November 13, 2012

Air Force One pilot recalls 9/11 attacks

Whenever President George W. Bush flew on Air Force One, Col. Mark Tillman was the principal pilot.

Whenever President George W. Bush flew on Air Force One, Col. Mark Tillman was the principal pilot.

At the controls of the Boeing 747 that’s the presidential airborne command center, Tillman flew Bush to nearly every state and to dozens of foreign countries.

The blue-and-white aircraft has deep ties to Wichita, where Boeing has maintained, serviced and upgraded the two VC-25s that serve as Air Force One.

Tillman, 54, was selected by the White House as the nation’s 12th presidential pilot in 2001.

More than 5,000 of his 12,000 flight hours were in the cockpit of Air Force One, where he made more than 49 foreign trips to 75 countries.

Tillman, now a corporate pilot for Discount Tire, was the keynote speaker at Monday’s Wichita Aero Club meeting. He spoke to a packed room at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Wichita Airport.

Whenever he flew the president, threats against Air Force One were routine, Tillman said. And every threat was checked out.

But the most stressful day of his career came on Sept. 11, 2001. There was so much confusion and not much was known as the attacks on U.S. targets unfolded.

There were reports that Air Force One, code name “Angel,” was also a target, said Tillman, who retired from the Air Force in 2009. With those reports and numerous other reports of attacks and threats of attacks, it was difficult to assess what was really happening and what threats were serious.

Keeping Bush safe was the primary objective.

Bush was at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., reading to students, when the attacks occurred.

At first, officials knew only that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, and initially many people assumed that it was an accident – not an attack.

Tillman and others were watching the news on TV when the second plane hit the south tower.

The telephones on board began ringing.

“At this point, we knew we were under attack,” Tillman said.

Bush immediately wanted to return to Washington, but Tillman and others thought it best to avoid the capital, which could be a target.

As Secret Service agents rushed Bush to the plane, Tillman had already started one of the plane’s engines.

That’s when they learned that the Pentagon was hit.

They had to assume they also would be under attack in Florida, Tillman said.

As they were ready to take off, they were told about an unidentified potential shooter at the end of the runway.

In order to stay far away from the man, Tillman took off in the opposite direction – with a tail wind.

It turned that the potential shooter was a man with his two children – and a video camera.

Bad timing on his part, Tillman said.

“I assume his kids are Secret Service agents today, because they got to meet the Secret Service up close and personally that day,” he said.

Flying toward Gainesville, they received word from air traffic control that an airplane above them out of radio contact was descending into them.

They weren’t sure whether it was another hijacked airplane.

Tillman headed out to the Gulf of Mexico.

The plane was an unsuspecting airliner that had lost its transponder, and the pilot was on another frequency talking to the airline.

It was over the Gulf that they saw fighter jets coming upon them, only no one knew for sure who they were.

There were fears the planes were piloted by foreign nationals.

Those fears were put to rest after one of the pilots radioed and said they were from Texas – and had the accent to prove it.

Trying to find a safe place for the president to address the nation, Tillman headed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, then went flew to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Later that same day, they returned to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, and Bush addressed the nation from the White House.

Tillman also was in command of Air Force One when Bush traveled to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day 2003 to surprise U.S. troops. Only a handful of people knew about the difficult, covert trip into a war zone. Bush wanted to keep it a secret so that no service man or woman would be at risk, Tillman said.

Tillman received the necessary clearances by calling it a USO plane carrying country-western singers.

Once in the air, they put out false radio calls describing the airplane as a different model.

Above Great Britain, another pilot saw the distinctive plane and asked over the radio whether it was Air Force One.

He was told it was a Gulfstream.

“Right,” the pilot said with a laugh. “Cheerio.”

Once there, Bush served dinner to the troops, not taking time to eat himself.

It’s a day Tillman won’t forget.

Tillman’s responsibilities included all aspects of the operations of Air Force One.

They included security, planning, maintenance, parts, facilities, communications, food service, budgeting, personnel, training and emergency action plans.

He worked closely with Boeing Wichita and traveled to Wichita many times.

“They’re an amazing group of people,” Tillman said of the Boeing employees. They “took care of every inch of the airplane.”

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos