20 years later: A chief remembers 9/11

  • Published
  • By Roland Balik
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m. eastern daylight time?

The ability to recall where you were and what you were doing on specific dates as history unfolded is something nearly everyone can relate to. Etched into one’s mind are dates such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion Jan. 28, 1986; President George H.W. Bush announcing the start of Operation Desert Storm to the American public, Jan. 17, 1991; or even the events of the Great Recession in 2007.

The same can be said for 9/11, as the world, and one Dover AFB Airman, found out shortly after American Airlines Flight 11 impacted the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York that clear Tuesday morning.

Largely, those military and civilian Airmen stationed at Dover AFB on 9/11, have moved on in life or retired. There are, however, a few who continue to serve 20 years later in one capacity or another.

A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Chief Master Sgt. Bryan “Skip” Ford, 512th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent, recalled Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began like any other day on the flight line for him as Air Reserve Technician Tech. Sgt. Ford, assigned to the same squadron he now serves as its senior enlisted member.

“It was a typical day, my aircraft was assigned to the morning air refueling mission but was delayed for maintenance,” said Ford. “We had an autopilot problem that we were finishing up.”

Unbeknownst to Ford and his maintenance crew who were preparing to launch his C-5B Galaxy, the first plane struck the north tower, halting not only their current mission, but their entire lives.

“We were literally in the final steps before engine start,” Ford recalled. “I asked the aircraft commander why engine start was delayed and he said that a plane had hit one of the towers in New York and air traffic control was told to hold flights down until they sorted it out.”

While Ford and others awaited clearance to resume with engine start, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the WTC at 9:03 am.

“My first thought was putting the aircraft back to bed. Then it was to get good info from a reliable source,” Ford stated.

As the third and fourth planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all military and civilian flights.

“I think we were all in denial about the severity of things up until the Pentagon strike was reported,” Ford recalled. “I got off the flight line at about 10:15 and finally saw the coverage in the breakroom.”

As ongoing media coverage continued, it brought back memories of Ford’s deployments in support of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as a young active duty senior airman.

“I immediately thought about having to go back to the [Area of Responsibility]. That was quickly replaced by feelings of absolute horror for the folks on the aircraft and the people of NYC. So many feelings of anger, sadness, resolve and helplessness,” the chief recalled.

By 10:28 am, both twin towers had collapsed and Dover AFB increased its safety and security posture to protect military and civilian Airmen.

In an open letter dated Sept.13, 2001, then Delaware Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. expressed his support to all members of Team Dover.

“Following the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this country faces potentially perilous times beset with threats from unknown quarters. I want you to reassure those of you who serve in our Armed Forces, as well as those civilians who support them, that I am committed to making sure that you are provided with whatever support you need in the days and weeks ahead. I want to express special thanks for the dedication and sacrifice of those of you who wear the uniform of this country. Your contributions in the past to preserving our American way of life, and your willingness to stand strong in the future against our enemies from within and without, are not forgotten. Your resolve in this situation inspires me to match your fortitude. We are a strong nation. We have come through many difficult times together, and we will persevere in this time of tragedy as well,” Biden wrote.

Ford said the implementation of new barrier systems, increased security measures and building construction have changed the landscape over the past 20 years.

The chief paused to gather his thoughts when asked how that day changed his life personally and professionally in the days, months and years after the attack.

“[That day] changed how I viewed our relative security and freedom as a nation,” Ford said. “The physical barriers of the oceans and our friendly neighbors to the north and south had been breached. Our gift of national freedom in the end was our greatest vulnerability. Our freedom of movement, freedom of thoughts, freedom to worship without fear, and freedom from fear itself were all deeply affected. Cynically, I find myself not surprised by anything anymore, and maybe that’s the most profound way I was affected.”

When given the opportunity to talk to the younger Airmen about that day, the chief leaves them with a warrior mentality.

“It was just like any other day until it happened,” he said. “You can’t prepare for watershed moments. Your true self will always be revealed in these crucible moments in time. Training and readiness are what separate our reactions from ‘normal human reaction.’ We don’t recoil, we react. We all put on our game face and focus on the things we are trained to accomplish.”