Air traffic controllers share their 9/11 story

A few retired air traffic controllers who now live in the Phoenix area remember 9/11 and what they had to do when they were in the air towers.
Published: Sep. 9, 2022 at 6:27 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — This Sept. 11 will be 21 years from that fateful morning when America came under attack. Terrorists turned four commercial jets into missiles, targeting national landmarks, killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. Aside from the passengers and crew on those hijacked flights, air traffic controllers were the first to know something was wrong—the first to signal for help. We caught up with a few who are now retired here in the Valley to give us a firsthand look back at that morning as they were forced to get all 4,500 flights in the air on the ground as quickly as possible.

Jerry Gallagher came on shift at air traffic control at Phoenix Sky Harbor shortly after the first plane hit. “I wasn’t even supposed to work that day,” he said. “A lot of the information that we initially got was from the TV, from the break room.” The unfolding chaos had become crystal clear when the second plane hit the second tower. “We had four hijacked airplanes, we don’t know if there are any more,” he said.

Then came the unprecedented directive: “All aircraft on the ground for a national emergency.” Gallagher knew he had to stay calm. “You tune everything else out. Early on in my career, one of my instructors always said, you know, ‘one airplane, one person.’ You just work the airplanes so you’re not thinking about an airliner that has 400 people on it,” Gallagher said. If you didn’t, it could paralyze you in a crisis.

Dave and Mona McNay, now retired here in the Valley, were working at the time at the Kansas City center. “We had everything down in our airspace in 45 minutes,” Dave McNay said. “We were looking for one of the aircraft,” Mona McNay said.

American Airlines flight 77 out of Dulles, Virginia, bound for Los Angeles, was still tracking on their flight radar. “I remember screaming for the supervisor, ‘Get over here! Let us know, where is this guy?” Mona McNay said. That’s the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. “Nobody knew how many more there were out there,” Mona McNay said.

“Then there were some pilots that you know, didn’t believe you,” Gallagher said. F-16s out of Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson scrambled to escort a small plane Gallagher kept trying to instruct to land in Chandler. “It was a real old timer, you could tell in his voice. And I was just trying to explain to him it was national security. He didn’t have a TV. He’s not listening to the news. He’s not seeing anything, he’s tending to his crops,” Gallagher said. “We didn’t expect to have any fighter jet intercepts that morning,” Gallagher added. Then, an eerie calm set in as all those flights disappeared off the radar one by one. Something none of them ever expected to see. “I mean, I have goosebumps right now,” said Mona McNay. “We weren’t trained for hijackers that were gonna use airplanes in this manner. Nobody ever expected them to use them as missiles,” Gallagher said.

The industry they dedicated their lives to used as a tool for terrorists. “That hurt, a lot,” Gallagher said. “But I was proud to be there that day,” said Mona McNay. And so was Gallagher. So much so, that he tried to re-enlist more than 13 years after being discharged from the Navy. “I actually sent a letter in to the Navy to go back on active duty! It was just a matter of you know, we got to do something about this,” he said.

His younger brothers both called to service and deployed overseas to combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And not just because they grew up in New York and lost friends and extended family at Ground Zero. “First person I thought of was my dad because he worked in the towers. He had cancer and passed in July, right before the attack. Otherwise, he would have been there,” Gallagher said.

A solemn realization every American could relate to, the terrorist attacks, grounding a renewed resolve to take nothing for granted. “I was always patriotic. But afterwards, I guess life was, more precious.” Gallagher said.

After 9/11, fighter jets and KC-135 refueling tankers were the only aircraft airborne for two days. Another thing we learned after that day was that the hijacker who crashed into the Pentagon not only trained at a flight school in Mesa, Gallagher says he also took a tour of the tower at Sky Harbor and specifically asked the air traffic controllers what they see on the radar when a pilot turns off the transponder. Eerie, in the aftermath, to know he was training for a suicide mission.