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September 11, 2011

Pilot recalls escorting Air Force One on 9/11

TERRE HAUTE — Piloting his F-16 fighter jet on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, then-Lt. Col. Chris Colbert of the Terre Haute-based 181st Fighter Wing, could see that the shimmering object in the distance was a very, very large aircraft.

By that time, America knew it was under attack. Morning terrorist assaults in New York and Washington already had nearly 3,000 lives. All commercial airliners and private planes had been ordered to the ground, freeing the skies for military patrols.

Colbert and fellow 181st F-16 pilot Tom Sims had been policing the skies over Chicago, protecting that city from possible terrorist strikes.

The two had just been given instructions to return their jets to the base in Terre Haute when new orders came in; they were needed to provide escort for an unidentified aircraft heading east.

“To see it even from 20 miles away, we knew absolutely for positive it was not a military airplane,” recalls Colbert, now a colonel at the Joint Force Headquarters of the Indiana National Guard in Indianapolis. “As we got within 10 miles and could see the colors of the airplane, it started to make sense.”

The aircraft they were ordered to escort carried the U.S. commander in chief.

President George W. Bush, on board Air Force One, had left an Air Force base in Nebraska at about 1:30  p.m. eastern time en route back to Washington D.C., where earlier in the day a section of the Pentagon had been destroyed by terrorist hijackers. Bush, after having been flown to various secure air bases after the attacks, had ordered Air Force One to return to Washington. Pilots Colbert and Sims flew their fighter jets into a protective position alongside the president.

“It was far from being special,” Colbert says of providing an escort for the president on that tragic day. “It was a duty. As a member of the military, that’s the commander in chief that is on that airplane. It was very easy for us to assume [Air Force One] was headed to Washington, D.C., and that was a dangerous place.”

Something’s happening here

At about the time Colbert and Sims were escorting Air Force One on 9/11, Harry Minniear, another pilot with the 181st Fighter Wing, was securing one of the last available rental cars in New York City for a return drive to Terre Haute. Minniear, then a full-time pilot for Delta Airlines, had arrived in New York that morning, shortly after the north tower of the World Trade Center had been struck by a Boeing 767 passenger jet that had been hijacked by terrorists.

“I remember it being just an absolute clear-blue-sky day,” recalled Minniear, who had flown that morning into New York’s LaGuardia Airport as a passenger on a U.S. Air Flight. He was scheduled to pilot a Delta passenger flight from New York to Frankfurt, Germany, that evening. But that was not to be.

Seated in the rear of the airborne U.S. Air commuter plane, Minniear could see smoke billowing from one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It made no sense to the pilot, who was accustomed to seeing the towers from the air.

“As the [U.S. Air] airplane continued around, I could see little chunks of the tower missing, kind of blown out,” Minniear recalled. “I just couldn’t get anything in my mind that would explain that.”

The commuter jet landed at LaGuardia about 9 a.m. Minniear and the other passengers were crossing the tarmac when there was a loud and distant sound of an explosion.

“I thought, ‘What the heck?’” Minniear said. He then pulled out his cell phone to call a friend back in Terre Haute.

“What in the world is going on in New York?” Minniear asked his friend. “Something’s happening here.”

Under attack

At the 181st Fighter Wing base in Terre Haute, a meeting was taking place earlier that morning among some of the unit’s top commanders. The Wing had just returned from training exercises in Nevada, and some pilots were suited up and ready for flight that morning. Before the meeting ended, someone entered the conference room, saying something was happening in New York. Everyone gathered in the base’s break room to check the TV news reports.

At that point, only one tower of the World Trade Center had been hit. The mood in the room was, “How in the world could something like this happen?” said Lt. Col. Wayne Booker, then-chief of intelligence at the 181st. Many of the people in the room were full-time commercial pilots, and they were well aware that such a thing could scarcely have been an accident. When the second tower was hit, it was obvious to everyone the United States was under attack.

Col. Gary Peters, the Wing’s commander, gave orders for the unit’s aircraft to be readied with live weapons, Booker recalled. Because of their quick action on 9/11, Booker said, the 181st Fighter Wing would become the nation’s first military jets that took to the skies — armed and ready to engage.

Soon, the telephone at the base started ringing. Members of the 181st, Guardsmen who also hold civilian jobs, began calling in. Minniear was the first to call from New York City. Then-Lt. Col. Jeff Hauser, now a brigadier general commanding the Indiana National Guard, took the call.

“Do you need me to head back?” Minniear asked.

“Yes,” Hauser replied. “If you can.”

Minniear had taken a cab from LaGuardia Airport to Kennedy Airport, from where he was scheduled to depart later that day. At Kennedy, sitting in the pilots’ lounge, Minniear and other pilots could see the Twin Towers burning. He then took a cab to a Long Island motel, where he climbed a fire escape to the roof of the building and looked toward the Manhattan skyline.

“And I just sat there and watched those things burn and watched them both come down, with my eyes, not on TV,” Minniear recalled.

“It was going very, very fast”

Following a brief lull, members of the 181st received orders to protect the third-largest American city from potential attacks. They were ordered to fly orbits over Chicago, fully armed and ready to shoot down any aircraft, civilian or otherwise, not authorized to approach the city.

“You never thought you’d carry live ammunition within the continental United States,” said Hauser, who took part in the flights over Chicago.

After flying for several hours in a race-track formation above the Windy City, Colbert and Sims, the first two pilots to take off from Terre Haute that morning, got orders to escort the passing aircraft. It would have been about 2 p.m. on Sept. 11.

Air Force One is a Boeing 747, Colbert said, adding that the massive aircraft was traveling at a very high speed when the F-16 pilots spotted it. In fact, Colbert said, he and Sims had to increase their speed to catch it.

“I don’t know if Air Force One set the record for the speed of a 747, but it was going very, very fast,” he said.

Until recently, few people knew Terre Haute’s 181st provided a presidential escort on 9/11.

“We filled the gap, that unknown gap and that nobody knows about,” Colbert said. “Nobody knows who we are. And it’s been really nice that way for 10 years.”

Returning home

About midnight on 9/11, Minniear left his motel in Long Island, driving an Avis rental car that had no license plate and no registration. Because of his military status and the events of the day, Minniear was able to convince a rental agent to allow him to take the undocumented car. Using the same military ID, Minniear was permitted to cross one of the bridges into Manhattan that had been closed and blocked by police.

Driving through the streets of New York that night was like something from a movie, Minniear recalled. The Terre Haute resident was practically the only person on the streets normally bustling with life and activity.

The life of New York “had just been sucked out,” he said.

After driving more than 1,000 miles, Minniear returned the unlicensed rental car to a Terre Haute-area agent. “What am I supposed to do with this thing?” the agent asked. 

The coming together of a nation

Staff Sgt. Sakawa Ogega, a native of Kenya, was a student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis on 9/11. He recently had watched a documentary on the construction of the Twin Towers, so found it unthinkable they would fall when his wife told him of the terrorist strike.

Ogega, now a member of the 181st Intelligence Wing — the 181st has transitioned from a fighter wing to an intelligence-gathering mission — had long wanted to join the U.S. military. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, strengthened that conviction. He contacted the Air Force and was sworn into the Armed Forces in mid-July 2002, less than a year after the attacks.

“Inside me, I was really affected,” Ogega, now a U.S. citizen, recalls. “I saw the coming together of the nation. I felt I needed to be a part of that.” He started working at the 181st as an aircraft mechanic and transitioned with his fellow Guardsmen to their new mission.

Racer pride

When D.C.-area military pilots took over the escort of Air Force One as it reached the outskirts of Washington, Colbert turned his jet for home. His flight back to Terre Haute was surreal and solitary. Sims had landed in Ohio to refuel, leaving Colbert alone in a vast, blue Midwestern sky completely devoid of other aircraft.

“It was an absolutely beautiful day in the Midwest,” Colbert recalled. “The sky was perfect,” an almost incomprehensible contrast to the events of that day, he said.

Members of the 181st would continue to fly protective missions over Chicago for the next several days. Civilian air traffic was suspended, leaving nearly all of the missions eerily quiet, Hauser said.

By the time their days became more routine, everyone at the 181st realized nothing would really be “normal” again. Everything had changed.

“Normal, I guess, is a relative term,” Booker said. “Since 9/11, normal has been a very different term than we were used to in the past.” Yet members of the 181st – known as the Racers – can be proud of the way they performed on 9/11 and in the days immediately following.

“Everything was done the way it should have been done,” Booker said.

Colbert, like the rest of the 181st, refuses to take any special credit for his role that day in seeing to it that the president arrived safely in the nation’s capital. It was just his duty as a member of the Armed Forces, he says.

“It really, absolutely did not matter that it was me or Tom Sims there,” Colbert said. “Every trained F-16 pilot at our base or any other would have very easily done that. And it’s something that we’re tasked to do. There wasn’t anything special at all. It just happened to be us on that day at that place. We did not do anything spectacular.”

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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