Posted on September 11, 2021
Some of us were reminiscing what we were doing that morning 20 years ago, and one Lexican had a particular poignant memory. With his permission to post this, here it is.
“On this date, 20 years ago I was a young captain on the MD-80. We got up early for a trip from Houston to Tampa. It was my leg and the second day of a four day trip. It was a beautiful bright morning and clear skies at both Houston and Tampa airports. A great day to fly and what I thought at the time would be an easy leg. Like the fateful United and American flights that would go down that day, and were departing at about the same time as I was, the last thought on my mind was a hijacking. There were no warnings. No memos to keep a “heads up”. Nothing.
We took off and made the turn to head out over the Gulf of Mexico. About halfway across, ATC came across the radio and told us to get ready to copy a clearance. This was highly unusual as we were the only aircraft out there at the time with clear skies and no foreseen problems. The F/O and I exchanged glances and then he grabbed the flight plan and told ATC that he was ready to copy.
The next thing we heard stunned us. “Turn left, 275 degrees and proceed direct to Beaumont VOR.” We did not understand this clearance. Beaumont VOR is just East of the Houston Airport and we had just taken off from there. My F/O read back the clearance but I said, “hold on here….something is messed up”. We were on autopilot as I told the F/O that he had the aircraft because I wanted to talk to ATC. I pushed the mic button and said “Does our flight plan show Tampa as our destination?” ATC replied that it did and reiterated his “request” that we turn left and proceed direct to Beaumont VOR. I asked the reason for the return to Houston (in my mind, the first thought that hit me was that we might have had a “bomb on board” type of threat or something). ATC’s reply again stunned us and this is exactly what he said…..”I don’t know why captain but I have been told that if you do not turn around and proceed as directed, you will be shot down”…… This got my attention. I replied “turning left 275 degrees and proceeding direct to Beaumont VOR”…..and that is what we did.
We had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what to tell my Flight Attendants and passengers. The controller never updated us with any other information. I got on the phone to talk to the lead F/A and I told her what I knew which was very little. Then I started thinking that maybe we had a fugitive on board or something like that…..I didn’t know. I told her that I was going to make a PA to the passengers and that nobody was to get close to the cockpit door. I told her that I was going to have the passengers stay seated for the rest of the flight until we arrived in Houston which would be about a 25 minute flight. We were all confused and upset but everybody was professional as we started our decent for our departure airport.
We landed and taxied to the gate, parked, set the brakes and the jetway came up to the aircraft and the door was opened. Back then at Continental Airlines we had what were called “Red Coats” who were the gate agents. The Red Coat in charge of our arriving aircraft came up to the flight deck immediately. I turned in my seat and looked at her. She was sobbing. I asked “what is going on”. She then told us that a Continetal aircraft had hit one of the trade centers. I was totally confused. How could this happen? I asked her “is the weather bad back in Newark? She said, ”No, clear skies. It is on TV in the terminal.”
We grabbed our bags and followed the passengers off the airplane. As we entered the terminal, I will never forget what I saw and felt. It was completely silent, not a word was being spoken and crowds of people were standing in front of the TV that was there…..totally silent, watching the TV. As I recall, the second tower was just coming down and we all just stood there watching. For the third time that day, I was stunned. The rest of the day was a blur.
Of course as more information came in, we learned that there had been no CAL aircraft involved with this tragedy…..somehow, that was not a relief because at the time, our hearts broke for our UAL and AAL brothers and sisters who had perished. On that day, we were all one big airline and we felt that we had lost our own……our family. Later in the day I noted that there were no jets in the sky except for the large circling contrails high in the sky over Houston of fighter jets that were circling in the sky, protecting the city……from what, we did not know.
We were in Houston until Saturday morning when we finally got clearance to return to our home base in Newark. It was again my leg and again, It was a beautiful day at both our departure and destination airports. We had one passenger on board. I told the F/A’s to put him up in First Class. Anybody who had the guts to fly with us on that day, the first day that airlines were allowed to depart, deserved the upgrade. We blasted off for EWR and everything was eerily quiet The crew, ATC, the passenger. We were one of the first aircraft cleared out of Houston.
Upon arrival to our home base we were cleared for the approach to runway 4R. As we turned base to final, NYC was off to our right just a few miles away. That is the first time that we actually saw the tragedy. There were two smoking holes in the ground with white smoke still pouring out of them. Then it REALLY hit me. It was one thing to see this on TV, it was quite another to see it in real life. I could not help the tears that suddenly came to my eyes. I was almost overwhelmed. I brushed them away, flew the approach and landed. I looked over at my F/O and he was brushing away tears too.
We arrived to an almost empty terminal. Again, the quietness and lack of hustle and bustle was so odd. I got into my Jeep and drove home. My life as an airline pilot was changed forever.”