Lest we forget, 16 years ago today we went to war. A long war, an ideological and religious war, and a generational war. From my book “Reckless Disregard."
I am an Air Force officer, a former White House military aide who carried the “nuclear football” for President Bill Clinton, and as an officer who has been ordered into harm’s way by American presidents. Everyone has his or her own September 11 story. But perhaps I should tell mine, because it was the fulfillment of a warning I personally witnessed given to President Clinton on multiple occasions in the White House.
At the time of the attacks, I was a commercial airline pilot. That morning, I picked up my pilot kit and the black travel bag with red and blue embroidered Delta Air Lines logo, kissed my wife and daughter goodbye, and started toward the door. In my new position as a first officer on Delta’s MD-88 aircraft, my flights that day would take me from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport to LaGuardia in New York, back to Atlanta, and finally to West Palm Beach, Florida, for a layover.
I passed the living room television on the way to the car. With a sideways glance, I caught the scene streaming live. A commercial airliner had slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers. The plane had erupted in flames and torched the top floors. The grayish black smoke characteristically producing by burning jet fuel billowed from the tower. Decades of training, thousands of hours of flying, and hundreds of safety classes do not prepare you for that instant when you see an aircraft crash.
Katie Couric. Liberal America’s sweetheart, was panicked, straining to comprehend and explain what had just occurred. She speculated that it might be pilot error or a failure on the part of the air traffic controllers. “No way,” I thought. There was not a chance in hell that a commercial jet would inadvertently hit this tower on such a clear, cloudless, crystal blue sky day. Even in the very busy airspace of the New York metropolitan area, it was impossible.
I set my flight bags down and fell to the couch to watch. I still had an hour or so until my required sign-in in Delta’s pilot lounge. I stared at the growing plume of smoke and wondered what airline this was. Were these pilots my friends, my peers? How many passengers were on board? What happened?
Unbelievably, in that instant, another jet appeared from the right of the screen and collided with the second tower. “What in the hell is going on?” I asked myself. I yelled for my wife to join me.
I immediately called Delta and was greeted by one of the flight operations managers. “Are you guys watching this? I asked. “What do you want me to do? Should I come in?”
“Stay where you are until we call you,” he said curtly.
As I watched the chaos in New York and Washington, D.C, I recalled being in the White House and retrieving a briefing paper given to President Clinton – it was the Presidential Daily Briefing – that described an attack that Al Qaeda was planning….an attack using hijacked commercial airliners to fly into buildings such as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Sears Tower and C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia. That was in 1996.
Yet nothing constructive had been done in the years since.
Was the White House the next target? The President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) in the East Wing must be humming, I thought. I knew the protocol. They would be in crisis mode now. Because President George Bush was out of town, Vice President Dick Cheney would be sequestered there, along with key senior staff members. The vaulted doors to what had been the White House World War II bomb shelter would be closed tight. The White House would be in “lock down.’
I thought of the military aide with Bush right now and what was racing through his or her head: evacuation scenarios, the continuity of government (COG) plan, possibly breaking into the “nuclear football,” and on and on.
I had been in that aide’s shoes, and I thought of my brothers and sisters on active duty. I knew that President Bush would not treat this attack the way President Clinton had treated previous attacks. This was not a law enforcement issue, this was war. Our military would be launching into action.
The phone rang jerking me from my numbed state. It was Delta Flight Operations. All flights were cancelled, most likely not just for today but for several days. “Stay home until we get back to you” were my orders. The FAA was clearing the skies, ordering several thousand aircraft safely onto the ground in a matter of minutes – an event never contemplated before this day. It was a “national war emergency,” the air traffic controllers claimed.
This is my generation’s Pearl Harbor, I thought. How will we respond?
Lieutenant Colonel Robert "Buzz" Patterson, United States Air Force (Retired), is a military combat pilot, distinguished White House military aide, bestselling author, and popular conservative public speaker. Among Patterson’s literary efforts include two New York Times best sellers, Dereliction of Duty and Reckless Disregard. His most recent books include War Crimes and Conduct Unbecoming. Patterson was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Air Command and Staff College; he has his Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from Virginia Tech University and a Master's in Business Administration from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. He, his wife and their three children currently reside in California.