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A KC-135 Stratotanker — call sign Maine 85 — was preparing for a routine training exercise off the coast of Long Island on Sept. 11, 2001, when the citizen soldiers of the 101st Air Refueling Wing suddenly got a new mission.
“We were told to start heading west to the city,” pilot Lt. Col. Adam Jenkins recalled recently about the deadly terrorist attacks that shook the nation a decade ago.
“We’ll give you details along the way,” the voice over the radio told him and four other MAINEiacs onboard the air-refueler.
Co-pilot Lt. Col. Andy Marshall, boom operator Chief Master Sgt. Bob Phair, navigator Lt. Col. Mark Pearson and flight surgeon Col. Henry Litz were aboard Maine 85.
Jenkins, Marshall, Phair and the wing commander, Col. John D’Errico, gathered at the 101st’s Bangor airbase last month to talk about the day 19 al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and used them as weapons. It is the first time they have told their stories.
Maine 85 — a massive flying gas station — was directed to Manhattan shortly after hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, en route from Boston to Los Angeles, slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:47 a.m.
Maine 85’s mission was simple: Refuel F-15 Eagles originally launched from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts to intercept the first off-course jetliner and later used to defend New York City and U.S. airspace.
“After the first plane hit the tower we thought, ‘What a terrible accident,’” Phair said. But when the second one hit, the National Guardsmen quickly figured out the country was under attack.
The second hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 175, also flying from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles, hit the south tower at 9:02 a.m.
While the MAINEiacs were in a holding pattern over New York, they could only watch in horror as the Twin Towers fell, the south tower at 9:50 a.m. and the north tower at 10:28 a.m.
‘This changes the world as we know it’
Maine 85 was directly overhead when two of the largest buildings in the world collapsed, disappearing forever from the city’s landscape.
“They were both there when we got there” and then they were gone, Jenkins said.
Black smoke that had filled the air from the burning skyscrapers minutes earlier was replaced by a thick, dark-gray dust that when seen from above seemed to spread through the city streets, engulfing everything in its path.
It’s an image that replays in the airmen’s minds “all the time,” Phair said.
We didn’t know all the facts about who was behind the attacks, Jenkins said, but the Maine Air Guardsmen knew: “This changes things. This changes the world as we know it.”
In addition to Maine 85, another Bangor-based tanker, Maine 91 also was airborne conducting training missions when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks began.
Maine 91 was heading south and was off the coast of North Carolina on the morning of 9/11. After turning towards home and while making its way north the Federal Aviation Administration began shutting down all of the country’s airports and ordering planes to land.
Maine 91 crew members contacted the military air traffic control agency, codename Huntress, offered up the approximately 22,000 gallons of fuel they carried and were sent to New Jersey to refuel a KC-10 that was filling up fighter jets patrolling the Eastern Seaboard.
Both Maine air refuelers emptied their tanks and had to land at visiting bases in New Jersey — McGuire Air Force Base and the Atlantic City Airport — to get fuel for the trip home.
Each was met with a contingency of armed guards on the ground and Maine 91 was intercepted and questioned by an F-16 pilot while approaching Atlantic City. Once on the ground, the Mainers quickly learned the severity of the attacks reached beyond the borders of the Big Apple.
A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was flown into the Pentagon at 9:41 a.m. and a fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, went down in a field in Pennsylvania at 10 a.m. after passengers attempted to retake control.
“We knew nothing of the Pentagon or Flight 93,” before landing, Jenkins said.
Approximately 3,000 people died on 9/11, including two New York City paramedics and 341 firefighters who tried to help those caught in the doomed Twin Towers.
After landing at McGuire, the crew of Maine 85 went inside and turned on CNN to watch, along with the rest of the country, images of the national tragedy unfolding over and over.
MAINEiacs wing commander Col. John D’Errico was vice commander at the time and on the first of three planes dispatched from Bangor International Airport after the attacks.
“I don’t think there is a day that goes by when I don’t recall that day,” said D’Errico, who was aboard Maine 86, which refueled F-16s off the coast of New Jersey, F-15s directly over Manhattan and then F-15s from Langley Air Force Base while flying over the Pentagon.
The entire wing was scrambled after the Twin Towers were hit, and “we went right out to the aircraft as soon as it was fueled,” D’Errico said. Because it was a crystal-clear day, “as soon as we took off we could see all the way to New York.”
The image of the damaged Pentagon and downtown New York will always be “etched in my mind,” D’Errico said.
All told, the MAINEics provided 300,000 pounds of fuel to help keep fighter pilots in the air in the wake of the attacks, and more than “98 percent of the wing, over 1,000 people, called in … asking what they could do,” the 101st commander said proudly.
The Maine airmen downplayed their roles on the day the terrorists attacked, saying they were merely doing their jobs, but like all the emergency responders, volunteers, groups and agencies that responded to help out those in need during 9/11, they too are heroes.
Even though 10 years have passed, people need to know the wing’s job is far from done, D’Errico said.
“A lot of people have forgotten and we’re still in the middle of it,” the wing commander said, adding that men and women under his command and others around the U.S. are put in harm’s way every day fighting terrorism. “We’re fighting three separate wars.”
On the anniversary of the attacks, which just happens to be a Guard weekend, many of the 101st airmen and women who took to the skies on 9/11 will be back in their KC-135 Stratotankers working U.S. security missions.
When asked what they want their friends, neighbors and fellow countrymen and woman to do on Sunday, the local airmen said two simple words, almost in unison.