‘This is the moment I trained for’: Former D.C. Air Guard crew chief details 9/11 and how it changed mission

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Arthur M. Wright
  • District of Columbia Air National Guard

Twenty-years ago, 113th Wing Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief Michael Harris’ shift started before dawn like any other day at Joint Base Andrews: generating airpower. He was responsible for getting F-16s launched and recovered.

“It’s a no-fail mission,” Harris said. “Things have to happen the way they’re supposed to. The planes need to be cleaned, prepped, mechanically sound — the best of the best.”

Planes were already up in the air around 8 a.m. Meanwhile, approximately 240 miles away, an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with passengers and fuel was headed to the World Trade Center’s north tower in New York City.

“Shortly after 9 a.m. our chief came out and said, ‘Hey, one of the Twin Towers is on fire. So we came into the break room and looked at the television. And we saw the black smoke.”

Approximately 18 minutes later, Harris and the rest of the world saw a second Boeing 767 strike the World Trade Center’s south tower, and by 9:45 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.

“I looked to the northwest (of the flight line) and I could see the black smoke coming up from our vicinity and that’s when we started congregating,” Harris said. “By this time we all realized we were getting attacked and we needed to get our planes ready.”

Harris says crew chiefs first ensured every F-16 operated by the 113th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron was fly worthy. 

“We worked as fast as we could go,” Harris said. “Quality assurance was out there helping, too. Protecting the Washington metropolitan area was our priority.”

The District of Columbia Air National Guard’s Aerospace Control Alert mission was created on Sept. 11, 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks. The operational tempo is more than any other alert center in the country, responding to alert calls with 24/7 alert teams ready to launch F-16 Fighting Falcons and other aircraft at a moment's notice for a rapid response to airborne threats and air emergencies. 

During a 9/11 remembrance ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, 113th Wing Aerospace Control Alert Detachment commander Lt. Col. Michael R. Trujillo detailed the tenacity and dedication of then 113th Wing pilots Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville and 1st Lt. Heather Penney, the first two pilots to patrol airspace over the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. immediately after the World Trade Center’s south tower was struck. 

“They knew they may have to give their lives in order to protect others from another hijacked airliner in the sky. Flight 93 never made it to D.C., having crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, but the pilots continued to patrol the airspace, changing the mission from intercept to sanitizing the airspace,” Trujillo said. “Later in the day, the F-16s, now armed with live ammunition, escorted President George W. Bush, aboard Air Force One, back to the White House. Following those events, the alert mission was stood up on Sept. 12 and operates 24/7.”

“Our mission changed that day,” added Harris. “I was thinking, ‘This is the moment I trained for.’ You never know when it’s going to come or how it’s going to come. But you just have to be prepared when it comes.”

Harris believes the establishment of the 113th’s ACA combined with a renewed national focus on counter-terrorism and national security changed perceptions, even within his career field.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Harris said. “When you’re a good crew chief, the pilot knows it. They know you put blood, sweat and tears into the aircraft, and the pilot feels confident that you know what you’re doing. There’s a trust factor. And the event of 9/11 intensified it.”

Harris would retire as a master sergeant serving as a Minuteman for the last few years and hanging up the uniform in March 2021. His message to incoming aircraft maintainers is to “be on top of your game. The aircraft you work on is a symbol — a symbol for the Air Force and the world.