Written by the Captain of a 767 in the Aftermath of 9/11.

I suppose most people have a 9-11 story.  Something so shocking, the images, the disbelief, the anger…we remember.  We remember and can readily relate to others: what we were doing, which images shocked us the most, what we did different because of it.  We, most of us, have a story to tell.
9-11 was on a Tuesday.  My next flight was scheduled for the followingSunday, just 5 days later.  My biggest shock was not that we were dispatched as scheduled, it was that we were not dispatched with weapons, guns…no 38’s, no 45’s, no nothing.  After all, most of the guys flew in the service.  Strapping on a 38 revolver and grabbing a handful of bullets was normal at Takhli, RTAFB.  But not so after 9-11 in ‘Cincitucky’.
John was tall, blonde hair, and came from somewhere near Minneapolis. I used to think of him as a Viking with a haircut.  He had that look.  And as it turned out, after  9-11, he had that attitude.  He was my co-pilot for the remainder of the month.  And for the remainder of the month he flew with the cockpit crash axe resting in his lap…he wasn’t to be caught off guard.  And I became extra polite.
I remember our preflight that First Sunday after 9-11.  The cockpit door,hinges and lock received 99 percent of our attention.  I don’t think I evergave it much thought prior to that, but the news reports were right…it was no stronger than the weakest closet door in your house.  Oh it had a lock and a key.  It “clicked” when it closed.  And it stayed closed until you opened it.  But, they were right…a closet door…easily manhandled open if hit hard enough.  The one thing we noted on that preflight, the door opened ‘into’ the cockpit, not out to the passengers…5000 hours in a 767 and for some reason it never occurred to me to note the direction of the swing.  But perhaps that is because my back is always to the door.  Which by the way becomes way more significant as this story unfolds.  The preflight?…the jet passed, the door?…well the door was what it was.
And as an aside, the cockpit doors on all jets have since been totallyreengineered and now are designed to stop a herd of buffalo.  By the way, the pilots are now armed, trained, and ready for action…so don’t even think to try it.
That first leg from CVG to New York included a final approach overlooking the smoking remains of the WTC and the victims of the attack…very sobering…no dry eyes and many praying.  
Maybe we should stop here and try to get our heads around the thoughtprocess in the days following 9-11.  We knew on that day early in theflight, four terrorist squads broke into the cockpits of four differentjets, attacked the pilots, and crashed into the WTC, Pentagon, and a remote field–two 757’s and two 767’s.  We knew these terrorists were trained to fly the jets in private pilot schools right here in the USA.  And we knew there were many more ‘like minded’ individuals out there already trained and unaccounted for…translated…be careful boys, there could be more terrorist cells out there trying to make a name for themselves and in a hurry to meet their maker–at your expense.  So the mood was: when will it happen again?  Security kicked in big time (four hour wait in line), people stopped flying (only ten percent of the seats were filled that Sunday to NYC), special security briefings to the crews (basically, when that cabin door shuts, you are on your own), and if you can believe the news reports, it was all done with box cutters.  So, be clear about this, the overall tone at the time was not “if” a terrorist cell would strike again, but “when” a terrorist cell would strike again (and we were flying a 767–one of the types they trained on).
With that in mind, it makes total sense that John would try to come up with a system to strengthen the cockpit door.  The plan was to make it strong enough to give John time to get out of his seat, raise the crash axe and be ready for the first ‘eternity’ seeker to show his head…ouch. There was no doubt in my mind…John wins…my concern: staying out of the way til it was all over.  He did have a few things going for him: ‘leverage’, he was big and strong; ‘crash axe’, this was a mean looking weapon, big, heavy, razor sharp, and designed to cut through metal…and it was being wielded by a Viking, hah; ‘room’, the cockpit of a 767 was designed to accommodate a flight engineer, technology won out, but the space remained, he had plenty of room to swing with effect; ‘mag-light flashlight’, they are over a foot long, heavy duty, metal, and although designed for emergency lighting, could also be used as an emergency club.  Our plan was good, but we had to give John enough time.  We needed something to strengthen the door.
Ace Hardware was the place.  After several futile complicated attemptsinvolving ropes, chains, bells and whistles, we settled for simplicity.  Allwe needed was a rubber door stop with a rubber rib on the bottom and a heavy five or six foot pole .  The plan was to wedge the pole between the bottom track of my electric moving seat and the cockpit door.  It lined upperfectly.  The pole would be on an angle from the floor track to the middle of the door.  Therefore we needed the rubber stop pressed against the door with one end of the pole held by the rubber rib.  The rubber held firm and did not slide when the captain’s chair cinched the pole tight against the door–remember, the 767 cockpit door opens into the cockpit.  We did have a problem, however…security.  How would we be able to get a six foot pole through security? (They were so paranoid, they were breaking fingernail files off fingernail clippers…we didn’t stand a chance with a six foot pole).  Well…did you know Ace Hardware sells or use to sell wooden dowels that you can screw together to make any length pole you want?  They come in sets of three, each about 18 inches long.  Two sets of these wooden dowels in a suit case passes unnoticed through security…problem solved.
So by our next flight from CVG to NYC we were ready.  Early to the jet, door stop in place, pole in place, captains electric track chair backed up just enough to cinch pressure…and no one can push that door into the cockpit without a lot of work, noise, and time…time enough for John to do his Viking act on the intruders…what a plan…foolproof…or was it?
Over time we get get used to things…expect things…take things forgranted…routine.  And in the flying business this is so essential they’vegiven it not only a name, but in most operations, a wholedepartment…Standardization.  Yep, same checklists every flight, and in the same order.  Same terminology every flight, ramp control, ground control, tower, departure, center…all standard.  Everyone knows what to expect.  It’s all about safety.  That way if anything is different, the red flags go up…there may be a problem…be careful…but, the system works.And of course that is why if you followed a pilot around for his wholecareer you would understand the years and years of pure boredom followed by moments of shear terror.  The boredom is when  standardization is working fine, just fine, everything in the same old place, checklists, terminology, green lights on all the panels, everything we all pay for and come to expect.   Moments of shear terror, well when something is wrong: a wing has fallen off, lose an engine, red lights on the panel or, GASP, your electric seat is just not quite in the right ‘sweet spot’ as you are rolling down the runway approaching rotation speed.  Something was not quite right…
But I shouldn’t be hit too hard for this one.  After all, thousands of hourssitting in the same seat, seeing the same picture, referencing the samedials, buttons, lights and controls…when something’s not right, then it’snot right.  Sooo, fix it.  One little mindless tweak of the electric switchmoving my seat aft…that’s all I needed…AHHH, my sweet spot, that comfy, everything is in the right place feeling, AHHH.  Unfortunately, today the pole was also moved aft a tweak and that’s all ‘it’ needed.  The vibration of the jet with full power accelerating through 130 knots,  the added ‘pole’ pressure to an already weak door and…”BANG!!!”…Uh Oh…rotate…positive rate…gear up…John, What wasthat?…Oh, Rich, You don’t want to know!…the door is wide open…into the cabin.  Delta___ contact departure…Delta___Roger…do you think you can shut it?…I’ll try…Delta___checking in out of one thousand for fivethousand…Radar contact, Delta___climb and maintain ten thousand…Roger, Delta___climbing to ten thousand…How’s it going?…There’s a clip in the way, but I think I can…there, got it.  It’s closed.  I didn’t think that door could open out, it’s only suppose to open in…I guess the hinges are free swinging, there was just this little clip keeping it from opening into the cabin…the vibration and the added pressure must have thrown the door over the clip…yeah, great…wide open…”ding, ding” (the Flight Attendants calling bell)…hello?…ahh, Rich, are you guys all right?…yeah, we’re okay, not to worry, did the passengers say anything?…well one person in first class said he felt very uncomfortable that the door was wide open…okay thanks, everything’s okay up here now, we got it shut and locked…all right, but, Rich, can I ask you a question?…sure…what do you want me to do with the spear?… what?…well I heard a bang and a spear came flying through first class, I had to go back to coach to get it?…did it hit anyone?…no I don’t think so…okay, bring it up we will open the door, by the way, see if you can find a door stop…yeah, I have that too, is it yours, what happened?…I’ll tell you later, for now just bring them up, thanks.
So almost everyone has a 9-11 story.  And almost all those stories are inkeeping with the seriousness of the terrorist attacks. However, defendingthe 21st century cockpit of a fifty million dollar high tech jet…that ismy story.  And using ancient weapons from the year 5000 BC: clubs, axes and spears…that is my story.  And using the same tactics employed by Vikings…that is my story.  I’m sure there is a serious side to this story,just a tad bit harder to identify.

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