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Grounded: Fire, medical aircraft impacted by Sept 11th Sky Closure

Author: Kelly Andersson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue. 

Federal authorities immobilized the US air traffic system for the first time in history on September 11 after the hijacking of four planes and subsequent suicide crashes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

One of the first non-military aircraft allowed back in the air by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was the contract jet from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.  It made several flights to transport three national interagency incident management teams back to the New York City area.

Air traffic across the nation was paralyzed after the terrorist attacks.  The FAA ordered all outbound flights grounded; runways were kept open for incoming flights, but several airports were evacuated.  The shutdown began at 9:25 AM., and incoming international flights were diverted to Canada and other countries.  By 10:30 AM. the military had taken control of US airspace.

"It's the first time they've ever had a ground stop," said John Clabes with the FAA later that morning.  "The air system is shut down.  Any airplanes in the sky are allowed to land anywhere they want to get down except Washington and New York."

In an amazingly short time, the skies were cleared.  In a matter of hours, the FAA was able to ground over 5,000 airborne aircraft without incident.  All but the four hijacked planes landed safely.  And in an amazingly short time, aircraft once again took to the skies.

On September 13 the FAA and the NSC began reopening airspace to civilian operations.

Other flights were up even earlier.  According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the Midwest Transplant Network chartered a plane to coordinate organ placements as soon as charter flights were allowed to continue on September 12.  Their flight was granted a "lifeguard" status by the FAA.  In Tennessee, the FAA allowed a special military transport of a liver needed by a 6-month-old girl.  The Tennessee Air National Guard made the two-hour trip to Houston.  LifeCenter Northwest managed a successful heart transplant in Seattle despite a forced landing of their charter flight from the donor hospital in Alaska.  A Navy F-16 fighter and a Canadian military jet accompanied the plane to Bellingham, about 80 miles short of its destination.  A helicopter was used to complete the trip.

The NIFC jet out of Boise was one of the first non-military and non-medical aircraft allowed to fly.  Its crew transported three national incident management teams – people who usually handle wildland fire – back to assist with the aftermath.

"We brought airspace down on September 11 and were able to get some back in the air rather quickly," said Ed Stone with the Washington Office of Forest Service Fire & Aviation.  "We – just by luck of the draw - had Julie Stewart in Washington for a meeting, and she was able to work with Defense and the FAA.  She literally met them by telephone, shift by shift, around the clock."

Julie Stewart, from Portland, Oregon, manages the national airspace program for the Forest Service and is the Pacific Northwest regional airspace coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service.  In the course of her regular job, she handles airspace coordination for fire response – airtankers, helicopters, lead planes, infrared aircraft – and all kinds of agency aviation issues, including non-emergency aircraft.

On September 11, Stewart happened to be back in Washington giving a presentation to the FAA and the Department of Defense.  She was then tasked to work with the FAA on airspace coordination and flight restrictions in efforts to get fire aircraft safely back into the air.  She was in Washington for another 15 days, working with FAA headquarters, and she sent briefings to NIFC and agency aviation officers.

"There were fires in California and Oregon and Washington at the time," said Stewart, "and I knew it would have an impact.  I was able to work with the FAA in securing emergency releases to allow our aircraft to fly.  The NIFC jet was considered an emergency aircraft because the teams were considered emergency personnel."

Stone said Stewart's efforts at regional and national coordination helped achieve uniform interpretation and get aircraft back in the air.  "We managed to get missions approved on a case-by-case and addressed the public aircraft issues," he said.  Stone added that the fire agencies had to hold back on aircraft use for non-wildfire use (such as prescribed fire), and that some of the active fires with aircraft assigned were the subject of military supervision.

"We did have interceptions," he said.  "If you consider the profile of airtankers and helicopters descending low to do their work, and then popping back up, even with a beacon code ...  we did have jets arrive to look at them."

One of the challenges was keeping pilots updated on airspace coordination.  "I was sending out two or three updates a day to all of our aviation people, including the tanker pilots," Stewart said.  "The rules were changing by the hour, and it was a difficult situation.  The FAA had to get everyone safely on the ground, and then safely get them back up."

Which aircraft were allowed to fly where, under which circumstances, was certainly not business as usual.  Decision-making had been elevated to the National Security Council.  "Decisions were made at that level," said Stewart, "and no one else had the criteria for when aircraft got back up.  It was a very, very confusing time, and it was driven by security issues."

"There were so many changes, it was like being in the middle of a hurricane," she said.  "Things were changing constantly, and we didn't know what would happen next.  We just kind of coped."

Coping was really the name of the game in the first few weeks after September 11; emergency response personnel in the US have dealt with nearly every flavor of disaster over the years, but never something like this – and most agree that this won't be the last time. Though there were a number of active wildfires with aircraft assigned, and though they were grounded and re-activated safely and quickly, strategies for dealing with this in the future are being discussed.  Fortunately – this time – we weren't in the middle of wildfire crisis mode, and fortunately – this time – we didn't see any major raging fires escape as a result of the grounding of aerial firefighting operations.

Kelly Andersson has written on forest management and wildlife issues, natural resources policy and politics, and big game hunting and fly fishing.  Kelly is the editor of Wildfire News, which is available online at


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