On 9/11, Wright-Patterson answered pleas for help, prepared for changed world
DAYTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — After the World Trade Center towers fell and a hijacked plane tore through the Pentagon complex, one of the first calls for help on Sept. 11, 2001, was to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The plea was as simple as it was urgent: Did the Air Force have any technology that could help determine whether anyone was alive in the hundreds of thousands of tons of tower rubble or the western side of the Pentagon?
The answer was yes, recalled now retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, who on that day commanded Air Force Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
"There were some technologies that we could immediately offer, if you will, to help in the search, to help in determining where there may be people alive in the rubble," Lyles said in an interview.
The Dayton Daily News spoke with Lyles and others linked to Wright-Patterson, home to much of the Air Force's massive research and logistics work, to get a sense of their memories of that fateful day.
Together, they present a vivid account of a team of uniformed service members and government employees fighting to respond to unforeseen threats.
"It was a bolt out of the blue," said retired Maj. Gen. Everett Odgers, who was the AFMC comptroller on 9/11.
"What I recall from that day was the team worked like it never had before," said Michael Hazen ― who was commander of the 88th Air Base Wing, the custodian unit overseeing Wright-Patterson.
"Every airman was a leader," said Hazen, a retired colonel. "No matter what the (pay)grade was, they stepped up and performed like they never performed before."
"Each generation, I think, has its moments," said John Slye, deputy program executive officer at the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. "For me, this is No. 1."
'I realized this was not an accident'
Lyles recalled how "disconcerting" the day was — a beautiful, almost crisp, late summer day dawning with "no hint at all that anything can change at all in the world, never mind in the United States."
At 8:46 a.m., the four-star general overseeing the Air Force's logistics and material needs was meeting with senior staff. An employee notified him of the first plane crash into a World Trade Center Tower. The meeting proceeded.
It ended in time for Lyles to walk back into his office, where a TV was on — and he saw the second plane hit the second tower.
"I realized this was not an accident," he said.
Once it was clear this was an intentional act of terrorism, Hazen ― now associate director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico — recalled that he and his staff did not hesitate in their first steps.
"The comment was, 'We're at war,'" Hazen said, recalling words from a colleague.
The team took action. His initial response was to implement force protection measures on which he and his Air Base Wing team had long drilled. The wing "went to battle staff," sending home personnel in roles deemed nonessential and immediately strengthening security at the gates.
"Everybody went immediately, to 'How do we protect the base itself?'" Hazen said. "But also, when the community needs us, how do we help the community as well?"
At the time, a runway at the Springfield Air National Guard Base was under repair, and an assortment of F-16s were parked at Wright-Patterson.
The base found itself with a "total force" presence — active-duty, Reserve and National Guard forces all on hand on Sept. 11, 2001, Hazen said.
"You're trained on it, you're tested on it," he said. "But you're never tested on a scenario this significant."
"Every military base, I'm sure, immediately went to the highest (security) posture," Lyles said.
'My powder's dry. Where do I go?'
In the hours after the attacks, leaders at AFMC launched a process to immediately identify any life-saving technologies Wright-Patterson and Air Force scientists and researchers might have to assist in recovery and rescue efforts in New York City and the Pentagon, Lyles said.
Of particular interest was anything being developed by the Air Force Research Lab — part of AFMC and also headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
The idea was simple: Quickly identify and recommend to the Pentagon any technology or tool that could help find survivors.
"It would be technology either developed by one of our laboratories or developed in concert with and supported by our laboratories," Lyles said. "The technologies themselves may have actually been developed by some company, some small organization or some university ― but knowledge of it would have been resident at AFRL, at Wright-Patt."
The technology turned out to be an early version of ground-penetrating radar, fairly common today. Lyle also recalled that some portable technology to pick up thermal imagery from possible survivors was deployed.
Extending help nationally and locally was much on the minds of base leaders in those first fraught hours and days.
"Certainly, they were looking for technology, but they were also looking to Wright-Patterson for dog-teams and things like that, bomb-sniffing teams," Hazen recalled. "There were a lot of things to be done with boots on the ground."
Medical personnel from the 88th Medical Group responded to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, about 90 minutes from Manhattan.
The sentiment to assist was mutual. Hazen heard from friends of the Air Force who wanted to know what they could do.
"My powder's dry. Where do I go?" John Dalton, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and then a Fairborn Chamber of Commerce executive, told Hazen.
'Time stood still'
On Sept. 11 two decades ago, Slye was in the C-17 program office, working as an air vehicle integration team leader.
Remembering the day started as a "very ordinary Tuesday morning," Slye was on the phone with Boeing counterparts in California when he learned that a plane crashed into one of the towers.
Then the second plane hit, which he saw live on television.
"It was mind-boggling," Slye said. "It just seemed like time stood still. That was when it became real for me, certainly."
In the weeks after 9/11, Slye remembered, he and his colleagues "all found a newfound purpose." They were acquiring new weapons systems and shepherding the C-17.
C-17s were flying into Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East in a matter of weeks. The C-17 Globemaster III, a long-range cargo/transport aircraft operated by the Air Force since the early 1990s, played a key role early on.
According to a 2007 report to Congress, nearly 170 C-5 and C-17 cargo planes were flown to create an "air bridge" to Afghanistan, with 12 C-5 aircraft bringing cargo and troops from the United States to staging bases in Europe and the C-17s flying directly to forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
C-17s flew from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Afghanistan, some 26 hours each way and 10,000 miles round trip, the report noted.
"The days weren't necessarily longer; they were just filled with more purposeful effort," Slye said. "We were supporting something that was just real and in the moment."
Todd Stewart, then a major general and the director of plans and programs at AFMC, said from his perspective, while the world was certainly different a day later on Sept. 12, 2001, acquiring the necessary focus took time.
"The challenge we face is that, for the last 20 years, the other guys have been watching the American way of war, studying it, going to school on us and our capabilities," Stewart said. "It's no surprise that when China and Russia, particularly China, field new weapon systems, they look an awful (lot) like ours."
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