Reservists remember 9/11 tanker mission
Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker
349th Public Affairs
9/10/2014 - TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- On Sept. 11, 2001, a Travis KC-10 crew took off from Europe with the ordinary mission of ferrying six A-10 Warthogs back to the United States. However, 9/11 was no ordinary day.
Capt. Jay Wahleithner, KC-10 Extender pilot, 1st Lt. Jerimy Wills, co-pilot, Staff Sgt. E.J. Abalos, engineer, and Staff Sgt. Steven Rodrigues, boom operator, were supporting a tanker air bridge. At the time, all four were assigned to the active-duty 9th Air Refueling Squadron, on temporary duty in Morón Air Base, Spain.
"We took off thinking this was a normal fighter drag," Wahleithner said.
When the KC-10 arrived for the pickup over Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal, only four of the A-10s were there to make the trip; two had maintenance problems. This resulted in the tanker having 50,000 pounds more fuel on board than they would need for the trip.
The unplanned extra fuel would prove useful later in the day.
"A-10s are really slow, so this was a really long flight. We'd been listening to the Atlantic Common Frequency and heard pilots talking about airline accidents on the East Coast. That was the first we heard that something was wrong," Wahleithner said.
"Of course, the details were not very solid, with bits of information about mid-air collisions in New York and then possible bombings at the Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, New York Center announced all U.S. air space was closed.
"The idea that ALL U.S. airspace would close boggled my mind and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he said.
Wahleithner explained the radio technology 13 years ago was not as good as is now, so communications were chaotic after that announcement.
"You've got all these commercial aircraft trying to divert to other countries; we couldn't get through to ATC (Air Traffic Control) or TACC (Tanker Airlift Control Center, Scott AFB, Ill.)"
"As we approached the U.S., New York Center advised us that ATC services were suspended and we would have to proceed 'due regard' in the U.S.," he said.
The phrase "due regard" has very specific meaning in aviation. It means that air traffic control services will not be provided and that the military aircraft commander is responsible for his own navigation and separation from other aircraft. In practical terms, it means something more like "Good luck with that, you're on your own."
"I only knew of it as something I'd learned in training," Wahleithner said.
As the KC-10 approached the eastern seaboard, they heard over the guard radio (international emergency channel) NORAD advising an unknown aircraft to identify itself.
"Checking our position, we realized we were the unknown aircraft, so we responded," Wahleithner said.
At the same time, New York Center informed the crew they had two "fast-moving" aircraft approaching the tanker's six o'clock position.
"As soon as NORAD and the F-15s from the Massachusetts Air National Guard were convinced of our identity, NORAD asked if we had any available fuel," he said.
Since two of the originally scheduled six A-10s had not taken off due to maintenance problems, the tanker carried an extra 50,000 pounds of fuel.
The A-10s then departed to land at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., and the KC-10 set up a tanker combat air patrol over Boston.
From his position in the boom pod, Rodrigues had a shocking view of Boston.
"Looking down at Logan (International Airport) seeing planes parked everywhere, on taxiways and runways; nothing was moving. The freeways were almost entirely deserted," he said.
"It all was very surreal. I flew throughout the northeast for almost five years while stationed at McGuire AFB, New Jersey, and it is possibly the most heavily traveled airspace in the world. That day, there were virtually no aircraft in sight and no one talking on the radios," Wahleithner said. "It was creepy, partly because we still had not been told what had happened," he said.
The tanker spent the next two hours supporting four F-15s, off-loading 40,000 pounds of fuel and becoming one of the very first aircraft participating in what would be become Operation Noble Eagle.
"It was only later we discovered that the first two F-15s we refueled were the initial fighters scrambled in response to the attacks in New York City," Wahleithner said.
Wahleithner is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve and until recently the chief pilot of the 70th Air Refueling Squadron.
Wills has since left the Air Force and is a pilot with Southwest Airlines.
Abalos is now a master sergeant and is still on active duty, flying with the 9th ARS.
Rodriquez is now a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, flying with the 70th ARS.