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NEWS | Sept. 11, 2016

OK on 9-11-2001

By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Larry J. Ciancio Colorado National Guard

In 2001, Col. Larry J. Ciancio was the state aviation officer for the Colorado Army National Guard and copilot of the C-26 Metroliner that carried a total of 14 Colorado National Guardsmen to and from Washington the second week of September 2001.

Sept. 11 is his birthday.

***

On Sept. 10, 2001, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brian Robinson and I were the pilots of the C-26 aircraft. We had 12 passengers.

We were on our way back to Washington for meetings on the 11th of September. We landed in late afternoon at Washington-Dulles International Airport. Our passengers picked up their rental cars and proceeded to Washington. We were all staying in a hotel in Crystal City. Brian and I took care of the airplane and picked up our own car and drove to Washington. As we were checking into the hotel, I asked the clerk if I could have a room that faced the capital as high up as possible. She gave me a top floor penthouse suite at the standard government rate. The hotel is just across the highway south of the Pentagon. My room faced north overlooking the Pentagon.

On the morning of Sept. 11, we were all in meetings. I was with Col. Guluski at the National Guard Bureau Readiness Center with several others. We were discussing aviation force modernization plans. I remember one of Col. Guluski's staff members entered the room and stated that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. I thought that it probably was a small airplane that had gotten into some problem. A few minutes later he re-entered the room pushing a cart with a television on it. He proceeded to plug it in and turned on the news. We all were now watching the event on live television.

I recall thinking that this was not done by a small general-aviation plane flying into the tower. All discussion had stopped as we watched. Then on live television, we witnessed the second airliner fly into the second tower. It was around 9 a.m. We all stayed in the room watching the events unfold. Then at 9:37, we heard a very loud explosion and I recall that the building shook. This was the third hijacked aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon. The Readiness Center is only about 2 miles from the Pentagon (line of sight).

A few moments later, the intercom sounded a statement for all except essential personnel to evacuate the building. We gathered all of the personnel in our group who were at our site. At that point, everyone in the city was trying to leave. Our hotel was back toward the center of town and I drove the back roads to return to the hotel. As we drove in, each of us tried to call back home on cell phones. The circuits were extremely busy but eventually we all got calls back. When we arrived at the hotel, I got with Brian and we called the Federal Aviation Administration flight service station to see if we could get a clearance to fly back to Colorado. Of course, at that time, all flights were shut down. However, they said it might be possible to fly out the next day. We gathered all our group and we decided we would meet in the morning call the FAA again and see what the status was on clearances to fly.

That evening, most of the group came up to my room and we watched the Pentagon burn. As I recall, there were flames and smoke and helicopters as night fell. Sometimes the flames were visible. Also, in the grassy areas and parking lots near the Pentagon and the highway, there were bits of suitcases and clothing and other debris strewn about. (It's not really visible in the pictures from a cheap throwaway camera purchased at a drug store near the hotel.)

The next morning I called the FAA and began the inquiry on possible flights. Of course the national airspace system was still closed and as we now know would be for some time. I asked if we could be allowed permission to fly as we were a military aircraft and all passengers were military. I wish I would've kept notes on this at the time, but as I remember, he said "call this number" and he proceeded to give me a phone number.

I made the call and went through the request again with the person on the other end of the line. He asked me if I was familiar with "NORAD" (again I wish I'd taken notes) procedures. I said no what is it? He stated it's the procedure to operate in national airspace when NORAD has taken control. I said something to the effect that I was unfamiliar as it had never happened before. He proceeded to give me a website address and told me to review the procedure, see if we met the criteria and call back with all the required information. We found the site and the checklist and met the criteria listed. We called back and received a clearance to fly on Sept. 12, 2001.

Many of the other personnel from other states had taken commercial air transportation to the meetings. I spoke with many of them later. They had rented cars and vans and driven back to their states, the longest trip was for the personnel from California.

We gathered our passengers, checked out of the hotel and drove to Dulles airport. We went into the general aviation fixed-base operator where we had parked our aircraft. The building was packed with people waiting and trying to get out of Washington on their private aircraft. However, none were allowed onto the ramp but us. The operator towed the C-26 up to the front of the building and we loaded up and prepared to leave. Brian and I started up the aircraft and completed the preflight run-up checks, and I went on clearance delivery frequency and called for our clearance. Usually, at large metropolitan airports, the radio traffic is incredibly busy for clearance delivery, and ground control and tower. That day there was complete silence. The controller said "call this number" and rattled off a phone number. Brian pulled out his cell phone and called, and a moment later we had our clearance.

Since all civilian airports were now shut down, we filed to Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis. It was eerie as we taxied. No one else on the airport was moving but us. I believe we may have been the only aircraft to depart from Washington Dulles airport on that day. We took off, and as we climbed out, the tower gave us the frequency change to departure control. Again, the silence was incredible and the skies were empty. I contacted departure and he said, "Where are you going?" I said Scott Air Force Base. He said, "Give me the coordinates." I opened up our charts and read off the latitude and longitude for the base and he replied cleared direct to Scott.

As we flew it reminded me of the Stephen King movie "The Langoliers," in which an aircraft is flying through the sky by itself in a deafening silence, no other aircraft no one talking on the radios and no contrails in the sky.

As our flight progressed, I recall seeing or hearing only three other aircraft. One was a fighter that passed over us, another was an Air Force C-21 that landed at Scott just before us and we heard a medevac aircraft landing at St. Louis airport. We refueled at Scott and then proceeded to fly back to Buckley Air Force Base.

We neither encountered nor heard any other aircraft on the way back to Colorado. We did hear a taped broadcast message occasionally on our ATC frequency. "Any aircraft monitoring this frequency: If you are not squawking a discreet code you will be intercepted."

As we flew into Denver we crossed over Denver International Airport. It had no activity. We landed uneventfully at Buckley Air Force Base and departed for our homes, each with a definitive remembrance of Sept. 11 and of the remarkable flight on Sept. 12.

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