"About 9 a.m. or just after the first tower was hit in New York, while over South Carolina, I received an URGENT email message from company headquarters requesting the flight’s location.
"That seemed strange to us. We’d just sent them an update 10 minutes earlier giving our fuel consumption and location. In addition, they track us and know our location 100% of the time. Instead of emailing back, I called on the radio.
"Just as I did so, we started hearing about terrorist activity in New York from air traffic controllers who said all planes into New York would be holding. The company told me the same thing. Three minutes later, we were ordered to return to Atlanta.
"As we were turning, we heard that an airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center. We said, ‘Holy Shit!.’ Then on the way back to Atlanta, we heard the second tower had been hit.
"We thought, ‘No possible way. This is people exaggerating. Then we heard the Pentagon had been hit. "We said, ‘there is no way this can happening. It is too coordinated. The U.S. would surely have some advance warning. This is too incredible to be true.
"As we turned back to Atlanta, we told the passengers there was terrorist activity reported in New York, we were diverting back to Atlanta, and we would advise them more later.
"The passengers were really upset. Many were New Yorkers. Most had friends or family there. They started grabbing the sky phones. Eventually, they were learning more, faster than we were, until we got back on the ground.
"At this point, the captain and I discussed the situation. We determined there was no way any airline pilot would deliberately fly into any building. Even at gunpoint. We knew the terrorists must have commandeered the cockpits. We knew the flight crew must have been killed to allow this to happen.
"We discussed: ‘What would we do if someone crashed through the cockpit door?’ We would crash the plane into the ground before allowing it to be taken over.
"Usually in a hijacking, they take everyone hostage, assure everyone they are going to be ok. We knew this is probably why there was no insurrection by the passengers. All of them thought they’d be taken hostage and everything would be ok.
"The captain and I knew this wasn’t the case in these incidents and we’d be left with no choice but keep our aircraft from being taken over. I think that is what the United Airlines pilot in Pennsylvania did. He wasn’t about to let them take over the plane.
"We called the flight attendants into the cockpit, briefed them on the situation. They were very stressed and upset and doing their best to help calm the passengers. They were scared. And we didn’t tell them about our contingency plans.
"At that point, the captain and I knew that despite all the information we were hearing, we had no choice but to stay focused on safely getting this plane back to Atlanta and on the ground. We had to ignore everything else. There was a lot of stuff going on. We couldn’t be distracted by outside events.
"Everyone was extremely anxiety ridden. Once on the ground, a dark complexioned passenger grabbed his backpack and ran toward the toilets. The flight attendants tried to stop him, but he said he had to go and pushed his way in.
"Was he a part of something else? Or did he just have something illegal in his backpack he didn’t want anyone to find? We don’t know. He changed clothes twice and we finally forced him back into his seat.
"The airport was eerily quite. There were very few planes landing and planes parked were all over the airport since there were no gate spaces available. There was no place to park. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. that we were able to get to a gate to offload. The suspicious passenger was met by authorities and taken into custody. We were not informed what happened to him after he was taken in for questioning.
This copilot was formerly an F-14 pilot at Oceana Naval Air Station and lived in Virginia Beach for several years after becoming a civilian airline pilot.