9/11 Air Force One pilot remembers the day of the Chattanooga lunch bombings

Air Force One on September 11, 2001, waited on the tarmac for then-President George W. Bush after a visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., Where he was speaking at a classroom. class full of second graders. .

In the pilot‘s seat was Col. Mark W. Tillman, who spoke about 9/11 at a Friends of Scouting fundraising lunch Tuesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Tillman had seen a TV report that a “light plane” struck one of the World Trade Center towers, he said. This is what everyone believed in the beginning. Tillman told the crew to expect a presidential trip to New York due to the obvious loss of life.

Then he received a phone call from the beige telephone on board, used for classified communications.

“This is the move of the President of the United States,” he told the lunch crowd in Chattanooga. “The only time we’re going to do that is when the country is attacked and we go to war. It’s all for the continuity of government.”

(READ MORE: Chattanooga lawyer recalls horror in World Trade Center Building 7 on September 11)

Then Tillman learned that a second plane had struck the other tower, and the shocking news was relayed to Bush as well.

“At this point, important events are starting to happen in the world,” Tillman said. “[Chief of Staff] Andy Carr leans in and talks to President Bush, and he lets him know the country is under attack. “

Air Force One was ready to travel with the president on board.

“We are ready to shake things up because we have accepted the president [on Air Force One]”said Tillman.

At the time, Bush was on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney, who had “crouched” in a secret bunker. Cheney has informed Bush of the preparations for him to bend down as well.

No dice.

“President Bush made the decision not to hide. No chance. A man from Texas is not going to hide underground. He is getting back into the fray,” Tillman said. “Our plan of attack now is to bring him back to Washington, DC – the orders have changed.”

By the numbers

Friends of Scouting Scout Executive Jared Pickens reported on Tuesday that the 17th Annual Friends of Scouting Luncheon and Other Efforts raised pledges, sponsorships and pledges of more than $ 370,000 in local support.

Bush was leaving school when Tillman and his company learned that a plane had crashed in Washington.

The compressed time and the information available were confusing and inaccurate. It had been less than an hour since the first plane had struck.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area leaders honor first responders, call for unity on 9/11 anniversary)

“As he walks towards us, the fog of war begins to roll in,” Tillman said. “We are told that a truck bomb detonated the Pentagon, numerous car bombs exploded in the Capitol area.”

For Tillman, it is unreasonable to return to Washington, now a war zone, but that is what Bush wants.

Air Force One’s four engines were ready when Bush boarded, and minutes later Tillman was flying the president over the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan was still to return to Washington.

Air Force One’s 47 phone lines, due to the volume of phone traffic, were reduced to three, while the aircraft‘s loudspeakers carried the conversation between Bush and Cheney as everyone had to hear the discussion because everything was happening so fast.

“The vice president lets him know that of all the hijacked planes, there is only one now that is still suspect and that is over the Ohio Valley,” Tillman said. “It’s flight 93, United 93.”

Cheney asked Bush for “clearance to shoot down” for the plane, he said.

Permission granted.

The next thing they heard was that Flight 93 was down.

“We assumed we had slaughtered our own people,” Tillman said.

There was no sign of life. They will later learn that a group of passengers stormed the cockpit before it could reach the capital.

They headed to an Air Force base in Louisiana as Air Force One was named the next target and fighter jets and radar were needed for the escort, he said.

“Within minutes, the Houston Center comes to life on our frequency,” he said. “Air Force One, Air Force One, you’ve got fast engines at 7 o’clock.”

Unidentified fighter jets were supersonic, heading for the president’s plane, and fighter escorts had not yet been requested.

Who are they?

“Air Force One, Air Force One,” Tillman recounted, using his best Texan accent to mimic the fighter pilot. “We fly two F-16s, we are your cover.”

Tillman called it “the best radio call ever.”

Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana was the next stop, but Bush was determined to return.

“’Tillman. It’s time to go home. Now,” Bush told him.

“Everyone’s on the plane and we’re flying around America at about Mach 0.92,” Tillman said.

“As we went down to Washington, DC, we flew over the Pentagon and you can actually see the damage. The Pentagon is smoldering,” he said.

But even as smoke still rose from the ruins of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., Air Force One returned safely to the nation’s capital. The president was able to address that evening to a broken nation that would never be the same again.

(READ MORE: Senator Blackburn introduces bill to commemorate September 11 by making it a federal holiday)

The country, in hindsight, could have done better, Tillman said.

But a positive point, if we can find any, is that the country has united in the face of tragedy.

“America came together on September 11,” Tillman said. “Everywhere we went America was strong. Sons, daughters, youngsters chanted: ‘USA, USA'”

“If I could change anything now, it would be to make everyone understand that no matter your color or ethnicity, it’s time to get back together,” he said.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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