Like most folks in the days before the 9/11 attacks, I was enjoying the beautiful end-of summer weather. On Sunday morning, September 9, I drove the 75 miles from my home in Lower Saucon Township to work at Newark airport. I would be flying the New York Giants to Denver for the first Monday Night Football game of the season. It was a great day for an airplane ride.

The mood among my fellow pilots in Operations was upbeat. We traded light banter and compared summer vacation experiences. My friend, Vic Saracini, another Pennsylvania pilot, was starting a four-day trip crisscrossing the country. His first stop—San Francisco. Always the kidder, Vic and I traded lighthearted barbs about each other’s flying skills (I was Air Force, he was Navy).

Back in the cabin on the red-eye flight home two days later, the Giants were feeling down from the previous night’s defeat to the Broncos. But in the cockpit, it was a joy to be maneuvering the aircraft through picture-perfect clear skies above New Jersey just as the sun was breaking the horizon on that September 11th morning.

This memory stands in stark contrast to the fact that as I exited the aircraft, I must have walked right past the terrorists who were waiting in the departure area to hijack United Airlines Flight 93. This thought haunts me still. A couple of hours later, Vic’s flight UA 175 out of Boston (by now he was on the third day of his four-day trip) had been commandeered into the World Trade Center’s south tower, and UA 93 had crashed near Pittsburgh.

For me, the events of 9/11 were personal. I am a Boeing 767 pilot for United Airlines based in New York. To do what they did, the terrorists had to first brutally murder my friends and colleagues, the pilots and flight attendants.

Confronting the shock and grief of their loss was hard enough without also having to face the thousands of deaths in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. My thoughts went to the grieving families, the safety of my country, the future of my company and my job, and ultimately the effect of all of this on my family.

We airline pilots have seen hijackings before, but not to this degree of destruction. And we’ve long argued for appropriate security countermeasures. When security lapses combine with the downside of the business cycle, passenger loads decline and the airlines we fly for suffer financially. In fact, no industry has suffered more in the aftermath of 9/11 than U.S. airlines.

After serving over 20 years in the Air Force, transitioning from flying jet fighters to commercial aviation was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. During my military service, I fully accepted the inherent risks involved in defending my country. But after I retired, taking a job with a major airline meant the risks of being shot down in hostile action were a thing of the past. In fact, during infrequent in-flight emergencies, pilots sometimes remark, “how bad can it get, nobody’s shooting at us!” On 9/11, they were shooting, and we never knew what hit us. Unlike flying a jet fighter, in a commercial transport we can’t defend ourselves.

On Friday, 9/14, with pilots and airplanes out of position throughout the country, United was looking for volunteers to fly. I drove to Kennedy for a transcontinental trip to San Francisco. As the departure time kept slipping due to FBI security concerns at the terminal, those of us in Operations compared notes on how to thwart a hijacking without the benefit of firearms.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the reality that the intelligence community had totally blown it was pretty hard to ignore. In the days that followed, they had no idea how to prevent a repeat hijacking. As if to underscore this point, the president mobilized the National Guard to the front lines of the war on terror, our nation’s airports.

Before 9/11, my union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), had been arguing for decades to correct certain security deficiencies. We wanted impenetrable cockpit doors, competent airport security screeners, and armed pilots, to name a few. The FAA and the airlines opposed these efforts as being too expensive. In the year since 9/11, however, Congress has mandated most of ALPA’s recommendations and is considering the others.

The single most important enhancement to airline security has been the installation of secure cockpit doors. If they had been in place on 9/11—and this is key—if both pilots and flight attendants had known the nature of the suicide hijacking threat, those terrible events would most likely not have occurred. Some people in the hijacked planes would have been killed, but with the cockpits secure, the pilots could have immediately landed the planes. For future threats, arming pilots with, if not firearms, then at least Tasers, will increase our chances even more to successfully defend the cockpit.

Pilots carrying guns in the cockpit is not new. Certain pilots were armed in the days before airline deregulation, and military flying routinely involves carrying a firearm strapped in the survival vest. Entrusting pilots, one of the most highly screened and tested groups in the country, with a way to actively defend the cockpit is, to me, just common sense. In the event of a security screening failure, armed pilots provide a last line of defense.

In the year since 9/11, flying remains the safest mode of travel. Deep down, I believe the flying public knows this, and passengers will return to the skies in greater numbers than before. Even after 9/11, the most dangerous part of my job is the drive to the airport.

First Officer Merrill Beyer, United
Published September 11, 2002