Flying in Mourning Skies
by Major Joseph Lanzetta, USAF
I took to the skies as the world mourned; skies that were unusually somber…unusually quiet. With visions of suffering and loss, I was proud to punch through the DC-scattered clouds amidst the sapphire blue. The same skies that just one day earlier brought so much pain to our nation…this world. Being a New Yorker, and an Air Force officer, I worried about schoolmates I grew up with in a close-by suburb. I also worried about military friends I have worked along-side with in 17 years of service.
My childhood and military friends traded stocks and bonds on Wall Street and fought fires in the Big City. They also flew commercial jets and worked on military staffs in Northern Virginia. What were the chances that they were afflicted by this horrid evil wrath, this cowardice? In fact, many in my past were missing.
During the departure, I desperately tried to remember what aircraft my United and American Airlines friends flew, and carefully considered what routes they would be flying while living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Would any match those that fell short of their California destination? I also wondered if any of my money-managing friends worked in the twin towers or another downtown building close-by.
Was my Chatsworth Avenue schoolmate fighting fires in the Bronx or Manhattan? Were any of my fellow officers at Squadron Officer School or Air Command and Staff College in or around the Pentagon when the fireball erupted? A day earlier…I called and I called. All lines were busy. So I called again. Without an answer, II simply prayed.
I spoke to the controller while entering Washington Approach’s airspace while most eyes floated quietly north toward the Pentagon. A hazy film of smoke scarred endless blue. Normally I would have to fight to call out an altitude, a heading, to busy controllers. But that afternoon the skies were empty, other than a handful of those keeping us safe. As we climbed west, the map display showed nearby aircraft. They were our escort showing us the way West.
I sat in the right seat as my aircraft commander proudly slung the C-32 toward the Pacific. The cockpit was quiet passing through 10,000 feet. It wasn’t until bringing in the landing lights, transferring fuel to the auxiliary tanks, and checking pressurization that we all truly realized how quiet the departure really was. Fighter escort still flew overhead.
We flew across the whole of America…first the East Coast, then the Midwest and the Heartland, over flying cities, rivers, lakes, farms, and a sea of small towns. Then passing the majestic Rockies, we pushed on toward the West Coast. Again, those only there to protect us…visited. Steaming now, we made our way over the Pacific. We viewed waves of endless blue pocked by small white clouds–clearly the left corner of our nation’s flag. I reflected again, this time on the broad stripes of red that took their turn with those of broad white. The bloodshed was still clear in my mind.
The journey was reflective. Without speaking, I could tell that everyone knew that everything had changed. My aircraft commander sent a message to United Dispatch. He dedicated our flight to those crewmembers who loss their lives…those who had dedicated their lives to aviation safety and comfort. I also thought of those I had known, lost from my past. Quietly smiling and tearful, I knew our nation was coming together to heal the pain and sorrow of September 11th.
The quiet at 31,000 feet clearly showed me that the skies too were mourning…mourning the tragedy, the loss, and the sorrow. We were all so proud moving the mission in a Boeing 757 just one day after the attack on our nation’s freedom. I know in my heart that all that had fallen will pave the way toward a greater state of peace, a better state of security, and a broader state of freedom. We were all so proud to be AMERICAN that day…and we will forever stand UNITED. God Bless America.
Major Joseph Lanzetta, USAF
Special Missions Pilot, Air Force II
Major Lanzetta grew up in Larchmont, on Sherwood Drive, and attended Chatsworth, Hommocks and Mamaroneck High School. He is currently Chief of Mission Operations and a C-32 (military Boeing 757-200) Aircraft Commander.