9/11 and The Freedom Wing: Twenty Years Later

  • Published
  • By Walter W. Napier III, 514 AMW historian
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

This year September 11th will likely feel a bit different for many individuals. For the military community specifically, this year will stand out. Many members of the military joined because of that fateful day in 2001, but for the first time in twenty years there are no U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began, for most, like any other. While most Americans were dropping kids off at school or rushing to work, nineteen al-Qaeda members high jacked four airliners from the east coast heading for California. After taking over the flights, they used the aircraft as vehicle borne IEDs. The first attack occurred when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Most people were not sure what had happened. News agencies around the world picked up the story, and a number of theories were suggested.

Shortly after that first attack, two KC-10 Extender crews from the Freedom Wing took off from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Team 23 commanded by Maj. Carlos Vilella and Team 24 commaned by Maj. William Sherrod, from the 76th Air Refueling Squadron (with a mixed crew including members of the 78th ARS) took flight on a planned training mission. Their mission was about to change.

At 9:03 a.m., United Flight 175 hit the second tower. Unlike the first explosion, there was no confusion as to what took place during the second attack. At this point, many Americans had their televisions on and saw for themselves the second aircraft strike the south tower. What may have been an accident, or even an isolated incident was now clearly a coordinated terrorist attack. Even more confirmation was provided when a little over thirty minutes later, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.

After the attack on the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all civilian flights. Fighter aircraft were scrambled all across the nation to ensure the landing of every civilian aircraft, most had no weapon systems. The brave pilots of these fighters realized if a plane refused to ground, they may have to sacrifice themselves by flying into the airliner to stop it. As the military began to respond to the crisis, Freedom Wing Teams 23 and 24 were redirected to Washington, D.C. Once over National Capital Region airspace, Team 23 took initial command and control over the skies, while Washington scrambled to get control of the situation.

At 9:59 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. The terrorists had purposely chosen cross country flights so that the aircraft would be full of fuel. The intense heat caused by the burning fuel compromised the structural integrity of the building and it collapsed. Shortly after the collapse of the south tower, United Flight 93 crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Passengers aboard the flight had called their family members from the high jacked aircraft to get a sense of what was going on. After being informed of the previous attacks, the passengers fought the attackers to attempt and regain control of the aircraft. The radicals on board realized they were losing control, so they purposely flipped the jet causing it to crash. It is suspected that the likely target of Flight 93 was either the Capitol Building or the White House.

Back over the skies, Team 23 had been relieved of command with the arrival of an E-3A Sentry, commonly known as the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System). Team 23 and 24 proceeded to conduct their primary mission, air refueling. Team 23 would go on to fly two sorties lasting more than 12 ½ hours, only landing to refuel and take off again. They refueled the command AWACS twice, refueled six F-16 Fighting Falcons and two F-15 Eagles for a total of 271,000 pounds of fuel. Team 24 flew a five hour sortie and refueled a total of thirteen fighter aircraft with 101,000 pounds of fuel. Team 23 would be awarded the Air Force Association’s President Award for “Best Reserve Aircrew” for their actions.

While the 76th ARS commanded the air, Freedom Wing members on the ground were mobilizing as well. At any given time, roughly a quarter of the Freedom Wing’s members serve as first responders in their civilian capacities. These dual hatted heroes who serve as police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and EMTs were among the first to take part in the day’s terrible events. Members such as: Staff Sgt. Sean Veerapen with the 35th Aerial Port Squadron (APS), a New York City patrolman, Capt. Eric Szillus, 514th Aeromedical Squadron and firefighter for New York, Technical Sgt. John Vicenti, 88th APS and FDNY Ladder No. 69 member.

Other Wing members who were not first responders reacted anyway. Lt. Col. Craig White decided to put on his Battle Dress Uniform and push through check points to assist in search, rescue and clean up. Technical Sgt. Bill Schwarz did the same thing, putting on his uniform on his own accord to go and assist at Ground Zero. Senior Airman Edward Blunnie was watching the news and felt the call to act while those around him sat in shock. Senior Airman Blunnie mobilized fourteen other airmen in his surrounding area to head down and help. These are just a few names. 50 security forces members were among the first to be activated to augment security around the area. Six members from the Mission Support Squadron joined a 250 man team to conduct the grizzly task of identifying the victims that were found in the wreckage. An additional 180 Wing members volunteered over the next few days to assist with Ground Zero and related operations.

As shock turned to anger, the military transitioned from a reactive stance to a proactive one. 514th air crews took part in Operation NOBLE EAGLE, bringing supplies to the affected areas, and flying combat patrols around the country to ensure the safety of American skies. 514th crews flew a total of 37 sorties, totaling 245 hours of flight time, and providing 2.62 million gallons of fuel for 178 aircraft. As NOBLE EAGLE turned into ENDURING FREEDOM, three KC-10 crews in a volunteer status were among the first to conduct a tour overseas. An additional 50 security forces members from the 514th also volunteered for an overseas deployment. They returned on October 19, 2001, after a 30-day deployment. In fact, so many members of the Freedom Wing volunteered for service and activation, that the military never ordered an official mobilization. They didn’t need to.

In 2021, the world is a different place. While for many of us it may seem like yesterday, the reality is that a high school graduate who joined the military after September 11th will soon be retiring with twenty years of service. Sophomores in college were yet to be born when the towers were hit. And for the first time since 2001, no airman, soldier, sailor or marine will be boots on ground in Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Freedom Wing helped, sacrificed and fought before they could even be asked to. In honor of the 2,996 people who died in the attacks, the more than 7,000 military members who were killed in subsequent operations, the countless others that have endured wounds, seen and unseen, and every service member who has sacrificed their time, effort and energy for this country, thank you!