Some of the unsung events of 9/11 that didn't make it onto the front page

By John Keller

Posted by John Keller

The flaming twin towers of the World Trade Center against a crystal-blue September sky a decade ago today is seared into memory for most of us, but there are a few things about 9/11 that many of us know little about. How about tens of thousands of U.S.-bound airline passengers stranded in Canada after the FAA shut down U.S. airspace?

How about a couple of fighter pilots who took off from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington in unarmed F-16 jet fighters just after the first attacks, with intent to ram United Airlines Flight 93 -- a hijacked passenger jetliner heading for the nation's capital?

Well, I didn't know about all that stuff, either, until just a few days ago.

The morning of 11 Sept. 2001, Lt. Heather "Lucky" Penney of 121st Fighter Squadron in the D.C. Air National Guard and Col. Marc Sasseville were at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., after completing some flight training in Nevada. After hearing of terrorist planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon, the two pilots sprinted to their aircraft.

The F-16s didn't have bullets or missiles, and there was no time to arm them. Hijacked aircraft, including United 93, were reported to be heading toward Washington, and they had to prevent them from hitting the Capitol, the White House, or any other civilian targets. Without weapons they had only one thing to do: crash their fighter jets kamikaze-style into the approaching United 93 to prevent it from reaching Washington.

Sasseville would go for the hijacked Boeing 757's cockpit, and Penney would go for the tail. As it turns out, they didn't have to make such an attack, which almost certainly would have cost them their lives. The passengers of United 93 did that when they tried taking the aircraft back from the terrorists, and the jetliner went down near Shanksville, Pa.

Now think about all the aircraft heading to the U.S. from Europe and Asia the morning of the September 11 attacks. An hour after the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center, the FAA closed U.S. airspace.

At the time 255 passenger aircraft were heading towards the U.S. and didn't have the option of turning back. So what did they do?

They flew to Canada, and not to major airports in Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal, That was considered to be too risky. Instead, they flew to airports in Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, from where passengers had to wait until they could make other travel arrangements.

The airport in Gander, Newfoundland, for example, took in 39 widebody jetliners and 6,600 passengers. Now consider that the town of Gander has fewer than 10,000 residents. Taking care of all those passengers was a monumental task.

Yet it was just one of the monumental tasks that Americans, Canadians, and many others had to do that day 10 years ago. There were little things and big things that people did. All of them are worth remembering today.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

July 2015
Volume 26, Issue 7

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