On Sept. 11, 2001, retired Delta pilot Bob Dunn received a printed message while flying from Dublin, Ireland, to the U.S. that there had been a terrorist attack, all airspace was officially closed and to please state his intended destination.
“I’d been told where to go, how high, so fast,” Dunn said during a meeting of the Town and Country Club. “I thought for a brief moment, I’m on a $166 million plane and I can go anywhere I want. I knew that was not possible.”
While a plane is in air during any given day, there are six lanes of traffic, separated by 60 miles with airplanes every 1,000 or 24,000 feet, according to Dunn. Each plane is separated by 10 minutes at a certain set speed.
“It was illegal for us in the U.S. to be able to listen to commercial radio,” Dunn said. “But we have a common frequency where pilots will talk back and forth about turbulence or weather. British Airways was giving a position report behind me that went on hourly, and I called him up and asked him if he was listening to the BBC.”
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At the time, Dunn and his co-pilots were only aware one tower was hit. Dunn said he imagined about 150 airplanes were allowed to go back to their departure site, but at least 400 were flying over a stretch of the ocean.
In many countries, there are provisional airports used back during propeller days, where international flights could stop and refuel.
“There were probably only some of these places and we were pointed for Gander, Newfoundland,” Dunn said. “They only had five or six flights that could land there a day. And I realized early on, if we made a decision in the midst of 400 airplanes not on airplane radar, it would be utter chaos.”
At first, Dunn was reluctant to drop fuel, because landing with the fuel would have made the aircraft overweight. Dunn ran his idea by both copilots who were captain certified, and asked for ideas, concerns or comments. One co-pilot, with Delta for 20 years, told Dunn dumping the fuel would not be a good idea.
“When you get to become king, you get to make that decision,” Dunn said.
Dunn allowed both copilots and flight attendant staff to call their loved ones, telling them they were OK and their plane was safe. While on the phone with his wife, Dunn was told the second tower was hit. Dunn realized many passengers were likely to start getting worried or confused as to why the plane was turning off course. He did not tell them the full story, but let the passengers know he was a seasoned veteran pilot, the airplane was brand new and they were just dealing with a bit of a social problem. After landing, Dunn told the passengers all the information he knew and was left with spending most of the day into the night sitting on the airplane.
“We had around 300 passengers and they put about 150 in a Knights of Columbus hall and the other 150 went to an Episcopal church where there were cots, blankets and mattresses where everyone slept all over the place,” Dunn said. “We had one or two elderly couples who were unable to get down on the floor and they actually came and picked them up and put them into a home. Most of these people were modest, with only one bed, and they gave them their only bed for six days.”
After collecting all the scattered passengers and going through security, planes were finally boarded. During the flight back to Atlanta, Dunn was reluctant to wake up any passengers, but as the plane neared the site of where the World Trade Center towers once were, he felt like passengers would want to see.
“I made a very brief announcement that if you will allow the people in the opposite side of the airplane to come, they might like to take a look at what has transpired,” Dunn said. “I then said I would call your attention that the Statue of Liberty still stands. God bless America.”
When the crew landed, Delta awaited them with American flags, waving them enthusiastically as the plane entered the airport. The chief pilot took Dunn to the side and said he would like to debrief in his office. He was asked whether he needed stress management; the answer was no. Dunn’s request in the days after 9/11 were simple. He wanted to end his career on a high note.
“I’ve got 18 hours, which is the legal rest break I could get in,” Dunn said. “I told him I don’t want these bad guys dictating to me how I finish my career. So, he shook his head and said, ‘OK.’”
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