Former, current Team Tinker members recall 9/11 during AFA event

  • Published
  • By April McDonald
  • Tinker Public Affairs
It was a day they say they will never forget.

As the events of Sept. 11, 2001, played out across the country, those in leadership positions at Tinker Air Force Base had to shake off the shock they felt and deal with operational issues at home.

Some of those former leaders were part of a panel at the Air Force Association's 9/11 Forum discussing Tinker's and Oklahoma's response after the attacks. The forum was held Sept. 9 at the Rose State College Performing Arts Theater.

Retired Lt. Gen. Charles Johnson, former Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center commander, said within minutes of the attack, he convened his battle staff and the base was locked down.

"Initially, we went to Bravo, with 100 percent ID checks. Then about seven minutes later, we were at Charlie, where we really locked the base down," General Johnson said, detailing his force protection measures. "Within an hour, we were at Delta, which we'd never been at."

General Johnson said once it became clear the country had been attacked, he knew more than likely there would be some kind of response. He said the ALC's mission was to keep the Air Force and its sister services flying, so the workforce was called upon to get aircraft out of the depot quickly.

"I had over one-third of the B-1s in the Air Force inventory parked at Tinker undergoing a major modification," General Johnson said. "They couldn't fly. So our job was to get those back operational."

Across the runway, former 552nd Air Control Wing Commander retired Brig. Gen. Ben Robinson faced the task of getting his aircrews through the gates and on base as quickly as possible. After receiving a phone call from a wing member who was stuck in traffic, the general decided he needed to do whatever it took to get his people on base.

"There was a security policeman sitting in his car, so we drove up there and said 'follow us,'" General Robinson said. They drove around to the back of the base, where the general asked the security forces member if he had bolt cutters. He did and the general asked him to cut a hole in the fence to make it easier to get essential personnel on base.

"After he cut the first hole, he looked over at me and asked, 'where do you want the next hole?' I told him I get one hole per war and that's it," the general said.

During the ALC battle staff, General Johnson received a call from then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating asking how he could help. Because the base was at Delta, General Johnson said he knew there would be a major traffic jam on the interstates, so he asked the governor for help from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

"The problem we were having was who's essential and who's not," the general said. "How could you get word to those who were essential and leaving home right now, the flight crews and those kinds of things? How do we identify them? The state troopers were out there going car by car looking for flyers to tell them to go to this other 'gate.'"

Retired Col. Patrick Sheets, who was the 552nd ACW operations director, said the operations tempo on base that day was "somewhat unbelievable." With only 17 AWACS available at Tinker at that time, wing leadership knew they would run out of aircraft if the fight went overseas.

At the time of the terrorist attacks, one AWACS plane was airborne and four others were on the tarmac ready to launch, but they were waiting on an OK from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Tinker aircrews were ready, Colonel Sheets said, this is what they had practiced. In fact, two of the four aircraft sitting on the ground had training crews aboard.

"We immediately called the 966th Training Squadron and told them to download the students off the airplane and put trained crews on the airplane because we needed to be ready to go," he said. "We didn't know where we were going, but we knew we would have to go soon."

When the FAA grounded all aircraft following the attacks, the crew of the airborne AWACS planned to land at Little Rock Force Base, Ark., because they knew they would have proper security there. After getting a rundown of what had happened in the northeast that day, the flight commander decided the aircraft needed to stay airborne.

"The aircraft commander calls back down to the FAA to tell them," Colonel Sheets said. "They declared 'due regard,' climbed back up and shortly after that we were able to establish satellite communications with them. They got tasked to be the first airplane to orbit over the White House about 45 minutes after the first tower was hit."

The OC-ALC and 552nd ACW weren't the only Tinker units dealing with higher than normal operations tempo during that time.

According to Col. Mike Mahon, now the 507th Air Refueling Wing vice commander, more than two-thirds of the wing's units are made up of traditional reservists, who have full-time jobs in a variety of occupations throughout the metro area.

"We were all contacted and our jets were in the air the next day," he said. Personnel had to park outside the fence and take a bus ride through the new "gate." The wing had eight KC-135s available to refuel military aircraft patrolling the skies.

"Refueling fully-armed F-16s in U.S. airspace is a game changer," Colonel Mahon said.

Retired Navy Capt. Gary Foster, currently a member of the 498th Missile Sustainment Group, was with Strategic Communications Wing ONE a decade ago. He said the majority of the wing was deployed to the Global Guardian exercise on Sept. 11. Like most Americans, they learned of the attacks through local media.

"I walked over to the DV lounge. As soon as I opened the door, I saw the TV and here comes an airplane into the tower. I said to my shipmates, 'is that a replay?' They said 'no sir, that just happened,'" Captain Foster said. "So immediately, I'm thinking attack. All of the sudden, we had exercise termination followed by an actual defense condition three, the first time in my career that had ever happened."

After learning who was responsible for the attack later in the day, Captain Foster said the Navy was in a good position.

"If this thing goes nuclear," he said, "We're here. We're ready."

The 3rd Combat Communications Group was also ready to respond, with 450 Airmen deploying.

"It was an interesting morning," General Robinson said. "We came to work that morning expecting a routine day, instead we found ourselves at war."


· Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Commander Maj. Gen. David Gillett was at the Pentagon on 9/11.

Prior to his arrival at the Pentagon in May 2001, he was the director of Technology and Industrial Support at Tinker.

On Sept. 11, the general was in his office on the fifth floor of the second wedge of the Pentagon when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers.

"I remember thinking, I wonder what's next," General Gillett said. "It wasn't too many minutes later that I got an answer to my question; the alarms started going off."

The general said one of the first things he did when the alarms started going off was call his wife to let her know he was OK.

What he didn't know at the time was American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the fourth wedge, killing all 64 people on board and 125 in the Pentagon.

"I couldn't get it through my head," the general said, "I don't know whether it was naiveté or just beyond my imagination that somebody would fly an airplane full of people into a building."

· A historic event occurred in October 2001 when five NATO AWACS deployed to Tinker. According to former 552nd Air Control Wing Commander retired Brig. Gen. Ben Robinson, no other example in history can be found of foreign aircraft deploying to America. NATO crews stayed at Tinker for nine months.