aviation

The Man Who Cleared The Skies On 9/11

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By Ken Zurski

In Simon Winchester’s “The Men Who United the States” a book about America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, And the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible, the author begins a chapter titled “And Then We Looked Up,” by giving a personal account of driving up the Sierra Nevada near California’s Donner Pass, and seeing nothing but the overhead blue of a mostly clear early Autumn day.

Something struck him odd, however.

“Normally there were at least a few contrails lacing the sky,” Winchester explains.

This would have been noticeable Winchester points out because of the number of transcontinental jets usually waiting to land in Oakland or San Francisco, a couple hundred miles away. But on this crisp, clear Tuesday morning. Nothing. “No contrails whatsoever,” Winchester writes.

Winchester’s observation is understandable given the date: September 11, 2001, the day America was attacked.

The skies were empty of jets, because the skies across the entire country were emptied of jets.

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How that happened is the basis of Winchester’s chapter and it starts with one man in particular, Ben Sliney, the operations manager at the nation’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Virginia.

On September 11,  2001, at approximately 9:45am ET, Sliney on his own initiative and through the collective advice of an experienced staff gave an order he knew well, but never thought he would ever implement: SCATANA.

SCATANA is an acronym, of course, and stands for Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids. It’s a military and legal enforcement that within its power requires all commercial aircraft to land immediately at the airport closest to where they happened to be. It also required all airports to forbid any flights from taking off.

A nationwide Ground Stop, as it is more commonly called.

It effect, it cleared the skies of contrails.

Such a command is rarely ordered in a lifetime and to hear it broadcast over the radio must have given each and every pilot cause. But an order is an order. “This is not a drill” was repeated several times after the directive was announced. This is not a drill!. Within minutes the nearly 5,000 commercial flights in the air at that exact moment began diverting to the nearest and safest place to land. “It was obeyed, masterfully,” Winchester laments, adding, “Every pilot appeared to cooperate; none of significance appeared to balk.”  The total compliance is even more impressive given the assumption that most of the pilots had no idea why the order was given.

Since it was confirmed hijacked planes were used as bombs to attack the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and another plane had fell from the sky over Pennsylvania, destination unknown, each and every aircraft was regarded as a potential threat. “A weapon of vast power that could be unleashed at any of a score of targets,” Winchester writes.

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Within an hour and half after Sliney had sent the signal, every plane was down – and safely. The intent of SCATANA had been achieved. All but a few military fighter jets and for a time, Air Force One, was all that remained in American skies.

This likely didn’t sit well with passengers who were bound for Oregon or New York and suddenly found themselves in Lincoln, Nebraska, or somewhere else far away from their original destination. Millions were certainly inconvenienced. Once they were in sight line of a television set, however, attitudes likely changed.

Three days later, the jets were back flying again as the country tried to recover and get back to some semblance of normality.

Ben Sliney seemed to take his role in stride. In the book, Winchester doesn’t get into his life story, only the significance of his actions that day. Sliney in his 50’s at the time was a 25-year vet of the FAA and knew his stuff. He had held various positions in air traffic control supervision before becoming the operations manager for the nation’s top air traffic control hub. It was a job he had worked hard to achieve. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 Sliney was in his first full day at that position.

That day he gave the unprecedented order. SCATANA: This is not a drill! This is not a drill!

And the skies cleared.

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Ben Sliney

Amelia Earhart, the Pioneer Pilot of the Helicopter Prototype

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By Ken Zurski

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On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year.  Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record,  an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.

At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages.  It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground.  A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.

Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.

One you famously know.

The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.

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With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.

She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.

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That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”

Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily waved to the crowd.

While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.

She went back to an airplane.

Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.

 

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The Bee Man

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By Ken Zurski

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Amos Root

When Amos Root was a boy growing up on a farm in Medina, Ohio, instead of helping his father with the chores he stuck by his mother’s side and tended to the garden instead.

Root was small in size (only five-foot-three as an adult) and prone to sickness. The garden work suited him just fine. But in his teens, for money, Root took up jewelry as a trade and became quite good at it.

Then in 1865, at the age of 26, he found his calling – bees.

Root had offered a man a dollar if he could round up a swarm of bees outside the doors of his jewelry store. The man did and Root was hooked. But Root didn’t want to just harvest bees, he wanted to study them.

Eventually his work led to a national trade journal titled Gleaning’s in Bee Culture. Bees became his business and profitable too, but Root had other interests as well, specifically mechanical things, like the automobile, a blessing for someone who hated cleaning up after the horse. “I do not like the smell of the stables,” he once wrote.

But the automobile was different. “It never gets tired; it gets there quicker than any horse can possibly do.”

R4.jpgHe bought an Oldsmobile Runabout, “for less than a horse” he bragged, and happily drove it near his home. Then in September 1904, at the age of 69, Root took his longest trip yet, a nearly 400-mile journey to Dayton, Ohio. Root had heard a couple of “minister’s sons” were making great strides in aviation, so he wrote them and asked if he could take a look. His enthusiasm was evident.

The two brothers granted his wish, but only if he promised not to reveal any secrets. In August of 1904, Root set off for his first trip to Dayton and the next month did the same. The first visit he watched in awe, but revealed nothing. The second time he was given permission to write about what he had seen. It was the first time the Wright brothers and their flying machine appeared in print.

“My dear friends,” Root gleefully wrote in his bee publication, “I have a wonderful story to tell you. “

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Ruth Elder: The ‘American Girl’

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By Ken Zurski

In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”

But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.

Despite this, Elder, an aspiring actress, had no reservations.  “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl. “Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself.

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Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.

Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.

Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown.

The American Girl was missing.

In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck.  “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.

Several minutes later, the plane landed in the water next to the ship.  Soon enough the press got a telegram:  “We are safe,” it read. mort1