September 11th – 19th year anniversary

This September will see the 19th year anniversary of the terrible September 11th attacks. If you were old enough at the time, undoubtedly you will remember where you were when the attacks happened, as well as the emotions evoked by such unprecedented events.

I remember very clearly where I was. I was covering two 12-hour day duty shifts on 10th and 11th September as Airport Duty Manager (ADM) of Heathrow International Airport.  It remains in my memory as one of the most poignant and formative experiences of my life……

As ADM of Heathrow I was responsible for the operational running of, at that time, the busiest airport in the world. Around 1200 aircraft movements per day, 60 million passengers per year.

I was part of a team of highly skilled professionals, who, as ever, rose to the challenge of an event that none of us could have predicted, during a shift that will be etched in all of our minds, I’m sure for ever.

The morning started like most shifts, catching up the operational leads for each terminal and airfield, getting updates on events of the previous evening and outlining any news for the coming day.  I then went into a meeting and asked my control colleagues to have a listening watch on my radio. After 10-15 mins there was a knock at the door, the meeting was interrupted, as I was asked to take a look at the pictures being streamed into the control centre.

We, like the rest of the watching world, simply could not comprehend what was happening. The first attack looked like such a small plane against the enormous Twin Towers, we needed to check – was it one of ours from Heathrow?

That started a day, for me, like no other before or since – a constant stream of incidents; passengers claiming to have bombs attached to them, an unprecedented number of unattended bags reported, tempers flaring between differing nationalities,/  press enquiries, planes recalled if less than halfway across the Atlantic, other planes landing from other European airports destined for the States. Heathrow was a big aeroplane park for many that day. We were getting on with it, like it was an endless surreal cascade of crisis training exercises, only this was very real.

Then came the call, I was asked if the line was secure by the MI5 operative. You know it’s not great when the MI5 guy you speak to says “if we get through this, I’ll take you to lunch…. are you aware the we have a plane heading towards Heathrow that has lost comms?” I told him I was not aware we had but would check with the ODM (operations duty manager). He went on to say that Canary Wharf has been evacuated and they were concerned the errant plane was heading for my airport. I asked what he wanted me to do. Don’t do anything and don’t tell anyone about this call. So, I put the phone down, then put the call into the ODM – all the time thinking about what to do.

I’ve just seen images of planes crashing into buildings and now one could be on the way to Heathrow. What should I do? Where would the plane aim for? I’ve got 4 terminals packed with passengers and staff, a bus station, train station and tube station. I had passengers in planes, more passengers in terminals and car parks than ever due to the cancelling of flights. Where would I evacuate people to? If I moved people would I be moving them unintentionally into the path of an oncoming plane?

Fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the incoming passenger plane. You’d imagine a huge sense of relief when I learnt that the pilot of the passenger plane was surprised by the appearance of the fighter jets and very quickly realised that he’d accidentally knocked off his comms rather than intentionally so, with a view to deliberately crashing the plane. The relief did not happen for at least a couple of days.

Together we had a day of non-stop incidents, with something happening that required airport colleague input approximately every 15 mins, many colleagues had multiple incidents to prioritise and deal with.

As with those all over the world who deal with stressful and traumatic events – talking about it in the days and weeks to come, with colleagues who were there, was so important. Trying to make sense of such a senseless event and all the ripple effects that happened at the airport that day took time. I look back now and, in many ways, it feels like yesterday, although so much has changed because of the events of that day. We did get through it – although I didn’t get taken out for lunch!