Throughout its history, Air Force’s No. 37 Squadron has often been first on the scene during times of crisis.
Few might be aware that, following the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, a No. 37 Squadron C-130J Hercules and its crew were amongst the first to land in New York City.
Pilot Squadron Leader Kevin Bruce, currently a reservist instructor with No. 37 Squadron, recounted the events that led to a mission from Atlanta to New York City following the attacks.
“We were in the United States in September 2001 completing the testing of the Block 5.3 upgrade to the C-130J,” Squadron Leader Bruce said.
“The Hercules used for the trials – A97-442 – was operated from Dobbins Air Base in Atlanta, Georgia, adjacent to the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules manufacturing plant.”
The crew included pilot Flight Lieutenant (now Group Captain) Paul Long, and Flight Lieutenants Jayson Livingstone and Michael Crooks as the co-pilots. They were supported by loadmasters Warrant Officers Mick Smith and Graeme Clark
“9/11 happened towards the end of our final phase – the following day, we went to Lockheed Martin, but no aircraft were allowed to fly,” Squadron Leader Bruce said.
“All airborne aircraft during 9/11 were landed at the nearest airfield once air traffic control worked out what was happening.”
A change of plans
Dobbins Air Base – located just 50 kilometres from Atlanta - was filled with commercial airliners in the days following 9/11.
Atlanta also happened to be the home of the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Group Captain Steve Bucholtz, the RAAF Assistant Air Attachè in Washington DC, received a request to ferry CDC personnel and equipment to New York.
“To some extent, this was because the United States Air Force command chain was focused on recovery from the attack on the Pentagon, as well as responding in other areas,” Squadron Leader Bruce said.
The CDC team would investigate the ground zero site and determine whether any biological agents had been used in the attacks.
The mission on September 14 was a joint task between Lockheed Martin and the RAAF, taking a Lockheed Martin Test Pilot, Flight Lieutenant (now Squadron Leader) Michael Crooks, and Squadron Leader Bruce.
Squadron Leader Crooks recalled that the crew and the CDC team posed for a photo together at the aircraft, before embarking on the mission.
“The CDC team and the intermediaries were truly grateful for the assistance the RAAF was providing during an unprecedented moment in their nation’s history,” Squadron Leader Crooks said.
A surreal flight to New York
The Hercules carried 31 passengers for the two-and-a-half hour flight to New York, with the only other air traffic being fighter aircraft on combat air patrol missions, and refuelling tankers.
“The flight up was eerie – airspace that for decades before and the decades since were and are a continual buzz of activity was literally silent,” Squadron Leader Crooks said.
“We were handed from one air traffic controller to another with little more than a welcome, then silence. This was on airwaves that are typically a continual stream of control instructions and replies.
“We were often thanked with sincerity and transferred to the next controller where the scene was repeated. I doubt and hope that this experience will ever be repeated again.”
Both the weather and air traffic around New York on September 14 contrasted heavily with that of September 11.
“The arrival into La Guardia Airport was truly surreal; The airfield had been closed since September 11 and the weather was poor with low cloud and showers about,” Squadron Leader Crooks said.
“If this had been the weather 72 hours earlier, [I wonder] how would the events of September 11, and the geostrategic events that followed, would have played out?
“We approached the airfield from the south roughly paralleling Manhattan Island, through breaks in the cloud I can still recall seeing the gap in the skyline where the towers had stood three days before.”
The C-130J was the first aircraft to land at La Guardia Airport since all airline traffic had been grounded.
With the CDC team unloaded, the Hercules departed back to Atlanta a few hours later; a week later the Block Upgrade test programme was resumed.
Today, missions to airfields in Afghanistan are relatively frequent for RAAF C-130J crews, but few might be aware of their aircraft’s role in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks.
“The more time that passes, the more I realise that this was a moment in time that was unique in every aspect,” Squadron Leader Crooks said.
“It is a significant, but little known part of the RAAF’s C-130J’s story.”