I was at home in Seattle at the time of 9/11. My husband woke me after the first airplane hit the first tower of the World Trade Center. I watched the second jet hit live on television, and was totally devastated. I was in shock and in tears. My in-laws were staying with us at the time — my father-in-law is a retired 25-year veteran of the NYPD and my uncle-in-law is retired NYFD.
We immediately tried calling family and friends in New York, and also flight crews we knew. In the ensuing days, names were listed of crews, rescuers, passengers, locals — and we were paralyzed. As a family, we knew hundreds who were lost in the tragedy. We knew our careers would be forever changed, but we had no idea of the magnitude and scope of the ripple effects throughout our industry, our personal lives — and around the world.
“We just couldn’t conceptualize an attack like 9/11.”
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Prior to 9/11, pilots felt absolutely secure. Yes, there were hijackings, and we discussed those in training as a concept. We understood that we were the last line of defense in protecting passengers and crew. We felt invincible — we had made it to “the bigs.” It’s all about achieving seniority in our profession, and about flying the big jets. We had the experience to handle almost anything, but this sort of attack was a foreign concept.
We just couldn’t conceptualize an attack like 9/11, that passengers would intentionally try to destroy airplanes.
After 9/11, everything drastically changed with our careers, as well as for us emotionally. We were actually, maybe, unable to protect our passengers and planes from everything. That was a revelation. Having that in our minds was a game-changer. Prior to 9/11, many pilots were almost arrogant. After 9/11, it was a different story.
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Our industry as a whole was devastated by 9/11. There were ripple effects around the world — it was as if the industry suffered a nuclear explosion. Airlines went out of business pretty soon after the attacks, one after the other. The airlines that were not max-leveraged were in better shape, but those that had been cocky and were max-leveraged suffered. The industry fell apart. And it was not only 9/11, but other events right after — SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), wars, bird flu, high gas prices — all contributed to the shock and awe of the industry.
And people weren’t flying like they were before. They were scared. They didn’t want to get on an airplane.
Crew hours were cut back — it was a slow burn over time. Our paychecks were cut by 40 percent to prevent airline bankruptcy, and we were bumped down to smaller planes, with an additional 15-percent pay cut from that.
Some pilots were laid off. We just didn’t have the passengers anymore. I was laid off. Ticket prices were incredibly low. The goal was to stay in the air — and we were trying. Pilots have a very specific skill set. It was daunting to think of finding another job.
There was the crashing of paychecks — then we lost pensions (if our airline was among those that went into bankruptcy).
Guys with wives and kids at home struggled. Many lost their jobs; those who remained as pilots faced losing their homes or losing the opportunity to send their kids to college. If a guy had married a woman who was in it for the big bucks — she was gone, too. The divorce rate for pilots since Sept. 11 is over 80 percent.
The pilot suicide rate is high, relatively speaking. The suicide rate should be 0. To be a pilot, you must be one of the most mentally stable people out there.
We go through many screenings, interviews, performance tests — and because of our medical evaluations every six months, none of us can be on any medications or do any “self-soothing.” We have to be alert and focused. Pilots who stayed compartmentalized while they were losing their pensions, their homes, their wives — they are pretty incredible people.
I can only imagine what it was like for the crews of those airplanes. I flew the Boeing 757 and 767 back then, and I couldn’t walk into the jet without picturing and feeling the events that took place near and at the cockpit. The crews and passengers were heroes as well — giving their lives. Boston flies flags at the gates that the two jets departed from, as a remembrance. Captain Jason Dahl’s family has a scholarship fund to help kids achieve their aviation dreams. Captain Dahl was lost on 9/11.
We lost fellow co-workers that day. And it’s been tough because in the narrative of 9/11, flight crews are rarely acknowledged. Usually it’s the buildings, the rescue workers, and the victims who are remembered — and they should be.
I don’t know why flight crews aren’t remembered more — if it’s because people thought maybe flight crews should have been able to prevent this, or what. I’m not sure.
The divorce rate for pilots since Sept. 11 is over 80 percent.
I love being a pilot. I thought it was awesome to see America pull together on 9/11 and in the years directly following. Today, I fly passengers safely to their destinations, and hope to reduce any fear of flying while educating and empowering passengers through a blog I write.
Pilots and flight crews will hold 9/11 in our hearts and minds forever.
We wonder: How did the flight crews feel in those final moments? What were they doing? What could they have done differently?
As told to Deirdre Reilly of LifeZette.
Captain Laura Einsatler is a pilot for a major commercial airline with over 30 years’ experience in the cockpit. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children and is the author of two books, “Remove Before Flight” and “Lost and Found.”