Five years ago, the world changed on September 11, 2001. Everyone remembers that day, still knows exactly the circumstances of the situation when the horror was reported, still has in mind the feelings while watching the unthinkable on TV.
I had chosen September 11, 2001 for a trip to Los Angeles. What had been planned as an easy-going vacation ended before it really started. Shortly after my plane took off from Paris, American Airlines flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Only four hours later, when we touched down at Paris again, four planes had crashed, both WTC towers had collapsed, thousands of lives were lost, the world had become a different one.
With the fifth anniversary of 9/11 ahead, I have decided to write a review of my trip, narrating my memories which are still present today as if it all happened yesterday.
I didn't take many pictures with my old camera on that unusual trip, though I got the most important scene.
After visiting my American friends in Los Angeles in summer 2000 I decided to go again one year later. Air France offered attractive fares so I took the chance and booked in early June. I also chose Air France in order to fly the B777-200ER (I had previously only flown non-ERs) and to get the CRJ. British European's CRJ200 was scheduled to operate CDG-Nuremberg and I booked that leg for the return trip. However, I would depart from Munich (A320) on an early morning service so that I would have enough time for spotting at CDG. Sure, I had hoped for the A320-100, but I knew the chance would be small.
Tuesday, 11. September 2001
Munich (MUC) - Paris (CDG)
Air France AF1223
F-GFKV "Ville de Bordeaux" (s/n 227) - delivered 09/1991
Photo © Sven Tobergte
Photo © Ingo Lang
On departure day I arrived at MUC at around 05:00 in the morning, check-in was fast, AF staff very friendly. For the longhaul flight I chose a window seat in the second last row on the Triple Seven. Only minutes later I passed security and I walked to my gate.
The evening before I had already checked MUC arrivals on TV text and I knew I would only get a A320-200, not the -100 I had hoped for. So there was nothing spectacular about the aircraft, F-GFKV.
Departure was on time, and after take off I enjoyed the cloudless scenery en route to CDG. Breakfast was served, or better: what they called breakfast. They offered croissants, juice and coffee…though that has become standard today.
Arrival was on time as well, even a bit early. While we parked at Terminal 2A, the LAX flight was scheduled to depart from 2F. In order to be able to log as many registrations as possible, I had chosen the second LAX flight, AF 068 at 14:00 in the afternoon. The first LAX flight, AF062, would already depart at 10:00. I wanted to start my spotting tour at Terminal 2A/C but when I tried to enter the gate area I was sent away: passengers were only allowed to enter the departure hall where their very own flight would actually depart.
So I went on to hall 2F where all different kinds of AF longhaul aircraft were parked. I took a seat got almost all departing aircraft on the southern runway and also most arrivals on that side. Some minutes after 10:00 I watched AF062 leaving the gate and later I also spotted CO's Peter Max B777 with its "New York 2000" livery.
Tuesday, 11. September 2001
Paris (CDG) – Paris (CDG)
Air France AF 068
F-GSPD (s/n 187) - delivered 01/1999
Photo © Carlos Borda
Photo © Jonathan Simmons
Photo © Henry Jr Godding
Photo © Nik Deblauwe
The few hours passed very fast and shortly after 13:00 boarding for AF068 was started. I soon realized we had to enter one of the famous ADP busses which can be moved upwards to the aircraft so that passengers don't have to climb any stairs on remote parking positions.
F-GSPD was the aircraft today and after entering the cabin I was very impressed by AF's interior with blue comfortable seats. Next to me an older French couple sat down. They were very nice, after realizing I was German they started to speak German, very well indeed – not surprisingly, they were from Alsace-Lorraine.
After all passengers were seated, a short delay was announced. On the left side of the rear Economy section four window rows had been flattened and bed with a curtain had been installed. Soon we knew why, an older sick man was brought to the aircraft in an ambulance. It took around 20 minutes until the man was laid down safely. A younger woman accompanied and him and took care of him, probably his daughter or a nurse.
Two blithe hours
Finally, doors were closed, engines started, and 15 minutes later we lined up for take off. After only some minutes of waiting the two GE90s accelerated the aircraft quickly and we took off for LAX. At that point of time it was around 14:00 at CDG, 08:00 local time in New York...
I was looking forward to Los Angeles and I really enjoyed the flight. I tested several games, chose my lunch and earmarked two movies for the next hours. I was sure the next 11 hours would be over very fast and I was already thinking of many upcoming spotting days at LAX.Two hours had passed very fast, and after leaving behind the last Northwestern British isles the lunch was served.
Even today it's still hard to imagine that within these two blithe hours, while being totally clueless, the unthinkable with all the the atrocities was happening...
The captain's announcement...
Suddenly, all IFE channels were interrupted and the captain addressed the passengers. First, he spoke French and I didn't understand much of what he said - but I spotted the reaction of two flight attendants who were serving meals - the expressions on their faces were characterized by total confusion. Then my two neighbors started talking to each other and they didn't seem to feel comfortable. And then the captain said it in English: "…we have to turn back to Paris, American airspace is closed."
"WHAT? In the first moment I was just totally confused - could that be true? I asked my neighbor and he wasn't sure either. He said: "No, the captain must be joking." I cannot remember how long I talked to him without looking out of the window, but when I checked my PTV flight map I suddenly realized that the small aircraft image was already pointing at Paris again! However, I hadn't felt the aircraft turning - so intensively I must have been under the impression of the captain's dazing announcement.
I still somehow refused to believe that we really flew back, but then I got the final confirmation: a thick, white fountain suddenly sprayed out of the wing tip and I knew what it meant - fuel dump!
The captain later announced that 40,000 litres of kerosene had to be dumped. Of course I took a picture of the scene which was over after a few minutes.
On the TVs arrival time at CDG was quoted as 18:00, almost two hours to go. People were talking to each other throughout the cabin, no matter whether they knew each other or not. I talked to my neighbors and we tried to guess what could have caused the American airspace to be closed. What the hell could cause such a drastic measure? A military strike would be very unlikely, and so would be a widespread natural disaster. I remembered there had been a light earthquake in California two days ago – probably the long awaited big one now? But that wouldn't have affected the East Coast or most other parts of the country...well, we just didn't know. I realized that the News channel of the IFE was offline...very strange, I thought. Some time later, I heard a French man saying something like "Twin Towers, boom..." – probably he had made a phone call. I immediately concluded the WTC must have been affected, but I in no way I thought about anything similar to what was actually happening...
Then I started thinking about my trip. What would happen in Paris? When would we be able to continue the journey? I thought of my two very heavy cases and how difficult it would be to carry all my stuff around. I walked to the galley and asked a flight attendant whether they knew what would happen in Paris later. I asked many questions, but he couldn't help me. "I wish I could answer, but I just don't know either", he replied.
Meal service was continued, but I couldn't really enjoy it any more. Though nobody seemed to know what really had happened, the atmosphere on board was tense.
At around 18:00 we had started our final approach to CDG and minutes later the aircraft touched down very hard - with thrust reversers and brakes fully deployed. That must have been a landing at heavy weight…
We taxied to a gate at Hall 2F and I saw some aircraft of American carriers parked – with police cars and guards all around. I was still hoping that we would be able to depart again later today - but then cargo doors were opened and the aircraft was unloaded. According to an announcement, passengers should follow AF staff in the terminal. With so many aircraft obviously in the same situation I expected the absolute chaos in the hall - and that's exactly what I found some minutes later.
Since I had had a bad experience with AF not long ago I wasn't sure how they would handle the chaos (e.g. staff speaking only French) - for that reason I just stayed with the French couple. It was a good decision: there were three flights assigned to our baggage carousel - and it would have been a serious problem to keep an eye on one case while trying to catch the other. So we watched our cases each other and soon had all our luggage.
We were then guided to the check-in area in Hall 2F where hundreds, maybe thousands of people ran around like ants. Uncountable AF employees were present – many of them must have been called in on short notice as they wore regular clothes with AF IDs attached.
Endless queues evolved in front of the counters and the only option everybody had was to wait, wait and wait. Meanwhile two Germans from Stuttgart had moved next to me who had been en route to California as well. I asked them whether they knew the cause of that all. I remember one of them saying: "Allegedly three aircraft have crashed at Los Angeles." I was quite irritated, though I couldn't really believe it.
Back to MUC
Two hours must have passed until I arrived at the counter. I was still full of hope that I would be sent to a hotel and could simply take a new flight to LAX the next day or two days later. But then I started to realize that the hotels would be filled with Americans currently unable to return home. The AF agent behind the counter said they just didn't have a clue when US airspace would reopen again. "That can happen in two days, but it can be ten days", he said. "What we can offer you is a return flight to Germany - or you can wait on your own expense." Rather quickly I decided to fly home since I didn't want to take the risk of being stranded for days.
According to my original itinerary the return trip should terminate at Nuremberg, but the last flight to NUE had already departed this evening. So they offered me one of very few remaining seats on the last evening service to MUC and I agreed. After receiving the ticket I was really glad I could escape from all the chaos in that hall. The French couple had in the meantime had an eye on my two cases because it would have been impossible to bring them to the counter. I said thanks and good bye to them and started running to Hall 2A where my MUC flight would depart some 45 minutes later. At a counter in Hall 2A I checked in quickly and I was very impressed how friendly and helpful all the AF staff members were.
Learning the truth
After receiving my boarding pass I had about 30 more minutes left until departure. I still had to call home in order to make sure someone would pick me up at MUC later. Too bad I had left my mobile phone at home and didn't have any Francs or a calling card. So I asked at a AF counter where I could get a telephone card. However, a very friendly AF lady gave me her personal calling card and even explained how to use it. First of all I called my parents, but nobody answered. Then I called my brother and after trying several times I finally got him. "Where are you?", was the first he asked. "Have you heard what happened?" I said: "No, not really." Then he continued: "The World Trade Center collapsed after planes crashed into each tower - and another one crashed into the Pentagon!" I couldn't say anything and was somehow paralysed. It took a few moments to recover and I finally told him that I would arrive at MUC two hours later.
Tuesday, 11. September 2001
Paris (CDG) – Munich (MUC)
Air France AF1222
F-GFKQ "Ville de Berlin" (s/n 002), built 04/1987, delivered 02/1991
Photo © Steven Grace
Photo © José Jorge
Photo © Jason Taperell - AirTeamImages
Photo © Antoine Ossadzow
-100 series, and not only that...
After hanging up it still took me some minutes to digest the news. For the first time in my life, I didn't think about the upcoming aircraft, I always had to think of what had happened.
When I entered the gate area I realized that the flight was delayed by 30 minutes, obviously due to an aircraft change. It was very dark outside, I only saw an A320 parked at the gate, with cargo doors closed and the jetway not being docked. I was expecting they would tow the aircraft away soon but then they started working on it. It seemed to be my flight's aircraft and simply for the purpose of statistics I went closer in order to read the registration. I identified "KQ" on the gear door...and much slower as usual I started thinking...GFKQ...then I turned my head and checked the wingtips - indeed winglets were missing: a -100 series. Then I realized why I had "KQ" in my memory: it is second built A320 series aircraft - the oldest one in active service (prototype 001 has never left Airbus). I couldn't believe I would fly that very special aircraft - which I had always hunted - on such a disastrous day - I definitely couldn't enjoy it at all. Of course, at a much later date, I was glad being able to add it to my "flown aircraft list". Though F-GFKQ will always be connected with that sad day.
The flight itself was not very spectacular. The atmosphere on board was very strange, it was totally quiet in the cabin, I guess most passengers had already heard the news at that time. After eating a quite generous dinner I tried to get some sleep. Of course, my thoughts were dominated by the disaster.
Later at the airport I was glad my two cases had arrived as well, regarding the chaos at CDG. My brother picked me up and we went home after that very uncommon round-trip, listening to the radio news all the time.
AF062 to Montreal
At home I called my American friends who had contacted Air France all day to check my flight's status. They were told AF062, which left at 10:00, had diverted to Montreal...so I was really glad I had chosen AF068.
The next morning I called Air France and they offered to pay back the money or another flight. Initially, I booked another flight, with departure day one week later - since I really wanted to see my American friends this year. However, after carefully analyzing the situation I realized that spotting would be impossible...and that it simply wouldn't be the appropriate time to enjoy easygoing and relaxed holidays in the US. I finally decided to cancel my plans and took the money. I postponed my trip to fall 2002 and it was the right decision.
As usual, comments, opinions and questions are always welcome!