Last year in our autumn issue I used the opportunity of publishing right around September 11th to introduce myself as the new editor of this publication. It was the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (and of course this year marks 21st anniversary). For those of us who were working in aviation at that time, I guess we will always have a visceral reaction to that date and the memories of that time.
I take every opportunity to publicly reminisce about my college friend, David Charlebois, who was one of the pilots on American Airlines Flight 77 that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on that fateful day. So, I want to mention him again here. David was a super smart, motivated guy, pursuing his dream of becoming a captain for a major legacy airline.
But, when I knew him, he was a friend with like interests — mostly flying. We shared that love of the sky and a passion for slipping the surly bonds of earth, traveling, adventure and the idea of a non-routine job that didn’t require sitting at a desk all week. David was motivated to get his ratings, build flight time and get hired by a legacy airline.
He was also a planner. He had a very defined plan for his path to achieve that goal. Talking to him about that plan gave me my own ideas and helped me formulate what I hoped would come next in my path after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where we were studying and training. He was also a person with a sharp sense of humor and I remember laughing about some of his very specific and unique ideas.
David was a son, a brother and an uncle. On the Pentagon Memorial page, his write up says, “He will be remembered fondly by many friends for his kindness, loyalty and positive attitude.” I can confirm that is how I remember him: kind, funny, loyal, hard-working, motivated.
As I sit and write this, it’s September 11, 2022. Twenty-one years ago, American Airlines flight 77, along with three other airline flights, was hijacked by terrorists and deliberately crashed into the Pentagon as part of the September 11 attacks. Here is a brief recap of what happened on that flight as written by Patricia Bauer in the Brittanica entry, “American Airlines flight 77” (edited for length).
“The Boeing 757-200 took off at 8:20 am. There were six crewmembers and 58 passengers. Unbeknownst to all, five hijackers boarded the flight. One of the hijackers was a trained pilot. Approximately half an hour after takeoff, the hijackers took control of the aircraft. At 8:54 the westbound plane turned to the south, deviating from flight plan. Two minutes later the airplane’s transponder was turned off. Radar contact was also lost. An air traffic controller at the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center tried repeatedly to make contact with the pilot; receiving no response, he contacted American Airlines, but was also unsuccessful. Unaware of the earlier hijackings, the air traffic controllers began notifying other agencies that the plane might have crashed. At 9:09 the Indianapolis ATC notified the FAA that it had lost contact with the flight. At 9:12 one of the flight attendants, Renee May, used her cell phone to call her mother; she asked her mother to tell American Airlines that the flight had been hijacked. Another passengers, Barbara Olson, a Washington pundit phoned her husband, a politician to tell him that the plane had been hijacked and that all the people aboard had been herded to the back of the plane. Shortly after, Indianapolis ATC learned from American Airlines that other planes had been hijacked. A discussion ensued between the FAA command center and Indianapolis, and another confused conversation took place between the FAA and the Northeast Air Defense Sector. During that time, flight 77 traveled undetected back toward Washington for 36 minutes. At 9:32 air traffic controllers at Dulles found an unidentified aircraft traveling east at a high rate of speed and notified their compatriots at Reagan National Airport. FAA officials at both airports notified the Secret Service and controllers at Reagan ordered a National Guard aircraft that was already airborne to find and follow the (as yet) unidentified aircraft. At 9:34 flight 77 was 5 miles (8 km) west-southwest of the Pentagon; it executed a sharp turn and quick descent and dove toward the Pentagon, crashing into it at 9:37.
The plane hit the outer wall between the first and second floors and smashed through three of the Pentagon’s five concentric rings. The jet fuel exploded into a fireball, and about half an hour later a section of the building above where the plane hit collapsed. By that time, most people working there had been evacuated. However, 125 people working in the building were killed, as were the 64 crew, passengers, and hijackers on the plane. The impact, fire, and collapse of the affected part of the building destroyed most of the aircraft, leaving only a few pieces of wreckage.”
I think of my friend David, how aviation and travel changed after September 11 and where we are now, every year at this time. For some, security is nothing more than a pain and an inconvenience they experience when flying somewhere. But for me, it’s personal. Never forget.