‘Pushed to the limit’

Steve Bartlett
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Gander air traffic controllers recall the morning of 9-11

Like most people in Newfoundland and Labrador, Don O’Brien was at work while the Sept. 11 tragedy was unfolding.

And, because of what was happening in the United States, a routine morning turned into an immensely challenging one.

The air traffic controller was in the arrivals section at Nav Canada’s area control centre in Gander. The facility is responsible for aircraft in the western half of North Atlantic airspace and also shares control of Atlantic Canada’s domestic airspace.

O’Brien and a colleague had just finished the morning rush when they learned North American airspace was being shut down because planes had hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Dozens of inbound flights were in the sky they controlled. They had minutes to organize and prepare to get the planes down safely.

“It got real intense, real quick. It went from zero to 60 in 10 seconds,” he remembers, later adding, “Your head is going mad, like, ‘How are we going to mobilize for this?’”

To mark the 10th anniversary of 9-11, The Telegram is running a series of stories about people’s memories of that day. The paper is also asking readers to share what they remember at www.thetelegram.com.

O’Brien, supervisor of the arrivals section, has an excellent recollection of his 9-11 experience, despite the pressure he was under.

“You cope with (the stress),” he says. “You have to cope with it. You can’t just pull the headset out of your jacket and say, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”

He says it was unprecedented to have so many planes heading their way and notes the centre is not set up for high volumes of traffic in a short period of time.

With only two controllers working on arrivals, they needed extra manpower and were about to call in some help. But they never had to. Off-duty staff started reporting to work after hearing the planes were headed for coastal airports.

“They just all showed up,” O’Brien says. “They were coming in the door (saying), ‘What could we do for you?’”

Soon, 14 controllers were handling the diverted flights.

O’Brien says many of the foreign carriers weren’t aware of what was happening in the U.S. He remembers them questioning why they couldn’t continue to their destinations.

“You didn’t have time for a long-winded conversation. All we said there is a crisis, the airspace is shutdown and you’re landing.”

O’Brien says once the companies got the message and realized they didn’t know if their planes were part of the hijacking plot, they wanted to get out of the air, and fast.

“It was intense,” he says.

But many planes couldn’t come down as fast as everyone might have liked. Because they were landing prematurely, some aircraft were carrying a lot of fuel and were too heavy to land. This added to controllers’ work.

“We had to take them out of pattern and bring them to unpopulated areas, where they had to dump fuel to lighten the load,” O’Brien says.

By the time everything was out of the air that afternoon, he and his colleagues had guided dozens of planes to safe landings, including 38 in Gander, 21 in St. John’s, eight to Stephenville, seven to Goose Bay and one to Deer Lake.

“It got real intense, real quick. It went from zero to 60 in 10 seconds. Your head is going mad, like, ‘How are we going to mobilize for this?’” Don O'Brien

“Everything landed without incident,” he says. “But it was pushed. The envelope was pushed to the limit.”

O’Brien says the emptied North Atlantic airspace — which sees nearly 1,000 flights a day — was surreal.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was eerie. The silence was deafening.”

Things would stay silent for a couple of days, until the skies reopened.

While air traffic was grounded, O’Brien says Gander’s controllers continued reporting for work. Like others in the area, they focused on supporting the 6,600 passengers who had been stranded there.

“We spent three days cooking,” he says. “Breakfast, dinner and supper.”

When he looks back on 9-11, O’Brien says he thinks about those who died in the tragedy — people he didn’t have time to think about that morning.

He also praises the efforts of the controllers in the oceanic section. While those colleagues didn’t land planes in North America, he says, they safely diverted dozens of flights that hadn’t passed the halfway point back to Europe.

While proud of what the centre was able to accomplish during 9-11, O’Brien wishes the controllers were pushed to the limit for a different reason.

“It’s bittersweet thing that such an evil act had to bring on the challenge,” he says.


Twitter: bartlett_steve

Organizations: Nav Canada, North American, World Trade Center

Geographic location: Gander, United States, Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Canada Stephenville Goose Bay Deer Lake North America

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Recent comments

  • Cathy White
    September 06, 2011 - 16:54

    The story about the air traffic controllers in Gander (and the whole province) is very gripping! God bless them for what they did for others at that horrible time. I was working in Ottawa for the federal government. It was the first day of a PSAC strike. I was in management and - like some other managers - decided to take a day's cut in pay, rather than cross the picket line on the first day. So I was home watching the horror on about 5 news channels. I phoned everyone I knew, expecially my local relatives, and told them I loved them!! There was a bomb scare on Parliament Hill and I was sure that Ottawa was going to be attacked. All these years later, I wish I had not spent the day in anxiety, but instead said to myself: "I have no control over this crisis, so chill out. What will be will be." An important life lesson.

  • Donny Dooley Dildo NL
    September 06, 2011 - 08:24

    Good of the town of Gander to remember 9/11 ten years later! Yeah, nothing says 'remembering the 3000 folks who died' like a Shanneyganock concert and 18 holes of golf. Good grief!

    • Ditka
      September 06, 2011 - 11:43

      Let's not forget the ecumenical services that are happening both in Appleton and Gander, as well. Don't be an ass

  • Mary
    September 06, 2011 - 07:44

    Congratulations Don O'Brien,and all your colleagues for doing such a fantastic job, the pressure must have been enormous, you help save many lives that day. Be proud of what you did.