On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was a student pilot hoping to take my checkride within a few weeks. I got up early that morning because I had booked an airplane for solo work. Looking out the window, I could see the clear blue sky and felt a sense of deep satisfaction. The weather was not going to get in the way of my flying.
I turned on the news as I got ready to leave, only to see one of the jets plunge into the twin towers. Shocked, my husband and I stood in front of the television set and watched the horror unfold.
Much of that day is now a blur. I drove to the airport, not realizing that the FAA had shut down the entire National Airspace System when the attacks began. When it became apparent that no flying was taking place, I headed to AOPA headquarters. My colleagues were clustered around the television in the conference room; or they were sprinting down the hallways calling out updates; or they were on the telephones with our members, giving out the latest and most accurate information they had.
In the days and weeks that followed, our nation grieved, raged, and slowly began to heal. I had to look at my logbook to be sure, because my memory is that I stayed on the ground for a very long time following Sept. 11 because the FAA opened back up the airspace in phases–commercial first, private last. But apparently it was just a short two weeks before I had another dual lesson, and by Oct. 2 I was flying solo again. I took my checkride on Nov. 8, 2001.
Did Sept. 11 change everything? For pilots in my neighborhood, it did. The FAA created a huge air defense identification zone around the Baltimore-Washington airports that effectively did away with business as usual. For VFR pilots, getting a clearance into the Class B became almost impossible. The ADIZ was added to sectional and terminal charts in 2004. In 2007, it was altered in size and shape, going from a bulbous Mickey-Mouse-shaped expanse to a 30-nautical-mile circle centered on the DCA VOR-DME. That helped things, but only just a bit. The “temporary” flight restriction became permanent in 2008, and gained a new name: The Baltimore-Washington Special Flight Rules Area, or SFRA. (At least you could spit out “Ay-Diz” and make it sound like a bad word; “Es-Ef-Ar-A” just sounds stilted.)
You can get around the SFRA as a VFR pilot, so long as you file a special flight plan, enter and exit through a series of “gates,” remain in contact with ATC, squawk a special transponder code, and for God’s sake don’t stray off your magenta line. And you must remain clear of Class B. For practical purposes, that means you fly below 2,500 feet msl on some stretches.
It could be worse–much worse. We might not be flying at all.
I think back to Sept. 11 often. I didn’t know anybody who died in the collapse of the twin towers or any of the rescue personnel who died to save them. I didn’t know anybody aboard the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon, the towers, or the field in Shanksville, Penn. In that sense, I was relatively unscathed.
But a little bit of the joy of flying was taken away on that day, and I’m still working to get it back. I want to not to feel my palms perspire as I navigate through the SFRA and worry that I might stray too far off my magenta line. I want to stop feeling sick to my stomach when I hear fighter jets rumbling around the skies when P-40 is expanded. I want to erase the memory of my then-6-year-old daughter asking if Frederick was going to be attacked by the terrorists because we have a U.S. Army facility (Fort Detrick).
I just want things to be the way they were.
–Jill W. Tallman