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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Into the Night
By John C. Lorenz
September 12, 2001

The assigned transponder code, 4354, was so hard to obtain that I recorded it in my logbook. We were assured by several authorities that we could be shot down if we deviated from that code or from our flight plan. Erratic lightning flickered behind the immediate clouds, half-seen in the close, black night. Radio frequencies were quiet except for the low-key, one-sided conversations we could hear as Air Traffic Control directed military traffic.

We had been called to stand by on the afternoon of September 12, 2001. The mission was to transport pints of blood, collected from dozens of willing Albuquerque volunteers, to a collection center in Phoenix that evening. Repeated television images of crashing planes and crumbling towers from the morning before were seared into the national consciousness. I was one of the lucky ones called on to contribute my skills, however small and however briefly, to the national interest instead of suffering dumbfoundedly in frustration in front of the TV. We had been given a chance to be useful and we took it, but an unspoken question lingered in the back of my mind: "Given the magnitude of masonry and steel mixed in chaos with human bodies, will there be anyone alive to benefit from the blood we deliver?" The question was irrelevant.

We met at a Civil Air Patrol member’s home at 8 PM. John and I comprised one crew; Lee and Ernie were the backup crew, but were also scheduled to fly a mission with the same profile on the following night. Lee had flown C-47 transports over the Hump to China during World War II; John and Ernie are highly experienced pilots in their own right. What was I doing there? We talked quietly in the living room while Dave, the Emergency Services director, and his staff straightened out the last of the intricate details involved in obtaining a nationally assigned transponder code prior to flight. Cooperation between the Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters, Air Traffic Control, and the Pentagon, under the plan developed for national emergencies ("SCATANA"), had obtained permission for Civil Air Patrol to fly a limited number of very specific missions. Dave’s newborn slept in the next room.

My questions to a former military pilot earlier in the afternoon had been met with flat denial. He was sure that no non-military pilot would be permitted to fly for any reason whatsoever. Calls to Flight Service to file a flight plan and for a weather briefing had been somewhat more encouraging, but were inconclusive as to whether permission to fly would or even could actually be given. Moreover, whereas the flight to Phoenix carrying blood was deemed important, the empty return flight was not. If actually allowed to depart, we would launch not knowing whether or not we’d be returning by bus. The final disquieting factor was the weather: scattered rain and thunderstorms. A widespread layer of broken clouds covered the route of flight in the limited interval available to us, between minimum altitudes over the mountains and the higher altitudes that would require oxygen that we didn’t have on board.

We loaded four cases of blood from United Blood Services into a Civil Air Patrol van and drove through the drizzle across town, streetlights shining on puddles, heading for the flight-line on Kirtland Air Force Base. Just getting past the guard gate and onto the base that evening was an effort. Our uniforms and the official van made entry possible, but not easy. A squad of polite yet very determined and very young soldiers conducted a thorough mirror-and-dog search of our bags and the van before we were allowed past the machine guns, floodlights, and hastily placed cement barriers. Our entire effort was then nearly thwarted by the recently changed combinations on locks to the flight-line gate. Hurried cell-phone calls to various knowledgeable people put us back on track after a minor delay.

John had managed to nap that afternoon, so we agreed that I would take the first leg in the single-engine Cessna 206, figuring he would be the fresher of the two of us for the return flight. We lifted off at about 10 PM local time. Being the only traffic using the vacant runways at the normally busy Class C airport, we were immediately cleared to join the victor 190 airway. That route goes westward across the nearly uninhabited, unlit, high, broken country of western New Mexico. Our flight would continue for three hours across the continental divide and over the dark and barren mountains of central Arizona. I was instrument current but I have minimal experience flying in actual clouds, since most New Mexican clouds contain either ice or lightning depending on the season, and are usually bad places to be, even with an instrument rating. Nevertheless, concentration derived from an intensity I usually reserve for FAA checkrides managed to keep me aware of our position and helped me keep the navigation needles centered.

Near silence on the radio and an absence of anything visible in the darkness were combined with disbelief in the reality of the 9/11 attacks to create a feeling of total detachment from the world. We were floating along in our own cocoon, even having to turn on the landing light to tell whether we were flying inside clouds or not. Ground lighting was nil—pinpricks from the few, widely-scattered ranch-house lights provided no reference to the horizon even when we could see them.

Lightning flickered on and off beyond the wingtips, marking storm cells obscured by the broken clouds. We avoided the cells easily enough with minor course deviations because they were prominently, if discontinuously, lit by concentrations of flashes in the darkness, yet I regularly replayed through my mind the storm-penetration techniques I had read. That exercise was less than calming because most of the remembered advice consisted of a terse "don’t." However, radio calls to Flight Watch yielded the information that their radar showed the storms to be scattered and mostly to the sides of our route.

A pale, bluish glow tinged the outer arc of the prop from time to time, coinciding with extra static on the radios. Maybe we were, maybe we weren’t doing something vital to help protect the nation, but we were doing something. It was a release to be active, a welcome change from watching the news with an ache in my heart while grinding my teeth.

Air Traffic Control and Flight Service both sounded professional and matter-of-fact on the radio. Operations were few but otherwise the procedures were normal. We could hear Air Traffic Control giving instructions to Air Force tankers flying holding patterns with long, 50-mile legs, waiting to refuel armed fighters, but the responses and the plane-to-plane communications were on military frequencies and hidden from us. The lone two-way interchange we could hear was between Air Traffic Control and a lifeguard flight on its way to the Navajo reservation. It seemed small, distant, and out of place.

An hour into the flight I began fighting the urge to drift off to sleep. It wasn’t overpowering but the accumulated stress of flight planning in the overall atmosphere of the attacks was combining with my biorhythms and telling me I should have been in bed. The feeling faded after half an hour, but it had gotten my attention. I resolved to watch John’s piloting carefully on the return leg, monitoring for signs of fatigue.

We were vectored toward Phoenix Sky Harbor, sliding down from the high, dark minimum enroute altitude of central Arizona into the warm and well-lit night of that desert city. Picking out the runway amid the city lights wasn’t easy for a first-time night arrival, so we followed the navigation radios in. We landed with a strong crosswind, and were met as we turned off the runway by a Follow-Me truck that had been alerted by the tower. Friendly hands unloaded the blood, offered sandwiches, and refueled the Cessna. The feeling of unity of purpose was nearly a physical entity, and almost comforting enough to compensate for the vacuous inactivity of this large airport and the strangeness of numerous lifeless aircraft parked on the dark ramps. We stretched our legs and took our time getting back into the plane.

Air Traffic Control was, in fact, expecting our radio call, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we copied our clearance for the return flight. Phoenix departure assigned us a new transponder code, as apparently they had not been party to the instructions to the effect that we would be shot at if flying under any but the original code that night. We accepted the new squawk only after repeated assurances that we would continue to be recognized and would be able to fly safely under the new code when handed along to successive Air Traffic Control facilities. Our apprehension was not fanciful: what little we could hear on the Air Traffic Control frequencies had suggested that unseen fighters, manned by grim pilots and equipped with live ammunition, patrolled the sky this second night after the attacks.

We started the homeward leg with a takeoff eastward into the darkness, climbing hard to clear the unseen mountains. John had the controls while I watched for the Air Force tanker that departed close behind and soon overtook us. We never saw it. Halfway home, a strong diffuse yellow glow appeared on the horizon in front of us. It grew, glimpsed as we flew in and out of the clouds, into a friendly half moon that at last gave a hint of definition to the landscape below, when we could see it.

John suffered no obvious attacks of fatigue on the return trip, although his altitudes and headings began to drift during the last half hour. Nevertheless, I scrutinized his instruments for the entire flight, probably contributing more to my own stress and fatigue level than to our safety. We kept up a random conversation throughout the trip and I learned much about this quiet man who is also the chaplain for the squadron.

A hundred miles out of Albuquerque we tried to raise Civil Air Patrol Mission Base on the radio to let them know we were running about an hour behind schedule, but we were out of range. A friendly Flight Service specialist accommodated us with a phone call to Mission Base instead. They had been awake, waiting for our call.

We landed out of a visual approach into Albuquerque, but a rainsquall closed in on the airport five minutes after we touched down and we became drenched and chilled while refueling the Cessna. A quick debrief and a call to my sleepy wife, and by sunrise I was in the truck, heater on full as I headed home. A sudden weariness and an irresistible urge to sleep demanded that I pull off the highway to catnap briefly on the shoulder before proceeding.

Lee and Ernie never got to fly their mission. The weather deteriorated and widespread embedded thunderstorm activity made similar flights impossible for the following two nights. The next shipments of blood were driven over the mountains to Phoenix instead. By the time the weather cleared sufficiently to allow more blood-transportation flights, it was becoming starkly apparent that the smoldering rubble piles that had been the World Trade Center and one side of the Pentagon would yield few survivors in need of transfusions.

In retrospect, the flight could almost be viewed as a metaphor. Changed yet familiar surroundings, ill-defined feelings of danger, a passionate desire to help, half-heard communications, flickers of light, unknown friendships, a mission successfully flown, and, hopefully, the dawn. Did we help anyone? Probably not any one individual, though the trip had intangible benefits for many. Did we feel better for having made the trip? Yes, marginally. Would we have still made the flight knowing for sure that the potential benefit was minimal? Without doubt. My irrelevant question had been answered in an oblique way that was appropriate to the setting.
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