The day was sunny and the sky was incredibly blue, but the men and women of the New York State Police Aviation Unit were in a somber mood. They gathered at their hangar at Albany International Airport.
The plan was to convoy to Saratoga National cemetery for the interment of a fellow pilot.
In the squad room we watched in disbelief when the first plane hit the tower. My first thought was that someone had stolen a parked plane as the instrument of death.
When the second plane hit, we all realized that this was a deliberate terrorist plot.
En route to the cemetery, we were glued to the radio as more details of the insidious plot came out. During the ceremony we heard fragments of information about the fall of both towers.
It was hard to concentrate on the words as our fallen brother was eulogized since we all knew this was going to be a long day. As the final notes of “Taps” dissolved into the air, we gazed skyward for the prearranged ceremonial flyover by unit aircraft. It never came. The airspace had been locked down by air traffic control.
Back at Albany International, our commander told us to go home, pack a bag for a week’s trip and return in one hour. During that interval, crews were assigned to several aircraft for deployment to New York City and several more distant locations.
My copilot George Green and I were tasked with flying a Huey helicopter to Orange County airport to load up with medical supplies from a nearby depot. For security reasons, every aircraft was given a discrete transponder code over the phone. This code would show radar controllers that we were “friendly” and had authorization to fly. Any aircraft not displaying a proper code would be subject to interception and interdiction (read “destruction”).
Our destination was Jamaica Hospital, near John F. Kennedy airport.
Crossing Manhattan, we got a whiff of the smoke coming from Ground Zero. It was an ungodly amalgam of steel, plastic, cement, rubber and elements I would guess could be found in the second circle of Hell. Unforgettable. We vowed to fly higher on the return trip.
Approaching Kennedy airport we could see no signs of human or vehicular movement. The airspace lockdown had brought all airport activity to a halt. This trip would be repeated several times that day before we rested.
On the final leg of the last cycle, we took one last look at what they had done to our city, our lady, and vowed not to rest until justice was meted out.
On the third day, it changed from a rescue to a recovery operation. The supplies were largely unused since there were few survivors. Our mission turned into bringing admin personnel and computers from upstate to the operations center.
George and I finally got home on Saturday.
-Michael C. Collins, Scotia
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section