be pilot trainees had given up on flying airplanes, having struggled to learn English.

Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, two of the terrorists who helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77, arrived from Southeast Asia and their whereabouts for a period of weeks thereafter remained unknown to the 9/11 Commission. The FBI picked up their trail in San Diego, where they attempted to learn to fly. The 9/11 Commission report notes uncertainty about why they chose California, and whether they had help waiting there. They rented a room in San Diego, where they “sought out and found a group of young and ideologically like-minded Muslims with roots in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, individuals mainly associated with Mohdar Abdullah and the Rabat mosque. The [al-Qaida] operatives lived openly in San Diego under their true names, listing Hazmi in the telephone directory,” the 9/11 Commission report states. “They managed to avoid attracting much attention.”

The two consulted a pilot at a San Diego flying club who spoke Arabic, and who explained to them that training to fly commercial jets necessarily begins with primary training in small piston aircraft. Instructors later recalled them as poor students who “took no interest in takeoffs or landings,” which is part of where the misconception that this was generally true (and therefore should have raised red flags) originated, though the two terrorists in question were not among the four pilots chosen for the operation. Their struggle to learn English “became an insurmountable barrier to learning how to fly” by the end of May 2000, and relegated them to the “muscle” team.

Marwan al Shehhi, one of three hijackers who were not originally trained as al-Qaida operatives but had been recruited to the cause while studying at German universities, arrived on May 29, followed a few days later by Mohamed Atta, the operational leader among the actual hijackers. Atta, who graduated from Cairo University with a degree in architectural engineering in 1990, had moved to Germany in 1992 to attend graduate school.

“He appears to have applied himself fairly seriously to his studies (at least in comparison to his jihadist friends) and actually received his degree shortly before traveling to Afghanistan” in late 1999, the 9/11 Commission report states. “In school, Atta came across as very intelligent and reasonably pleasant, with an excellent command of the German language.”

Atta arrived in the United States on June 2. He learned to fly at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, where Shehhi would also be granted a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating, both in December 2000. Both signed up for Boeing 727 simulator training at the end of the month, followed by a Boeing 767 simulator course on December 31.

Rudi Dekkers owned Huffman Aviation and trained Atta and Shehhi how to fly without knowing why they wanted to learn. He wrote a book, Guilty by Association, published August 15, 2011, and told a Canadian news outlet in 2012 that he continued to wonder if he could have done something to stop the attacks. Dekkers recalled that he had disliked Atta from the start for being inattentive and rude to instructors, particularly to female instructors.

“I never liked Atta,” Dekkers said. Shehhi, on the other hand, struck Dekkers as a “nice young fellow” who told jokes, “sometimes dirty jokes, but he was normal.”

Dekkers eventually gave Atta an ultimatum: Improve his behavior or be kicked out. Atta complied. Atta and Shehhi made a brief diversion to Jones Aviation in Sarasota, Florida, where they both made a poor impression, according to the 9/11 Commission report: “According to the instructor at Jones, the two were aggressive, rude, and sometimes even fought with him to take over the controls during their training flights. In early October, they took the Stage I exam for instruments rating at Jones Aviation and failed. Very upset, they said they were in a hurry because jobs awaited them at home. Atta and Shehhi then returned to Huffman.”

The FBI was at Dekkers’ school on September 12, 2001, seeking the files of Atta and al Shehhi. Bad press followed, and connection to the 9/11 terrorists drove Huffman Aviation out of business. Dekkers “has received death threats and has struggled to find employment,” reported in 2012. 

The guilt of association did not stick as much to Jones Aviation. There is only a passing mention of the small role it played in the training of 9/11 hijackers in a 2007 newspaper story about the purchase of Jones Aviation by a private equity-backed group from Connecticut. 

‘It was good enough’

In the world of espionage, “tradecraft” refers to a set of skills that spies employ to conceal their true identity, or purpose, and hide in plain sight behind enemy lines. The word appears twice in the 9/11 Commission report’s main body, first in regard to how the terrorists covered up a money trail that financed an operation estimated to have cost between $400,000 and $500,000, and later in regard to the two would-be pilots who washed out of pilot training, the first operatives to arrive for the “planes” operation who had disappeared for weeks after they first arrived in Los Angeles.

“The plotters’ tradecraft was not especially sophisticated, but it was good enough,” the report states. “They moved, stored, and spent their money in ordinary ways, easily defeating detection mechanisms in place at the time. The origin of the funds remains unknown, although we have a general idea of how [al-Qaida] financed itself during the period leading up to 9/11.”

And regarding the two failed pilots who joined the ranks of the muscle men after helping a replacement pilot get settled back into flight training in Arizona, the commission’s report further states that the inability of the exhaustive FBI investigation to pin down exactly where Hazmi and Mihdhar spent their first weeks in the United States “may reflect [al-Qaida] tradecraft designed to protect the identity of anyone who may have assisted them during that period.”

While Atta and Shehhi trained at Huffman Aviation, Jarrah, the third recruit, arrived in Newark on June 27, 2000, and went almost immediately to Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Florida, where he soon moved in with one of the instructors and bought a car. The FAA issued Jarrah a private pilot certificate on July 30, 2000, and Jarrah promptly began a series of five overseas trips taken before the attack.

Records of pilot certificates granted to Atta, Shehhi, and Jarrah were still in the FAA airman registry as of late August, but a search for the fourth hijacker returned no result. Hani Hanjour was the last of the 9/11 pilot-trained hijackers to arrive, on December 8, 2000, by way of Saudi Arabia. Hanjour was soon training at Arizona Aviation in Mesa, having driven there with Hazmi from San Diego.

Hanjour was last to arrive but had a head start on pilot training, and was a familiar face at Arizona Aviation having already earned an FAA commercial pilot certificate there in 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission report.

Hanjour had first come to the United States from Saudi Arabia in 1991 to study English at the University of Arizona, and returned in 1996 to pursue flight training after a Saudi flight school rejected him, the 9/11 Commission reported. After checking out flight schools in Florida and California, briefly starting at a couple, he returned to Saudi Arabia. In 1997, he returned to Florida, then Arizona, where he began flight training in earnest. He was awarded a commercial pilot certificate in April 1999, then returned to Saudi Arabia, then on to Afghanistan, where his pilot training coupled with his interest in jihad came to the attention of senior al-Qaida leadership.

After a few days of training in the use of code words, Hanjour was on his way back to flight school.

Like the other hijackers, Hanjour did not distinguish himself as an aviation student. His command of English was substandard. The 9/11 Commission report notes that an instructor at Arizona Aviation “advised him to discontinue but Hanjour said he could not go home without completing the training. In early 2001, he started training on a Boeing 737 simulator at Pan Am International Flight Academy in Mesa. An instructor there found his work well below standard and discouraged him from continuing. Again, Hanjour persevered; he completed the initial training by the end of March 2001. At that point, Hanjour and Hazmi vacated their apartment and started driving east, anticipating the arrival of the ‘muscle hijackers’—the operatives who would storm the cockpits and control the passengers.”

‘Poor piloting skills’

The four pilot-trained al-Qaida operatives spent the final months of preparation dividing their time between operational logistics tasks, flying rented piston single-engine airplanes, and flying as first-class passengers aboard commercial flights across the country. They assessed airport security, and watched airline procedures, making note of when the cockpit door was opened, typically about 10 to 15 minutes into a flight, once the aircraft was established at cruising altitude. 

There was no clear backup plan had the doors remained locked, according to the 9/11 Commission report, based on the account of Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemen-born student who met Atta at a mosque in Hamburg, Germany, and shared an apartment there with Atta and Shehhi in 1998. Atta would later use Binalshibh as a go-between to communicate with bin Laden, and met him more than once in Europe. Binalshibh is cited by the 9/11 Commission as a primary source of insight into Atta’s tactical plan to execute the attack.

Atta, the commission reported, “had no firm contingency plan in case the cockpit door was locked. While he mentioned general ideas such as using a hostage or claiming to have a bomb, he was confident the cockpit doors would be opened and did not consider breaking them down a viable idea. Atta told Binalshibh he wanted to select planes departing on long flights because they would be full of fuel, and that he wanted to hijack Boeing aircraft because he believed them easier to fly than Airbus aircraft, which he understood had an autopilot feature that did not allow them to be crashed into the ground.”

Jarrah flew from Florida to Philadelphia in June 2001, a few days before making a casing flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and took lessons at Hortman Aviation, asking to fly the Hudson River Corridor. Hortman sent him up with an instructor who deemed Jarrah unfit to fly solo.

Hanjour flew the Hudson River Corridor once, but his instructor at Air Fleet Training Systems in Teterboro, New Jersey, declined a request that he be allowed to make a second such flight “because of what he considered Hanjour’s poor piloting skills.”

Hanjour then rented aircraft on several occasions in June and July from Caldwell Flight Academy in Fairfield, New Jersey, and once flew from there to Gaithersburg, Maryland, to fly near Washington, D.C. He also rented from Congressional Air Charter in Gaithersburg. Atta and Shehhi rented piston airplanes in Florida.

Jarrah rented airplanes from Airborne Systems Flight School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in August and September.

According to the FBI, the men also made purchases from “Oshkosh Pilot Shop” and Sporty’s Pilot Shop to acquire Garmin portable aviation GPS units, posters and videos showing the cockpits of various Boeing airliners, and a video entitled How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act.

The FBI timeline reveals that the hijackers used the services of 18 different flight schools to prepare for their roles in the attack, along with three pilot shops, and the FAA, which issued replacement commercial pilot certificates to Atta and Shehhi at their request.

Melissa Rudinger was AOPA's principal liason with the FAA and other federal agencies on and after 9/11. Photo by Chris Rose.Details of how and where the hijackers had learned to steer Boeing airliners were uncovered and became public over time. The public understanding of the full story took years to develop, though FBI agents were already knocking on flight school doors within the first 24 hours after the massive investigation began. The PENTTBOM Team (short for Pennsylvania, Pentagon, and Twin Towers Bombing) was based at FBI headquarters and began identifying the terrorists within hours. The investigation would eventually occupy more than half of all FBI agents in the tasks of prosecuting the hijackers and their sponsors, and working with other law enforcement agencies to prevent future attacks.

The skies largely emptied on September 11 and GA remained grounded until IFR operations were allowed to resume September 14.

AOPA worked with the FAA to inform pilots of each incremental change, each new rule or directive that restricted flight activity a little less than the one before. Rudinger remained at FAA headquarters for six weeks, falling asleep on a couch at least once, working nearly around the clock with AOPA staff and federal officials to get GA back in the air. Airspace and security issues related to 9/11 would top her to-do lists for about three more years. Meanwhile, she leveraged her presence in the room where the decisions were being made to communicate with AOPA members.

“Please, please, please contact me if members receive conflicting information from FSS or ATC,” Rudinger emailed AOPA staff from her temporary post at FAA headquarters. “The communication on these and other procedures is broken! That is one of the reasons I am here, to relay accurate information and attempt to fix the communications problems.”  

Rudinger, who described her role in AOPA's response to 9/11 in detail leading up to the fifteenth anniversary, recently reflected on the dual track of her mission: Provide advance warning of notams, and, “more importantly, kill some of those notams” before they were issued.

“By the end of September, it was looking pretty dire,” Rudinger said.

The FAA was balancing the security concerns of law enforcement and members of Congress seeking to prevent the next attack against the devastating damage being done to flight schools that the aviation industry writ large relies on to produce pilots. Limited VFR operations resumed September 19, though only outside of what was called “enhanced Class B (ECB) airspace” defined as the lateral limits of Class B airspace over 30 major cities, where VFR operations remained prohibited, including flight training and banner towing. A 25-nautical-mile no-fly zone remained in place over New York City and Washington, D.C.

While Rudinger spoke up for GA inside FAA headquarters, AOPA journalists and communications staff kept pilots well informed with accurate information, shifting the publishing operation from one built around magazines printed monthly to focus on a website updated several times a day. The Pilot Information Center was flooded with calls, recalled AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines; even some FAA personnel directed GA pilots to AOPA for the latest information. “It was rewarding to be a part of that, but it was also frustrating at times,” Haines said.

AOPA’s website, launched in 1995, recorded 1 million views in the first week following 9/11, shattering the previous mark. National news media also turned to the AOPA website for accurate information. AOPA issued nine special bulletins to AOPA ePilot newsletter subscribers within the first few days after 9/11, and became a main source of information about airspace changes and flight restrictions. Members can opt to receive alerts for temporary flight restrictions enacted to protect large events and VIP movements (among other reasons) today, a service that is, like the TFRs, a legacy of 9/11 and events that followed.

As the public and political leaders learned more details about how the terrorists prepared to attack, AOPA found opportunities to enhance security without sacrificing more businesses and livelihoods. Rudinger returned to AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, with a clear understanding that the battle to save GA depended on satisfying “the security side,” the federal officials concerned that men born in Middle Eastern countries had paid cash to train in sophisticated airline simulators, and rented small airplanes for reconnaissance flights of New York and Washington, D.C.

Boyer recalled Airport Watch became part of the solution by offering an alternative to better secure airports by giving local pilots a toll-free number to report suspicious activity. AOPA also provided training on how to spot such activity. The program officially launched in 2002, though Boyer said it was more or less invented on the spot soon after Rudinger returned from her days at FAA headquarters. AOPA advised pilots to “Lock Up and Look Out.” A hotline was established.

“It did a lot for us with Congress, and certainly the security environment,” Boyer recalled. The reasoning behind Airport Watch remains sound: Who better to watch thousands of airports, particularly those without scheduled air service, than the close-knit communities of local pilots who are likely to spot a stranger and are well motivated to say something? “We’ll do all the work,” Boyer told federal officials at the time.

Boyer testified September 25, 2001, asking a congressional committee to help free the “GA 41,000” aircraft that remained stuck at Class B airports where VFR flight remained prohibited under the enhanced Class B rules, along with the no-fly zones over New York and Washington. Boyer expressed the sympathy and condolences of pilots who grieved along with the nation, then called attention to the businesses with no connection to flight training that also remained grounded: crop dusters, news and traffic reporters, aerial photographers.  He reminded lawmakers that four-place aircraft pose nothing like the threat of a commercial airliner.

“We’re not talking about big airplanes,” Boyer said. “We’re talking about four-place, single-engine aircraft that are on average 30 years old, cost the same as a car, and have the same weight and kinetic energy of a car.”

AOPA pointed this out to national media as well, and called reporters’ attention to patriotic business owners facing bankruptcy as a result of efforts to prevent another attack. There was no shortage of such leads. Flight schools operated then (as today) on tight margins, and many didn’t last a week with the airspace locked down. The industry was devastated, and a decade later still had not returned to pre-9/11 student pilot numbers.

Despite the efforts of AOPA and others, that remains true. AOPA continues to work to rebuild, and the You Can Fly program, funded by the AOPA Foundation that Rudinger now leads, continues a strategic effort (that predates 9/11) to make aviation as accessible as possible to current and future pilots.

Janet Bednarek is a professor who teaches aviation history at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and a pilot who learned to fly at Washington Executive Hyde Field, one of the Maryland Three airports that remain within a flight restricted zone, where special screening and security procedures may remain forever in place. Bednarek’s scholarly work on the history of U.S. airports and aviation informs her view that the attacks of 9/11 very nearly left U.S. airspace in a permanent state of much more active government control, something more closely resembling the relatively sparse GA landscapes in much of Europe, where costs and restrictions dissuade participation.

“I would say in the weeks after 9/11 we came as close as we have ever come” to living in that reality, Bednarek said in a recent interview. “I would give credit to organizations like AOPA and EAA for pushing back and making sure that didn’t happen. They kept Congress from the most extreme” of the contemplated security responses, though permanent flight restrictions remain over the airport where she learned to fly, and where federal government employees and military personnel she knew who flew there before 9/11 had been reassessed as potential threats.

Bednarek and her husband were in Dayton on 9/11, but friends still at Hyde Field told her in the days and weeks that followed that “they were considered a security risk. It’s kind of mind-boggling.”

In 2003, the FAA established an air defense identification zone around Washington, D.C., that would become the special flight rules area in 2008 via a final rule. Rudinger recalled that AOPA had gone “to the mat” to try and prevent that.

Once a small but thriving airport community, Hyde Field and the other two Maryland Three airports remain under close scrutiny, Bednarek said. “There’s never been a return to normal there. That has just never happened.”

The FAA mandated that pilots in command must have government-issued photo ID in October 2002, though the 9/11 Commission report and FBI timeline show the hijackers all had such identification. (Interestingly, Hanjour, who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, had failed a written exam for a Virginia driver’s license in early August, though he had been issued a non-driver identification that enabled him to certify Virginia residency for another hijacker.)

New York City airspace returned to Class B when the ADIZ imposed there was canceled via notam issued April 17, 2003.

FAA pilot certificates were enhanced, with plastic cards replacing paper certificates in 2003 to make certificates more difficult to forge (though, notably, none of the hijackers had needed to forge documents issued to them by the FAA).

The Transportation Security Administration created as a result of 9/11 established a rule in 2004 (without public comment or review) that requires all pilot trainees to first prove their citizenship status. AOPA worked with TSA to reduce the burden on pilots and flight schools by allowing them to more easily document required security awareness training.

Photo by David Tulis.

The lingering effects of 9/11 are manifest at airports beyond the Maryland Three (College Park Airport, Potomac Airfield, and Washington Executive Hyde Field). They were manifest as two pilots and a restaurateur gathered in late August in the restaurant at Hudson Valley Regional Airport near Poughkeepsie, New York, 55 nm north of the World Trade Center.  

“It stopped the world,” airport restaurant proprietor Paula Young, who lived in New York City at the time of the attacks, recalled of 9/11. “First of all, you don’t think of big planes as crashing doom…  you don’t think of buildings as falling down. Then, when you put those things together, it is horrifying.”

While the 9/11 Commission was circumspect about assigning blame, Young, a former public servant, voiced one of the persistent contradictions of public perception about 9/11: Something was missed, by people not doing “due diligence,” and the attacks “could maybe have been stopped along the way, or slowed down.”

Then, minutes later, she voiced the counterargument: “They had a plan,” Young said of the al-Qaida terrorists. “They would have carried it through, no matter what.”

Mark Nelson works for IBM, one of the major employers in the area, and has flown for years out of Hudson Valley Regional Airport. Nelson recalled local residents who lost family and friends on 9/11. Poughkeepsie is not so far up the river as to have been shielded from such direct effects. The grim fact that 343 firefighters died after responding to the World Trade Center and helping thousands escape the towers before they collapsed is part of the local memory, Nelson said. “These are numbers people 20 years from now will remember.”

The towers are themselves part of Nelson’s personal memory, dating back to a childhood in the 1960s in Queens, when a ride on the Staten Island Ferry was economical family entertainment that afforded a view of a skyline dominated by the Twin Towers.

The Hudson River Corridor is well known to Poughkeepsie pilots, and others who fly in from around the region and stop for fuel or food before or after flying it. The airport is 61 nm north of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge at the southern end of the famous airspace, where pilots coming from the north turn 180 degrees to take in a full view of Manhattan, a view that gets closer, full of amazing detail and colossal buildings that feel within reach as they tower above the upper limit of the VFR corridor that brushes the east bank of the Hudson for a view that rolls close past the skyline irretrievably changed on 9/11.

“I will say that when I looked at my logbook to see how many trips I’ve done down the corridor, I think I had done 15 or 16 prior to September 11, and I’ve done one or two since,” Nelson said. “Part of it is, it’s a little more procedural now. But that I can live with. But I do remember the first time I went down, which I think was probably 2005, and to see a hole where the World Trade Center stood. Every time I flew that it had an effect … every video that I did of that. That was the icon of New York.”

Nelson, who has been flying since 1985, can recall pre-9/11 days in the pattern that were so busy he was No. 7 for landing. Jeff Durand, the airport director, said things are looking up in that respect as the airport recovers from the more recent disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. A new school just opened to train aviation maintenance technicians, with classes of 25 full-time students now rolling through the program with Young’s staff ready to feed them.

“We’re one of the busiest small airports in the state,” Durand said. “Coming up on 60,000 this year, we’ll be at—operations.” With a flight school, FBO, two flying clubs, and a restaurant, Hudson Valley Regional Airport is “like a neighborhood airport and a corporate airport kind of combined,” Durand said.

And members of the community can still come park near the approach end of Runway 24 to watch airplanes land.

‘I think that battle was won’

It is ironic that the airport closest to the Flight 93 National Memorial is still the kind of place where security has not been dialed up to a degree that prevents those curious about aviation from stopping by for a casual visit to inquire about the airplanes, and how one learns to fly.

Somerset County Airport serves the rural Pennsylvania area where a national memorial was built on the ground where civilians were the first to fight back on 9/11. The final phase of the memorial’s construction was completed September 10, 2020. AOPA visited in 2017, finding visitors moved by the story of heroism the memorial was created to tell present and future generations.

Artifacts from the jetliner’s high-speed impact are small, haunting remnants with power to move visitors to tears.

At the nontowered airport 10 miles away, Airport Manager David Wright talked by phone about visiting the memorial: “I’ve seen it once and paid my respects. It is what it is,” Wright said. “It’s not a place you want to frequent.”

He continued: “It’s a difficult thing. I’ve visited [Washington] D.C. plenty of times, visited the museums and war memorials. We embrace that, now. When you look at a memorial for World War II, you don’t go there with as much solemn as most people might, as a general person. There may come a day when we look at the 9/11 memorials in a somewhat similar fashion.”

Pearl Harbor is often compared to 9/11 in terms of its profound impact on the national psyche, but World War II ended in unconditional surrender. That was closure. There was a war, and then it was over. The war on terrorism arguably began before 9/11, was declared a war almost immediately, and is ongoing, as is the PENTTBOM investigation. There is no foreseeable victory parade, no moment imaginable when we can stop keeping the public at a distance from what Young called the “romance” of aviation.

Still, some of the wounds have healed, and some of the worst of the damage that could have been done to GA’s public perception was avoided in Bednarek’s view:

“I don’t think people understand where pilots come from in the first place,” Bednarek said, referring to the nonflying public. “I don’t think there’s a great concern among the American people for who might be at your airport learning to fly … I think that battle was won.”

New York's Freedom Tower rises near the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and is a stark reminder of the terrorism that struck in 2001. Photo by David Tulis.
Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Advocacy, Capitol Hill, Security

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