By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - For Mark Tillman, Air Force One pilot, neither doomsday training nor years of experience prepared him for Sept. 11, 2001.
"There are all kinds of plans to keep the president safe, emergency action plans, in the event of nuclear attack," Tillman says. "Pretty much any major military attack, I knew exactly what to do with the president and where to take him to keep him safe.
"This was different. This was an attack from within. We had the president who didn't want to follow our plans for a nuclear attack, which is hide him, keep him safe and allow continuity of government."
As the 10th anniversary of the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil approaches, Tillman, 53, who retired as a colonel from the Air Force in 2009, agreed to talk about the chaotic hours that followed the attacks, the worry that Air Force One was being stalked by terrorists, the flight back to Washington and the sight of the smoldering Pentagon.
The attacks in New York and Washington killed nearly 3,000 people and set the nation on a path to war.
Mission No. 3,480 appeared simple enough on paper. Depart Andrews Air Force Base near Washington at 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 10, according to the official flight itinerary. There would be stops in Jacksonville and Sarasota, Fla., where President Bush planned to showcase educational initiatives. Fly back to Andrews the afternoon of Sept. 11.
That round trip did occur - but with previously unscheduled stops at military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, and a return to a Washington and a world that had changed forever.
As a young man, Tillman didn't consider an Air Force career, much less aspire to become the president's personal pilot. A native of South Florida, he thought of becoming a doctor and chose Tulane University for pre-med. He took a seat in class next to a student in an Air Force uniform. The Reserve Officer Training Cadet told Tillman that the program could help pay his tuition. Knowing his parents had only enough money for his first semester, Tillman signed up.
Engineering appealed to him more than medicine, and his first Air Force assignment was in foreign intelligence, working on the propulsion systems of Soviet missiles. Flying seemed like fun, too, and Tillman soon found himself in flight school. He wanted to pilot big cargo planes to see the world. A later assignment - the 89th Airlift Wing - promised more global travel. Based at Andrews, it flies VIPs, senators, congress members, the vice president, first lady and the president.
By 2001, Tillman had reached the pinnacle: He had become the president's principal pilot.
The morning of Sept. 11, Tillman arrived at Sarasota airport a few hours before the scheduled return to Washington. Threats against Air Force One were routine, he says. They're mostly disgruntled folks making false claims. All of them are checked out. "In this case, there was nothing like that," he says. "On Sept. 11, literally going up to the plane, everything was normal."
The first reports of trouble in New York came from airmen watching local television and seeing images of the north tower of the World Trade Center ablaze. "At that point, we just assumed it was operator error because it was clear," Tillman says. "You can see clear skies, you can see a million miles."
There was no doubt about an attack when terrorists smashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the south tower. Tillman watched on television as White House chief of staff Andrew Card relayed the news to Bush, who was reading My Pet Goat with schoolchildren. America is under attack, Card told the president.
Tillman went through his checklist as Air Force One, a Boeing 747 with its familiar robin's-egg blue belly, idled on the runway at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, waiting for the president to board:
Double-check the identity of everybody getting on board.
Post an armed Air Force security officer outside the cockpit.
Keep the president safe.
The jet roared down the runway, "a rather steep takeoff," Tillman recalls. He heard from air controllers in Gainesville that an unidentified plane was descending toward them. He asked for fighter jets to protect the plane.
"I didn't know the capabilities of the terrorists, so just err to the worst case," Tillman says. "It wouldn't be bad to have fighter support in the event that airliners were tracking us. Maybe that airliner was coming to crash into us over Sarasota, saw us take off and was coming after us. In reality, it was just like many of the threats that day. It was not an actual threat. It was an airliner whose transponder had failed."
TV monitors on the plane showed the north tower collapse at 10:28 a.m. "Everyone we saw was shaken and aghast," noted the pool report filed by USA TODAY's Judy Keen and Time's Jay Carney, now the White House press secretary.
In the cabin, reporters and staffers noticed a fighter jet flying off the right wing of Air Force One at 11:29 a.m., according to the pool report. Staffers were asked to keep their cellphones turned off because the signal might allow terrorists to home in on Air Force One.
In the cockpit, Tillman received a chilling message. Air Force One was being targeted.
"We get out over the Gulf of Mexico, and the vice president advises the plane that 'Angel' is next," Tillman says. Angel at the time was the classified call sign of Air Force One. "We asked for fighter support as well as AWACs, a radar plane overhead to keep watch on any type of threats coming at us."
Despite risks, Bush was reluctant to hide
Bush wanted to return to Washington. Tillman's training, instinct and advice from White House aides was to stay away until the capital had been secured. There were airliners unaccounted for, and terrorists had seized San Francisco-bound United Airlines Flight 93 after takeoff from Newark, N.J., apparently intending to attack the city.
Tillman was aware that the president had ordered threatening planes be destroyed.
"When we got the word that (Flight 93) had gone off radar and had crashed, we all assumed immediately that the fighters had shot it down," Tillman says of Flight 93. "That was the most eerie feeling I'd ever had. We'd killed our own people to save the city of Washington, or wherever they were planning to attack. That was very sickening."
It took about half an hour to determine that the passengers, not the Air Force, brought the plane down, Tillman says. Still, Washington was not deemed safe for the president.
"One of the concerns was that Washington was where the terrorists would expect us to run to if something happened," Tillman says. "My plan was not to get back to Washington right away."
Tillman recommended Barksdale Air Force Base just outside Shreveport, La. The president's advisers agreed.
"It was a B-52 base," Tillman says. "Tremendous security. A kind of place you could definitely have the president hide out, address the nation and still be completely secure."
Air Force One landed at Barksdale at 10:45 CT. Bush went on the air at 11:36. His message was terse, lasting two minutes.
"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward," Bush said.
Just after 12:30, Air Force One took off, this time headed to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, home of U.S. Strategic Command. Its top-notch security and communications network appealed to Tillman and national security advisers. They spent only about an hour and a half at Offutt as Bush was anxious to return to Washington.
"This was a president who wanted to get back into the battle," Tillman says. "I say this jokingly, but I guess when they wrote these plans they didn't realize a Texan would be in office and his job was to go kick ass as soon as he could."
At end of day, drama hits home
Fighters escorted Air Force One back to Washington; it landed at Andrews Air Force Base just after 6:30 p.m.
The Pentagon, where 184 people were killed, smoldered as rescue crews combed the debris.
"Heading by the Pentagon kind of brought it all home to me," Tillman says. "I could see now the destruction."
It wasn't until Air Force One had landed, and the president had left Andrews, that Tillman says he thought about his role on Sept. 11.
"I wasn't thinking about the American people at the time, or who had been killed or who had been injured," Tillman says. "My goal was to keep this man safe and to continue on with my job.
"It wasn't until I landed, went back to my office, that I realized exactly what we'd done that day and how much we had had to do."
Tillman went on to pilot Air Force One for eight more years, flying Bush on 49 foreign trips to 75 countries and every state but Vermont, according to a tally compiled by CBS' Mark Knoller. Tillman flew Bush home to Texas after President Obama's 2009 inauguration and retired soon after.
He now directs flight operations for Discount Tire, a company based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
He recalls Bush fondly. The president took an interest in his family, he says, asking after son Patrick and daughters Erinn and Reilly.
"Total respect for him," Tillman says. "To this day, I'd do anything in the world for him."
The chief lesson of 9/11, Tillman says, is that the nation has to be prepared for the worst.
"We've got to be ready for it," he says.