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Aviation Blog

Podcast: How 9/11 Unfolded At Aviation Week – Aviation Week

Aviation Week editors witnessed terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and flew on missions guarding the capital. Listen to their stories.
Don’t miss a single episode. Subscribe to Aviation Week’s Check 6 podcast in Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify and Stitcher.
Joe Anselmo:
Welcome to the Aviation Week Network’s Check 6 Podcast. I’m Joe Anselmo, editorial director. The 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington hit the two nerve centers of Aviation Week’s editorial and production operations. Today we’re joined by several Av. Week veterans who were on the scene that day, and scrambled to help our readers make sense of what was going on. They produced dozens of stories online for the new Aviation Week Intelligence Network, and in two days pulled together a 15- page series of reports for Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine. The magazine’s cover featured a horrifying photo of a hijacked United Airlines Boeing 767, steeply banking moments before crashing into the south tower of The World Trade Center. So, what was it like being an aviation reporter on that horrible day? Let’s get started with Fran Fiorino, who was the senior Air Safety and Training editor for Aviation Week magazine. She was based in New York City. Fran, tell us about what you saw that day in New York and how you reacted.
Fran Fiorino:
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, and I was at home, which was about a mile away from The World Trade Center. And it was a beautiful day and I was contemplating playing hooky and conjuring up a medical appointment, when I got a call from the New York office, [production chief] Michael Stearns, who said, “Turn on your TV. A plane has just crashed into The World Trade Center.” Well, being a pilot and knowing that that was midair alley, I assumed it was a small plane that had gone into The World Trade Center, only to discover, of course, it was not. We didn’t know what was happening. At the time, we then joined forces with the Washington bureau on a telephone conversation, and I was eventually dispatched downtown, but had to get downtown because subways had closed down. So, I walked about a mile to The World Trade Center, where hundreds of people had gathered. Clergy, students from NYU, friends and family of those who were in The World Trade Center, trying to find out what had happened, but not knowing what had happened of course.

You were no longer a reporter, an external force, trying to piece together a story, but you were a victim as well. And I had to battle my own personal fears of terror. We did not know what was happening, and the one beautiful thing there, was that the clergy were comforting people, all types of clergy. So, it was a beautiful moment where there was a lot of love extended to people who were totally panicked. So, then what started was trying to find out factual information, which was few and far between. The TV tower had gone down in the attacks, and we were just piecing together various bits of data that were coming in from all over, from local authorities, from rescue teams, from the military, from the FAA, and from lower Manhattan. When there was nothing else to do, we walked back to the office, which was about three miles, to see the world changing.

There were armed guards, national guardsmen with rifles drawn, their fighter jets flying overhead, and this was no longer the world that we knew. Then we went back to the office and we started scrambling to get the factual information in the next several days. And it was hard going. Even the art department was there trying to piece together a timeline, and draw a map of the area. But again, the information was few and far between. One of the evenings at the office, which was right next door to The Empire State Building, or at least nearby, we had a bomb scare, and we were told to evacuate, that it was another terror, and we did evacuate. Then the next few days, everyone worked together and pieced together several stories. And that’s… I don’t know how we did it, but we did it.
Joe Anselmo:
Well, thanks Fran.
Fran Fiorino:
Sorry. I still get choked up about it.
Joe Anselmo:
Let’s move down to Washington. Steve Trimble. You were a young reporter for the Aviation Week Intelligence Network back then, we called it aviation now.com. And you found yourself outside The Pentagon after it was attacked. Tell us your story.
Steve Trimble:
Sure. Yeah. I was inadvertently at The Pentagon that day, not when the attacks happened. Everything, all of the attacks happened while I was on the Metro, where I was blissfully unaware of everything that was happening, until I got to the [Reagan] National Airport stop. That’s an outdoor station, and it was covered in black smoke from the plume of smoke drifting over from The Pentagon. Obviously I didn’t know that at that point, and I knew something bad had happened, it’s never good to see black smoke around an airport. And then a Metro employee came into our car and said that there had been an explosion at The Pentagon, and everybody had to leave the car because they weren’t going any further. They also weren’t going back. They were shutting down the Metro. So, I didn’t know what to do at that point, but I figured I should at least see what had happened at The Pentagon. It’s about a mile and a half walk from National Airport through Crystal City.

And by the time I got to [Interstate] 395, they had shut down… And on the other side of 395 is The Pentagon from Crystal City. By the time I got to 395, the entire interstate had been shut down by the police. So, you could actually walk across I-395 and have this perch where you could overlook The Pentagon, and see that big column of smoke still rising from the south wall of the building. And I joined just a small crowd of people who had emerged from the Pentagon, and I asked them what had happened, what kind of explosion was this? And most of them didn’t know anything. And then somebody said that they had heard somebody say that a plane hit the building. And my first thought was it had to be a plane that was either coming in or leaving National Airport. A terrorist attack just seemed the furthest thing from my mind.

And then, it became, I need to do some work for Aviation Week if there was a plane involved, but I didn’t have a cell phone at that time. And it didn’t matter, because anybody who had a cell phone, it wasn’t working anyway, all the signals were jammed, the bandwidth was jammed. And so, I knew there was a pay phone on the other side of the building in the north parking lot, by the Child Development Center, and so I wandered over there thinking I could do some on the scene reporting if I could just get on the pay phone. On my way there, that’s where I walked through… They had set up a triage area, right by the highway, it was Highway 110, which was also stopped to traffic, but they were letting pickups come in through the police barricades to pick up the wounded and injured, just dozens of them.

And that’s where I really got the sense that this thing was really serious. But I still had no idea what kind of plane it was, or why. I finally got over to where I could see where the pay phone was, but there was already 100 people lined up to use that pay phone. So, I knew that my on the scene reporting plan had been foiled. So, at that point, I went back to Crystal City. I met up with my former employer, because I had just moved from that employer to Aviation Week, and they allowed me to… They were very generous, allowed me to come into the office. They were all in shock. And so, it was probably about noon, and that was when I found out about everything, The World Trade Center being hit, The World Trade Center having collapsed, that it was linked to this attack at The Pentagon.

And there was another plane in Shanksville [Pennsylvania] that had come down, and all the air traffic had stopped. But that’s where I could get on the phone and talk to my boss, Jim Mathews, who is also on this call. And then I had to get into the office, so my next move, with the highway being shut down and Metro being shut down, I just went back to 395, and then walked across the 14th Street bridge by myself, completely empty, with this black column of smoke still rising behind me, and an F=15 circling overhead from Langley Air Force Base. And it was a very apocalyptic moment.

But I mean, the confusion and the chaos of that day, it’s hard to imagine in this day and age where everything is so connected, and so easy to be connected. Back then that just wasn’t possible. So, at that point, I plugged into what we were doing at the magazine, and the website, for me, that was my job. But I don’t actually remember what we did that afternoon and evening. Perhaps Jim Mathews, when he comes on, can remind me of what I did. But, yeah. That was my, at least, morning and early afternoon.
Joe Anselmo:
Well, thanks, Steve. Let’s move on to Jim Mathews, who was the editor and chief of AviationNow.com. Jim, those were the early days of online reporting. How did you harness all this, what your team was seeing, and respond?
Jim Mathews:
Well, it’s interesting to think about that, because we are, as Steve mentioned, we’re so connected now, and we’re so used to seeing and hearing things right away, and everyone’s carrying a supercomputer in their pocket. But in 2001 that wasn’t true. And in fact, Aviation Now was an outlier at the time, in that we were using online as a way to develop and produce and distribute real content. It wasn’t a marketing site, it was a content site. It was how we actually delivered our news and our journalism and our reporting to our audiences, and that was a relatively new thing. So, that was new all by itself. But then, apart from that, we were doing breaking news in the context of an organization, which had been used to doing news weekly or daily. And so, the idea of, oh my gosh, we’re going to go on right now.

I mean, I came out of broadcasting years earlier, so I understood that, but certainly culturally, I think we, as an organization, had to suddenly embrace the idea that we were going to report right now. We’re going to come back later, and we’re going to do more reporting, and we’re just going to keep doing it in this iterative way. It was a real mind shift. And I’ve got to say, everybody on the team at the time did a fabulous job. Steve said that he didn’t remember what he did. I remember what he did. He wrote his butt off. We wound up doing, if I remember correctly, we wound up doing over 40 stories by the time the thing was all done. We had to essentially rebuild the website on the fly. We had to add functionality to the website on the fly.

We had to make sure that we were telling the story as accurately as we could. We wanted to make sure that people who were relying on it, were not being led astray, but at the same time, we had to make sure that we were out in front. And we did that. And so we, in a matter of hours, did something that as an organization we had been talking about doing over a period of years, to transition ourselves into a breaking news mindset. Well, shortly after nine o’clock in the morning, we had to suddenly do that. And when we did, I’ve got to say too, I was glad to hear Fran talk about the different roles that we all have. I mean, we’re journalists and we want to… I mean, our first instinct is get the story, get it out, get it fast, get it right, but we all had different hats that day as well. I mean, Steve points out that cell phones were not ubiquitous. He didn’t have one. He was in the Metro and then he went for a pay phone.

So, my first instinct was, where is Steve? Was he there? Is he okay? And these are the kinds of questions that sitting here now in 2021, we all know that we can, by and large, answer those kinds of questions very quickly. We couldn’t answer those questions then. So, yes. I was thinking about covering the story, but I was also thinking about, well, gosh, I hope my team is okay, because my team is everywhere. And I hope my kid is okay. My son’s going to high school in [Washington, DC], and we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know if there were multiple attacks or not. And as it happened, my son, just like Steve did, because they shut down the Metro, he walked. And school just evaporated. They didn’t even formally let out. The classes literally just evaporated.

And when people started to see what was going on, teachers just left. Administrators left, and the students just left. And so, he made his way down to the office, and by mid-afternoon, he managed to find us. And so, I had to be an editor-in-chief, coordinating a brand new type of coverage for my organization. I had to be a boss, looking after the safety of his staff. And I still had to be a dad, dealing with my son wondering what was happening the city he was going to school in. So, all of those things swirl around in your mind. You’re trying to do a good job, but you’re also wondering about the larger context. And the other hat that I wear, or wore at the time, I was a volunteer firefighter paramedic, and after working a couple of days straight on AviationNow, I then went to the firehouse and I worked a couple days straight in the firehouse.

Lots of roles we all had to juggle, and I was struck by how many people rose to the occasion, whether it was my staff, the magazine staff, the production staff. So, many things got done that we had never done before, and got done at a level of excellence that we would not have even hoped we could design in. And there it was. We had data, we had charts, we had pictures, we had stories. We had interviews, and we had it all within an hour or two or three of the event. It was extraordinary. It was an extraordinary day. I still feel mixed feelings about it. I’m proud of what our team did, but I still mourn for my friends in the fire service who died, and I still wonder about what it still means for the country, two decades later.
Joe Anselmo:
Bill Scott, you were a military editor working on another cover story, and were at Edwards Air Force Base in California on that fateful day. Tell us what you saw.
Bill Scott:
Sure. I was supposed to go to egress training that day at Edwards, in preparation for a flight the next day, on the 12th, in an F-15, and we would be chasing an F-22, which was still in the test program there, for its first guided AMRAAM missile shot. Well, the day started, put on my flight suit, I was eating breakfast watching TV, saw the news about the first tower in New York having been hit. And like everybody, thought, well, it must have been a small aircraft. Before I left that room, we saw the second airplane hit, and everybody was stunned, and I immediately thought, terrorism. So, I scrambled down to the rental car, drove out to Edwards Air Force Base, which was 20 odd miles to the west gate, where I reported in. And they confirmed, yes, I was supposed to be there. But my public affairs officer host told the guard at the gate, “Don’t let him in, because we’re not letting media on the base.”

I explained to the guard that, hey, I had to get this egress training done for a flight the next day. He looked at me in my flight suit and said, “You don’t look like a terrorist,” and gave me my pass. So, I hustled on down to the Public Affairs office, which was another 10 miles or so inside the base, and I got there, couldn’t get in the building. Same public affairs officer said, “No. You can’t come in. You’ve got to get off base. No media on the base.” Well, I looked around and saw all of these young sky cops, we call them, security police, running around with M16s, Kevlar helmets, putting on this. And I said, “No. It’ll be a matter of time before I’m face down out there on the ramp, with an M16 in my back. I’m not going anywhere.”

So, I stood outside, watching people come and go, at the Public Affairs office, and finally a Colonel that I knew, who was the number two guy on the base, stuck his head out and said, “Scott, what are you doing out there?” Told him. Public affairs officer hustled up and said, “Oh, we can’t let him in.” And Bob, this colonel, said, “We’re supposed to be protecting people, not leaving them standing outside. Get in here.” Well, then they didn’t know what to do with me because the book, the protocols, everything, didn’t cover a reporter in their midst. So, they stuck me in a dark conference room, and I mean dark, you could not see the hand in front of your face. Nothing I could do, but just sit there. Had no idea what was going on while I was in route. I knew that an airplane had hit The Pentagon, so I was frustrated. I couldn’t do anything.

And the door opened again, here this Lieutenant Colonel came in, and before it closed we introduced ourselves to each other. And as the room got dark again, I said, “Oh, what are you in for?” And he said, “I’m a brand new squadron commander, and my name’s not on the list of approved people at headquarters.” So, we stayed in the public affairs holding cell for a while, and finally that same Colonel, Bob Hall, came in and said, “I think we can treat our guests a little better.” Turned the lights on, got a cup of coffee. He filled us in a little bit about what was going on. Finally, we’re released, and I got into another room where I could watch TV and finally got to a phone. I called the Washington office, talked to several people. Might’ve talked to you [Aviation Week Washington Bureau Chief] Jim [Asker], not sure. And the decision was made, just stay put.

We had worked a long time to try to get this chase flight, and that F-22 firing its first guided AMRAAM missile was going to be a photo on the cover, and I was going to write the cover story. So, stay put, try to get this done. So, a little frustrating. I sat there watching the TV and PAO, when Doug Pearson, who was the general running the Air Force Flight Test Center at the time, came down. I’ve known Doug a long time. We sat together there, talking about obviously what was going on. And finally we saw the first tower go down, collapse. And Doug looked at me and said, “Bill, nothing will ever be the same again.” I hung around for a while. It was clear that I couldn’t do anything there, so I jumped in the rental car, went back.

So, for two days I kept going back out to Edwards, and it was surreal. For those few days, not an airplane moved, there was no engines. It was dead quiet, no noise of any sort. You usually heard airplanes taking off, landing, moving around, nothing. So, I hung around with the F=22 people, and of course these are all test pilots, flight test engineers, many of which had combat time, and there was a seething anger there, the whole time. Our country had been hit. Weren’t sure exactly who had done it at the time, but there was just this need to retaliate. And yet you didn’t know who to retaliate against, or how. So, there’s a lot of discussion about what might happen from here on, how the military would be involved. This went on a few days and it became clear there was not going to be any flying done at Edwards or anywhere else for a while.

So, again, jumped in the rental car. I drove up to Las Vegas where my son lived, so I could get some kind of activity. I could finally get on the Internet, file a story and stuff, so I started working with airline pilots that I knew. And what evolved was, how do you protect airplanes when we get them back in the air? And that’s where arming pilots, hardening cockpits, all of those things started coming about. And then, of course, another question was, how do you keep the bad guys off the airplane? Through a contact, I got in touch with Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was an Israeli, and she knew a lot about profiling. So, we had her do, what we call a Viewpoint at the time that’s basically a guest editorial for the magazine, about how the Israelis did profiling. That stirred up a lot of, I guess you’d say, discussion even among editors and on the magazine.

Just to fast forward. About a month later, I was invited to fly with the Atlantic City Air National Guard on an actual combat air patrol over Washington. So, I flew back there, we got in an F-16, did what they called a scrambled take off, take off, suck the gear up, 400 knots, pull to the vertical, and we were off, as if we were scrambling to intercept somebody. Joined up with another F-16, and I could tell we weren’t headed for Washington, DC. And the pilot said, “We can’t tell you where you’re going, and you can’t write about this,” but we went up over and circled for an hour or so over Camp David, which we later thought that maybe where Vice President Dick Cheney was being cloistered. Then we headed over to Washington, and we literally had hot guns, hot missiles, flying a true combat air patrol over the city.

Well, as we were approaching, I could see the perfect cover shot shaping up, so I scrambled, pulled my camera out, and got that picture of the other F-16 flying over the mall, the Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, all in a picture. Unfortunately, Michael Stearns later said, “Bill, this is not a high enough resolution. You should have gone to the higher resolution,” but he did his magic. We actually put three images on the cover of the magazine, all of which… Mine was one of them, and then two others to depict people loading missiles on airplanes, et cetera. We later decided that one of the big stories that had not been covered well, was the military response on 9-11. So, Jim {Asker and Managing Editor] Dave Hughes and I, we all put our heads together and said, “Okay. Let’s go get that story.” I was sent to Rome Air Force Base, upstate New York.

Those were the NORAD people that were most involved, and it was fascinating. I talked to the actual people who were on the radar scopes that day, the commanders who were there, and the bottom line was, they were equipped and trained to look outward, look for bombers coming in. As one Sergeant said, “We were not trained and we were not equipped to look inward for threats.” And he showed me the actual playback, the radar images that day, and it looked like a shotgun blast that hit that scope. It was just a bunch of dots moving around. He said, “You tell me which is one of the bad guys.”

I also visited NORAD headquarters, here in Colorado Springs. I went inside Cheyenne Mountain, interviewed any number of the people who were actively involved that day, including General Eric Finley. He was a Canadian general, the number two NORAD guy, who astutely made the call to get all the airplanes out of the air that day, instituting what they called the partial SCATSANA, full SCATANA would have shut down not only all the aircraft in the air, but also all the navigation aids throughout the country. But he was smart enough to say, “No. We’re going to need those navigation aids, because we’re going to have all kinds of release lights. We’re going to have combat air patrols. No. We will just get the airplanes out of the air. If there’s anything left, we know those are the bad guys.”

I interviewed the two F-15 pilots who were the first ones out of Otis Air Force Base, that went streaking down to New York. And when I asked one of them, what he said, “I was in full blower all the way.” He was an afterburner. I said, “Well, why did you do that? You were going to be out of fuel when you got there.” He said, “I just felt I had to get there now.” They arranged tankers. He was on over the city for hours. Also interviewed the two pilots who were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in F-16s. And they both were only equipped with target rounds of 20 millimeter ammo. They had no missiles. They scrambled to get in the air very quickly. So, in interviewing each one of those separately, this Lieutenant Colonel said, “Well,” when I asked, “How would you bring that airplane down, that’s coming in?” And he said, “Well, I thought I could shoot right at the wing rut, weaken it, and maybe the wing would come off.”

I said, “Wait a minute. I used to work on the F16. The first F16 had a gun. You only had 500 rounds of target rounds, there’s no way you’re going to saw that wing off.” “Well, I thought maybe I could.” And then I said, “Well, what was your backup plan, if that didn’t work?” “I was going to get behind the airplane, go to burner, as fast as I could race towards the target airplane, the one who’s headed for Washington probably. Go in a bank and try to slice into the backside of the airliner with my wing, and I would eject just before we hit.” I said, “Come on. There’s no way you could do that. I know how long it takes to eject. You were planning to sacrifice yourself and hit that airplane to bring it down.” He looked at me funny and said, “Well, you’re the first reporter that’s figured it out.”

I also interviewed the backup, the second pilot in that flight, that was Lieutenant Heather Penney. She was not cooperative. She did not want to talk to me at all, because she was afraid I was going to do the story that she had already done to the TV station. That was, oh my God, we’ve got a woman pilot, and she was out there saving the country. She was not cooperative, but she too finally admitted that she was willing to sacrifice herself to bring that airplane down. So, it was a pretty amazing story. It wasn’t all done on 9-11, but the stories we put together for Aviation Week were the first, and probably the most in depth, of how the military responded to 9-11. I wasn’t the only reporter, there were others that provided information for that. But in a nutshell, I didn’t get to do much on 9-11 to help the magazine, but ultimately, I think we had a pretty good coverage of what happened that day.
Joe Anselmo:
Let’s talk a little bit about the magazine. Jim Asker, you were the Washington Bureau Chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology. You guys had two days to report on a massive aviation story before the magazine went to the printer. How’d you do it?
Jim Asker:
Jim Matthews and Steve Trimble explained well, that we did have an online operation, and although it was embryonic in terms of the audience that we had developed, we had made a level of commitment to doing things on the web. So, we felt very lucky in that regard, and the magazine could focus on the print issue that we had to close in two days. So, things have changed tremendously, technologically, in the last 20 years, I realized. I’m old enough that I’m the sort of person who somebody says something happened 20 years ago. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, but then I remembered that in 2001, I didn’t even have a cell phone. Steve didn’t have a cell phone, was lining up to use a pay phone. As it turned out, as Fran Fiorino was saying, it was a beautiful fall day.

I was out of the office when things were happening initially. My wife and I were at a meeting with an architect for a little addition we were going to do on our house. And so, the way I learned what had happened was, my wife would drop me off at a Metro station out in the [Virginia] suburbs, and I got on the train, and there was a stunningly bureaucratic announcement that came on, on the train, that said, “Due to a terrorist incident, there is no service at the Pentagon station.” “What?” A fellow passenger said, “Yes. A plane has struck The Pentagon.” He said, “And planes have hit both of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and buildings have fallen down.” And that was utterly stunning to me. I’m not an engineer, but took some engineering courses in college, and the idea to me that an airplane…

…I know of course that these airplanes were carefully selected, they were to have been transcontinental flights so they were loaded with plenty of fuel. But even that that much could cause a giant steel structure like the World Trade Center to collapse, was just a stunning idea to me. So, I got to the office as fast as I could, and we began thinking, what are we going to do? This was on a Tuesday. The magazine had to close by Thursday night, so it affected us not just as journalists, but it affected us the way it affected all Americans, and it was a deeply personal to us, because the two places we had the most people were New York and Washington. And like Jim, I had a son who was in Manhattan. He was working at a law firm just blocks away from The World Trade Center. And for me, initially, it was somewhat difficult to focus on the job at hand, until I knew that he was safe.

And once I found that out, I buckled my seatbelt, and had no idea when I was going to get home that day. And we were quite lucky at Aviation Week, in that we have reporters who, by and large, have many more ideas for coverage than they can ever get to. They have deep sources in their respective areas, and I have no doubt that we would be able to pull something together that was going to be something we would be proud of. But we also had some people who were on assignment out of town, and one of the things that happened, as everybody probably remembers, is the FAA Air Traffic Control, decided, well, we don’t really know what’s happening just at the moment. We want every plane in the sky right now to land, as soon as possible, at the nearest airport.

And it was several days before there were any flights again. So, we had people like, Bill Scott was out at Edwards Air Force Base, didn’t know how he was going to get back. And we had Robert Wall, who is now at the Wall Street Journal, he was a Washington bureau reporter, and he was on assignment in Europe, and we didn’t know how he would get back. But, yeah. I had been a reporter for more than 20 years at this point. Not at Aviation Week, but in my career, and I had been through things that were major deals, like to think of it as hooking up all the fire horses, and a lot of people being thrown at once at a story. And the one that came to mind was when I was at the Houston Post, I, at one point, was the Science, Technology and Space reporter. And I was doing that job when The Challenger accident happened, the space shuttle that was lost on launch.

So, I knew what going through an experience like that was like, but 9-11, right from the start, felt like an order of magnitude different. Many, many large questions presented themselves immediately. I knew they’d get all these airplanes to land as quickly as possible. How was that done? What in the world happened to aviation security? How could people get through and do something like this? And what was the response of the U.S. military going to be? What would happen next? And so, we ended up of course, ripping up whatever we had planned for the cover, it’s 20 years ago, I don’t remember what the feature story was that we were going to put on the cover, but that was lost as a cover.

And we had to find a good picture that would illustrate what had happened. And as Joe was mentioning, found a picture of an airplane that was banking steeply to hit the second tower. And you could see that from the picture, how hard the terrorist pilot was working to make sure he hit his target, by the way the wings were bending so much on the airplane. So, at Aviation Week we’re blessed with having an audience that sets very high standards for us, and they expect us to get details right. And journalism is, as Jim Mathews was explaining, there was somebody that said… And sorry, I don’t remember who it was. But described journalism as the first rough draft of history. And we knew we might make some mistakes in our coverage, but that our readers had very high expectations for us. And one other point I would make before I field the floor is that, we, like a lot of people in aviation, were well aware that aviation could be a target of terrorists. There had been airplanes that had been hijacked, that had been happening for years.

And there had been airplanes that had been blown out of the sky. Notably a Pan-Am 747 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, our reporter covered the aftermath of that. But we were not thinking much, in terms of aviation being used as a weapon, we didn’t have concerns, and certainly people in government, that the airlines and aviation were concerned that a terrorist might use a small airplane laden with explosives to hit a target, or an unmanned aircraft to use as a weapon. Turning into the third major area we cover space. NASA was quite concerned that a launch vehicle presented a pretty tall and large target, that somebody might fly something into one of those vehicles. And so, it was not a foreign idea to us. But the idea that an airplane as large as a 767 could be taken over and used as a weapon was pretty much beyond the imagination of almost everyone.
Joe Anselmo:
Let’s wrap up with Mike Lavitt. Mike was a senior content producer at Aviation Week’s New York office, that’s where the magazine is copy edited, and laid out. Mike, what do you remember about that week?
Mike Lavitt:
The way I first got news about the attack was, someone in the office, Lisa Caputo who’s now our art director, got a call saying an aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. And there was a TV in the area where I worked, so we turned that on and watched the whole thing unfold, like most Americans did. Some people left immediately. The last thing I wanted was to be… I knew that in cases like this, they might stop all mass transit, and the last place I wanted to be was on a New Jersey Transit train under the Hudson River for a few hours. So, I figured, I’ll just stay put, and that was actually before the assignments came out. And so, I stayed there and started reporting the story when I got the assignment. And I wasn’t really concerned for my own safety, because I was more than three miles from the World Trade Center.

I was in a building that was not nearly as tall as The World Trade Center, but we were on top of Penn Station, which is the nation’s busiest railroad station. The smoke from the Trade Center, and there was a lot of it, was being carried away from Midtown. We were on the fifth floor at that time, so we couldn’t really see much. But I went up to the cafeteria on the 12th floor and looked south, and you could just see… You couldn’t see the towers, I think by that time they had collapsed, but you could just see this incredible cloud of smoke. And it was all being blown, basically south, south and east, so away from us.

And there was one woman who worked in the New York office, whose husband worked at the World Trade Center, and she had no way of knowing if he was okay, until he showed up at the office a couple of hours later. So, that was a scary time. I was reporting throughout the day and worked until after seven o’clock, before heading home, when I figured I’d gotten all I could get that day. Lunchtime, we went out to… I didn’t have much appetite, but did go out to get lunch, and we could hear fighters flying overhead. We couldn’t see them, but they were there. And it was reassuring. And I mean, I think at that point, the overflights were… By that time, all the planes were on the ground. I think the overflights were there really more to instill some confidence and security in the populace that somebody was watching out for them.

The scariest part came two days later, and Fran talked about this a little bit. I was in a conference room with some people, and someone came into the room and said, “They’re evacuating the building.” And then you could actually hear the pounding of people’s footsteps charging down the emergency stairs in the stairways. And we joined the rush, and it wasn’t just our building, there were thousands of people milling around in the streets. And this was Thursday, the day that we closed the magazine, and send it to the printer. So, I was concerned about whether we were going to be able to get back in and how we’d finish putting out the magazine, because that was an absolute, you had to get it done.

We always had this sort of loosely defined plan, that if our office was unavailable, we’d go over to New Jersey, where the pre-press vendor that we used was. That’s where they put together the pages that we send them with the advertising, and prepare a final electronic file that they send to the printer. So, I did have a cell phone, and I tried to call Dave North [in Washington] and ask him… Dave North was the editor in chief at the time, and say, “Well, should I go over to New Jersey? Are we going over there?” And then people started going back into the building, and I think this was probably about 45 minutes after the first evacuation. And that evacuation was… I mean, I was pretty devastated by what happened on Tuesday, but that evacuation was another high point of fear and concern that day.

And I think that’s when realization really hit, that things are changed forever. I saw cops rousting people who looked like they might’ve been of Middle Eastern descent, making them take their boots off so they could make sure they didn’t have a knife or something. Also, I did re-read the airport security story that I helped write, this morning, and it addressed some things that really came to pass. We addressed the vulnerability of the cockpit doors then, and the need for them to be hardened, and there would be a lot more about that in the coming months. The low pay and high turnover among airport security personnel, who were mostly contractors hired by the airlines, and the story addressed the possibility of a government takeover of security, I think at that point. The thinking was that it would be part of the FAA, since the FAA did have oversight of security programs.

It was later on that the TSA came about, and that was pretty much it from the New York perspective. But it took, and Dave North noted this in an email that he sent out the next week, it took a lot of courage for people to go back to their desks and finish putting out the magazine that Thursday, knowing that they were vulnerable. They were sitting on top of the nation’s biggest rail station, which made it a target for future attacks. And I don’t know that everybody worked in that office came back. There were a lot of business side people there too. But everybody who was involved in the production of the magazine, the art department, the copy editors, the producers, everybody came back to work that day.
Joe Anselmo:
Well, thanks, Mike. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to share your memories. Fran Fiorino retired from Aviation Week in 2010. She lives in Washington. Steve Trimble is now the Global Defense Editor for the Aviation Week Network. He’s based still in Washington. Jim Mathews is now president and CEO of The National Railroad Passengers Association in Washington. Bill Scott retired from Aviation Week in 2007. He now writes books and divides his time between Colorado and Southern California. Jim Asker retired as managing editor of Aviation Week in 2017. He now lives in Florida. And Mike Lavitt is Aviation Week’s director of editorial and online production, still based in New York.

That is a wrap for this week’s Check 6. Thanks again to our guests, and to our podcast producer in London, Guy Ferneyhough. You can subscribe to Check 6 on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. Have a wonderful weekend, and stay safe.
Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.
Michael O. Lavitt, Director of Editorial Content Production for Aviation Week, has extensive experience in both traditional print and new media. He began his career as a reporter with daily newspapers, worked on developing online services in Chicago and New York in the mid-1980s and then joined Aviation Week & Space Technology as a news editor.
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