Remembering 9/11’s impact to Columbus AFB

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Nearly 16 years have passed since Americans experienced one of the most horrific attacks on U.S. soil.

Since that day, life in America and operations across all armed forces installations has not been the same.

The day caused the Defense Department to respond with higher security on every base and that posture has never relaxed since then. For example, Air Force bases used to have stickers on vehicles, which were a “pass” for anyone authorized to get onto base. The sticker passes are now non-existent.

“We’ve ramped up our security a lot after that,” said Gary Wright, 14th Flying Training Wing Airfield Manager. “Barricades got put up to prevent cars driving in at high speeds and things like that. They’re still up today.”

Wright and another member of Columbus AFB recalled the events, where they were at the time and how it affected the 14th Flying Training Wing.

“I was at work, next to Sonic Johnson, watching what was happening in horror,” Wright said. “We were pretty much glued to the television because we had to land all of our aircraft.”

The flights out of Columbus AFB start at about sunrise every morning, and flying operations continue past dusk. On Sept. 11, 2001, no aircraft flew after the attack; no aircraft could fly anywhere in America without approval.

“All traffic needed to land immediately; none of the pilots in the air had any idea what had happened and didn’t understand why the training had to be stopped,” Wright said.

Next to Wright was Richard Johnson, 14th Flying Training Wing Chief of Public Affairs, who at the time was a T-1A Jayhawk instructor pilot at Columbus AFB.

“I walked in and Mr. Wright asked me if I had known what happened,” Johnson said. “Then the second aircraft hit the tower.”

Columbus AFB had to get the Air Force’s largest fleet of aircraft on the ground, make sure everyone was safe, and take accountability for the pilots; Wright and Johnson were components of that operation.

“The following day, I remember it was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky day and all aviation was grounded. There wasn’t a blimp flying,” Johnson said. “I remember listening to how quiet the flightline was and it was just eerie; everyone was at work, but there was no flying.”

The pilot training mission soon continued with limited operations, until the airspace was given the all clear.

“I flew the first mission out of Columbus AFB when we were authorized to start limited training flights, and I was taking a crew to go get a stranded T-1 from Midland, Texas,” Johnson said. “When I flew over the Dallas airport, there were airplanes parked everywhere, it looked like thousands of airliners parked everywhere.”

Though the attacks had passed, emotions were hard to hold back, and the reality of the changes were being shown in full colors in the air.

“When I went into the next Air Traffic Control sector I heard fighters flying Combat Air Patrol over our cities, that’s when I got angry,” Johnson said. “I had heard of CAP sorties over many different places around the world, but that’s when it hit me that we had been attacked, and we were protecting our homeland.”

Tragedy can bring out different reactions in people. One thing was certain after the attacks, America came together.

“American flags were everywhere. It became the America I grew up with, we were no longer worried about our personal agendas,” Johnson said. “The attacks were horrific and left deep scars, but if you messed with one American you messed with all of them and that was an amazing feeling.”