Greg Autry

Fighting for space, not over it.

Another Air Travel Rant and My 9/11 Story

RED DART NCI’m on my way to the research triangle area of Raleigh-Durham to deliver a keynote address at the first annual RED DART Security Conference. This blog entry was written inflight from Orange County to Atlanta on September 11, 2014. RED DART is corporate education effort hosted by NCMS and a collection of counter-intelligence agencies: FBI, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Defense Security Service, Us Air Force Office of Special Investigation, Us Army Military Intelligence Group, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service. It was packed full of impressive professionals and we there were some great speakers on cyber security and active shooters in addition to my overview of the China threat.

Crammed into one of those newer, 12.4cm (or whatever) deep aisle seats, I’ve managed to angle my body toward the aisle just enough to crack my laptop open a tad and wedge my fingers onto the keys. I can almost see the screen. Whenever I move my right arm down to use the track pad, my elbow jams the fellow in the middle seat who is pretty much perched on our shared armrest because the camouflage c

overed stomach of the big dude in the window position has occupied at least 32.68% of his seat – I’m convinced that Atlanta is the epicenter of national our obesity crisis. I’d feel really sorry for Mr. Middle Row if he weren’t chewing tobacco and spitting in a cup – seriously.

The row in front of me is occupied by a couple of adorable little girls whose family only on Red Bull and chocolate espresso beans. As they crawl back and forth over mom, the seatback and table tray jut toward me and then just as quickly pop up and away before slamming back down with a laptop-threatening crunch. Meanwhile, each pass of the drink trolley solidly whacks my left elbow and knee. Such are the indignities of modern air travel and I thereby absolve myself of any grammar or spelling errors in this post (working on excuses for the other ones).

9/11/2001

Anyway, unable to sleep or concentrate on anything new, it seemed like a good time to relate my “9/11 story.” Every American has one of these – most revolve around watching the tragedy unfold on the office computer, while talking with loved ones on the phone. I’ve never put my own, more unique, experience down in writing. It’s been more than a decade and I suspect the retelling of it may have altered my memory on a few minor points, but here is how I remember it:

On the evening of September 10, 2001 a small group of friends from my MBA program were gathered at Beijing’s Outback Cafe. We’d be on a study trip to Chinese University of Hong Kong and had arranged a quick tourist trip to the Chinese capital. Dinner chitchat settled on geopolitics and inevitably strayed into the policy quagmire that is the Middle East. This was sailing close to dangerous conversational waters in small group composed of a couple of Christians, a Jew, a Muslim and an uncommitted soul. The conversation was intense but intelligent and remained entirely polite.

My Muslim friend expressed his sympathy with the Chinese over their “century of humiliation” at the hands of aggressive European powers during the corrupt late Qing dynasty. For similar historical reasons, he was pining for restoration of the pan-Islamic empires of the Middle Ages, when Muslim science, medicine and literature were the intellectual bright spot of the world. I remember humorously asking, “Does that mean you guys want Spain back?” My inquiry received an awkwardly ambiguous reply and I was thinking, “Oh my.”

At the time I was incensed over the outrageous behavior of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which had been repressing women, closing secular schools and harboring terrorists. The demolition of ancient Buddhist monuments carved into the mountains of  the Hindu Kush was particularly appalling. I recall arguing that such wanton destruction and brutal intolerance had no place in the modern world and called for removal of these despots by Western force. I was not surprised that my Muslim friend strongly opposed intervention, but I was astonished to hear him argue that the global decline in religious adherence was more of a threat than reactionary fundamentalism. He sincerely felt that a return to faith would suppress the forces that drove global conflict. Not surprisingly, our little group failed to bring peace to the Middle East or remedy for Central Asia’s instability.

After the meal, I flew to Hong Kong and checked in to the lovely Hilton hotel inside that city’s amazing airport. It was a joy to escape the paranoid atmosphere and questionable accommodations of Beijing, where persons unknown had rummaged through my safe and papers – while disturbingly leaving cash and jewelry purchased for the Mrs. in Hong Kong untouched. (Interestingly, it was this needless violation of my privacy that set me on a quixotic life mission to help displace the Chinese Communist Party – you MSS guys sure know how to make friends!).

On the morning of September 11, I awoke refreshed and ready to get back to the states! I boarded a flight to Japan for my connection to Los Angeles on good ‘ol Northwest flight 002. Arriving at Narita, I found the air traffic controllers were concerned about bad weather coming in and there was a bit of a delay. I took advantage of the extra time to grab some Pokémon gear for my Pikachu loving five-year-old and thought I was lucky to get out despite the storm.

My usual M.O. on the trans-Pacific crossing is to take a couple of sleeping pills, throw on headphones, cover my eyes and try to sleep as long as humanly possible. When I groggily returned to the present, I had the sense that something was not right. I believe I’d been awoken by the plane making a course correction and when I looked at the in-flight display map we were clearly on a heading that was taking us much farther North than would be normal for LAX. In fact, it looked like we were headed to Alaska. This was disconcerting. I was still pretty bleary, nobody else in my row spoke English and I could not for the life of me find a stewardess.

In fact, the entire flight crew had disappeared to some secret hidey-hole where they were probably counting out the carving knives. The flight deck wasn’t telling passengers anything. Later, our plane very clearly altered course again, resuming a directly Westward journey. At first, I assumed that we were avoiding another Pacific hurricane or something, but the continued absence of inflight service went from an annoyance to a subject of serious concern. I had no clue what was going on in the world and the GPS flight map showed us headed toward the Northern California coast.

We didn’t know it at the time, but following the 9/11 attacks, all international air traffic into the U.S. had been diverted to other destinations and NWA 002 had been redirected to Vancouver. I later learned through a pilot friend that our crew had concluded they did not have sufficient fuel for Vancouver and turned back toward the U.S in violation of the FAA directive. Thankfully, we were unaware that President Bush had issued a shoot down order for uncooperative airliners and that the Navy had scrambled a couple of F-18s, which were sitting on our tail.

The pilot announced, with an uncomfortable stammer that we were making our final descent into Los Angeles, which was very weird. I was seated at port side window near the front entrance and had a great view. As we came in I recall seeing an aircraft carrier outside San Francisco Bay and getting a good view the Golden Gate Bridge. This wasn’t LA.

After the plane came to a stop at the terminal the jet-way came forward and I could see it was oddly packed with people, all of whom were dressed in black. By the time it docked, their body armor and rifles were clearly visible. The door quickly opened and a man stepped in and barked “Get off of this plane immediately!” Still having no idea what was going on, I was in no mood to argue, unbuckled and jogged passed the SWAT team without trying to figure out exactly what agency they were from and entered into an airport out a twilight zone episode.

The facility at SFO had already been evacuated and it was eerily empty. There was no opportunity to pick up checked luggage and no customs inspection of my carry-on. This provided an odd sense of relief because I was still concerned I might have exceeded the duty limit by spending just a little too much on that jewelry for the Mrs. A lone and somber immigration agent waited to stamp my passport. I’ve got a rare “9/11/2001” U.S. entry stamp as a sad memento of that odd journey on a terrible day.

I was happy to be back in America, but eager to know what the hell was going on. TV monitors in the empty airport showed smoke, debris, emergency vehicles and helicopters but I wasn’t really sure what was going down or where. A call to my wife, who had been anxiously awaiting any word of my whereabouts while trying to calm an elementary school full of panicked kids (she was a principal) resolved the general nature of the mayhem and encouraged me to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. I managed to hitch a ride from a departing airport maintenance worker and get to an offsite rental car agency. The 400-mile drive home was somber and endless.

Most people remember the 9/11 events from their TV experience; mine was radio. I didn’t see the iconic images and videos until I arrived home, late that night. My wife had seen more than enough and simply couldn’t bear to relive them. I sat down alone in front of the TV and cried in the dark.

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