People Aboard Air Force One On 9/11/2001 Describe What It Was Like
Photo: Eric Draper / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

People Aboard Air Force One On 9/11/2001 Describe What It Was Like

Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card briefed President George W. Bush. "I remember literally telling him, 'It should be an easy day,'" Card recalls. "Those were the words. 'It should be an easy day.'" Only hours later, the largest attack in US history plunged the country into war. President Bush spent much of the day on Air Force One, circling over the Gulf of Mexico in case he was a target.

Aboard Air Force One, the president, his staff, and the press struggled to learn what was happening on the ground. With only intermittent broadcast news signals, President Bush had to watch the Today Show to find out what was happening in New York. No one knew if Air Force One was safe. As Assistant Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe says, Air Force One "was the safest and most dangerous place in the world at the exact same time."

These first hand accounts reveal what it was like on Air Force One on September 11, 2001. 

  • Secret Service Pushed The President To Get On Air Force One, Worried A Plane Would Crash Into The Elementary School

    Secret Service Pushed The President To Get On Air Force One, Worried A Plane Would Crash Into The Elementary School
    Photo: Eric Draper / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    President George W. Bush was speaking to a group of students at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, FL, when the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card walked to the president's side and whispered into his ear, “A second plane hit the second Tower. America is under attack.” Card remembers thinking, "I knew I was delivering a message that no president would want to hear. I knew that my message would define the moment."

    Moments later, Bush walked into a secure room and said, "We're at war - give me the FBI director and the vice president."

    The Lead Secret Service agent Eddie Marinzel told the president, "We need to get you to Air Force One and get you airborne."

    CIA briefer Mike Morell remembers, "I was really worried that someone was going to fly a plane into that school. This event had been on schedule for weeks, anyone could have known about it." Marinzel urged the president to "get the hell out of there as fast as possible," Morell recalls. 

  • The Secret Service Meticulously Checked People's Credentials And Baggage Before They Were Allowed To Enter The Plane

    On the rushed motorcade between the elementary school and Air Force One, President Bush called the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The call didn't go through because a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. 

    Secret Service Agent Dave Wilkinson remembers, "We asked for double-motorcade blocks at the intersection. Double and triple blocks. Not just motorcycle officers standing there with their arms up but vehicles actually blocking the road. Now we’re worried about a car bomb. The whole way back, we were using the limos as a shell game, to keep the president safe."

    "When we got back to the plane, it was ringed by security and Secret Service with automatic weapons," recalls Mike Morell. "I’d never seen anything like that before. They re-searched everyone before we could reboard, not just the press. They searched Andy Card’s briefcase, he was standing right in front of me in line. They went through my briefcase, which was filled with all these classified materials, but I wasn’t going to object that day."

    "They brought out the bomb-sniffing dogs," says AP reporter Sonya Ross. "They were drooling all [over] the luggage. I had dog spittle all over my bags."

  • During Take Off, The Plane Gained Altitude At An Alarming Rate

    Once the president boarded Air Force One, the plane quickly took off and gained altitude at an alarming rate. Air Force One pilot Col. Mark Tillman remembers, "As the motorcade’s coming in, I’ve got the 3 and 4 engines already running." And as soon as they were cleared for takeoff, the plane was airborne.

    "We took off and it was something out of [the movie] Independence Day," recalls Assistant Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe. "That thing took off like a rocket. The lamps are shaking they’d fired up the engines so much."

    Karl Rove remembers, "[Col. Tillman] stood that thing on its tail - just nose up, tail down, like we were on a roller coaster."

    "We were climbing so high and so fast I started to wonder if we’d need oxygen masks," says White House stenographer Ellen Eckert. 

  • Everyone Was Cautious About Other Potential Threats In The Sky

    Everyone Was Cautious About Other Potential Threats In The Sky
    Photo: Records of the White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On September 11, 2001, no one knew if Air Force One was also a target. When boarding Air Force One, Chief of Staff Andy Card told everyone, "Take the batteries out of your cellphone. We don’t want to be tracked."

    Eric Draper, the presidential photographer, remembers thinking, "Are we a target?"

    In the air, pilot Mark Tillman got a warning from Air Traffic Control, "about an unidentified plane in the area. I said let’s change direction and see if it follows. It didn’t."

  • Many Were Afraid That Every Location They Could Take The President Would Be A Potential Target

    At first, Air Force One flew toward Washington, DC, but plans quickly changed. Pilot Mark Tillman recalls, "The initial conversation was that we’d take [President Bush] to an Air Force base, no less than an hour away from Washington. Maybe let’s go ahead and try to get him to Camp David. That all changed when we heard there was a plane headed toward Camp David." 

    Press Secretary Ari Fleischer remembers, "We got a report there are six aircraft still flying in the US that aren’t responding and could still be hijacked. We’re thinking that there are still six missiles still in the sky. We’re getting a report that a plane 'was down near Camp David.'"

  • The President Authorized The Air National Guard To Shoot Down Hijacked Planes

    On Air Force One, President Bush authorized the Air National Guard to shoot down potentially hijacked planes.

    Senior Advisor Karl Rove watched the president take a call from Vice President Dick Cheney. "We didn’t know who it was at the time, we just knew the phone rang. [Bush] said 'yes,' then there was a pause as he listened. Then another 'yes.' You had an unreal sense of time that whole day. I don’t know whether it was 10 seconds or two minutes. Then he said, 'You have my authorization.' Then he listens for a while longer. He closes off the conversation. He turns to us and says that he’s just authorized the shoot-down of hijacked airliners."

    Chief of Staff Andy Card recalls, "I witness the president authorize the Air National Guard to shoot down the hijacked airliners. The conversation was sobering to hear. What struck me was as soon as he hung up the phone, he said, 'I was an Air National Guard pilot - I’d be one of the people getting this order. I can’t imagine getting this order.' There was a greater degree of reality than many other presidents would have experienced."