‘Pushed to the limit’

Gander air traffic controllers recall the morning of 9-11

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on September 6, 2011

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.

“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.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: bartlett_steve