What happened to air traffic on the morning of 9/11 was unprecedented. Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and then the crash of United 93, the only aircraft left in the air over the continental United States were operated by the military, the government and official rescue units. Time lapse images of the flow of private and commercial aircraft over the country show flights beginning to disappear from the screen within minutes after the grounding order was issued.
No one could know it at the time, but the stand down would last for days for general aviation, with only IFR traffic being allowed back in the air as the following weekend approached, and only with exceptionally tight restrictions. Commercial traffic had begun shortly before, with airliners once again painting their white trails across blue skies that had remained remarkably clear of the evidence of air travel for the first days following the attacks.
This is all common knowledge and now part of aviation lore. What is little known is the story of the flight of a Cessna that took off from an airport in Oklahoma on the night of 9/11 and made its way to Louisville, Kentucky. It was not the flight of a pilot who had somehow missed word of the grounding, or who had chosen to ignore the order. It was the flight of Doug Vincent, and it was a mission of mercy fully sanctioned by the FAA.
Vincent’s Louisiana background is still evident in the Cajun accent that colors a conversation with him. After growing up just outside Lafayette he became an Army mechanic who learned to fly in the 1970′s and bought his first plane in the early 1990′s. For a while, the simple act of flying was enough for Vincent, but as time passed he felt the urge to use his knowledge and skill for a more meaningful purpose. He says, “You own an airplane because you like to fly. I tell my wife it’s saving time. I tell Uncle Sam it’s a business. But you own an airplane because you like to fly. And, I have a charitable bent and this is my main charity-where I can use my passion and help somebody at the same time. That makes flying worthwhile.”
Since choosing to donate his time and the use of his plane to Angel Flight of Oklahoma, Vincent estimates that he has flown nearly 400 missions, taking people to cancer centers in Houston, or on sad but rewarding final flights from sterile hospital rooms to the familiar surroundings of their home so that they can spend their last hours surrounded by family and friends. Each flight is a gift in the best sense of the word, and it’s clear that Vincent feels that he receives more than he gives. And so it was that years of helping build an aptly-named organization in Oklahoma led to a singular flight in his Cessna 210 on the night of the darkest day in the aviation history of the country.
Vincent clearly recalls 9/11, “They were shutting everything down, and everything was in a panic. One of the Angel Flight guys in Oklahoma City contacted the Oklahoma Blood Institute there and asked if they needed help. He told them that we had airplanes available, and at first they didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about. It went back and forth for a while and then it finally developed that we were going to do it.”
Once the mission of moving blood supplies to New York and Washington had been planned, the next step for Vincent was figuring out how to get a clearance on a day when all general aviation and commercial flights were not allowed to fly. Vincent called a contact in Washington and was told there was an exception for military and medical flights flying with a special transponder code. Another call to Flight Service provided guidance that once he filed a plan, Vincent could call the tower for his discrete code. The first call to the tower didn’t work and he was advised to call approach. Finally a controller provided him with the special procedure that would allow him to depart from Tulsa for Oklahoma City where he would pick up the blood supplies and his friend Mark Hayward who would serve as his co-pilot. In the meantime he had removed all of the seats from his Cessna 210 in preparation for the flight that was to begin at 9PM.
On a night with clear skies almost completely devoid of other traffic, Vincent and Hayward headed East. “We flew as far as Louisville where we met another plane that came in that night. They were with the Volunteer Pilots Association out of Pennsylvania. It was a very spooky, weird night with the emotions of what had happened, and with just nothing going on. No chatter on the radio, but every now and then a controller would still announce that everybody has to land. I even asked a controller if that applied to us and he said no.”
On the approach into Louisville Vincent heard something there had been very little of since leaving Oklahoma City, another pilot on the frequency. It was the pilot from Pennsylvania on his way to meet them. Within minutes of landing the blood supplies had been transferred and both aircraft departed; Vincent and Hayward for home, and the pilot from Pennsylvania left on a mission to deliver the blood to the site of the attacks. Vincent says, “As it turned out, they didn’t need a lot of blood, but they didn’t know that at the time.”
From a departure just after darkness fell on 9/11, to their arrival back in Oklahoma as the sun rose the next morning, the round trip had Vincent and Hayward sharing flying on the most unforgettable of nights. It was a night when hundreds of millions of other Americans, and countless millions more around the world sat stunned in front of televisions. And a night when just a few volunteer pilots sat in cockpits, radios quiet, and with plenty of time to think about what had happened just hours earlier in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark and well-defined. On an achingly clear morning aircraft had been used as instruments of terror, and just a few hours later, they were being used as vehicles of hope.
Later, Angel Flight of Oklahoma and the Volunteer Pilots Association would share the first Public Benefit Flying “Teamwork” Award in recognition of their service in flying relief missions after 9/11. Doug Vincent is modest about his role in the flight on 9/11/2001, saying that it was one of the many significant flights of his career of volunteering to help others. But as he pauses to think about answering the question, it’s obvious that the memory of that one quiet night of flying is still powerful and emotional, and that he considers himself fortunate to have found a way to help.