It’s one of those things…you’ll always remember where you were on that day. On 9/11/2001. Everyone has a unique story. Mine always makes me appreciate our military. On that day, I was a brand-new flight instructor just about to take off with my first student for his first lesson. But he wasn’t just any student. He was a new 2nd Lt. in the USAF, a recent graduate of the US Air Force Academy. During that time, the USAF had begun a new program for launching these new officers into their flying careers. I was a civilian working on an Air Force Base “Aero-Club”, which is a flying club for military personnel. These soon-to-be Air Force pilots would come to various flight schools like this one, and they had 45 days to earn an FAA Private Pilot Certificate. After that, they would be sent to various bases to continue their training to become fighter pilots or cargo pilots.
We had just finished a pre-flight inspection of our Cessna trainer and were about to start our engine and taxi out, when another instructor and his student taxiied back in and shut down. The instructor got out and shouted, “The airfield’s shut down!”
It was odd…they had been running “exercises” on base all week, practicing for various emergencies and things like that. Of course we all thought this must be a part of that. So I asked, “Paul, is it part of the exercise?”
“No. We all need to go inside.” So we all tied down the airplanes and went into the office where we saw the manager, secretary and others staring at the television in disbelief.
The news didn’t know what to make of what had just happened, but we watched that footage of those planes hitting the towers once, twice, a thousand times. It seemed like we watched for hours. And nobody spoke. And tears were rolling down some cheeks. My hands were shaking. The telephone rang, and we all jumped. The Chief Pilot answered. He spoke very few words, and then hung up. “The Base Commander has ordered all non-essential personnel to leave the base. If we are to re-commence training, we’ll call you. We don’t know how many days it will be. All airspace is closed as of right now.”
I looked at my students, and I saw the full realization of their new status as Air Force Officers fall as a shadow on their young faces. I could almost see them stiffen their shoulders as they understood the burdens that would be placed on those shoulders in the years to come. Of course they all took their jobs seriously, and of course they understood the responsibility and the possibility of going to war when joining the Air Force, but I think maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t been truly real until that moment. For me, the responsibility of training these young men and women became the most important thing I have ever done as a teacher.
We started flying again 10 days later, because the Air Force decided that training these new pilots was indeed an “Air Force Mission.” Many of my students went on to serve more than one tour in “the desert.” I lost touch with them, but I pray that they have all come home safely. I think of them at this time when we remember that not all of our young soldiers will come home, and I pray that God would, indeed, Bless America.