United 93: Tale of the First 'Airline Guy' on the Site

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Like many people, Ed Bular found himself engaged on Sept. 11, 2001, in ways he had never envisioned.

Early that morning, as senior director for flight operations for US Airways ( LCC), Bular, then 49, made rapid decisions on a series of unprecedented operational issues, including where to land the carrier's trans-Atlantic flights. A few hours later, he was drafted to represent United ( UAL) as the first "airline guy" at the scene of the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., about 65 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Ed Bular, US Airways Senior Director, Flight Operations.

United Flight 93, a Boeing ( BA) 757, took off from Newark Liberty International Airport at 8:42 a.m., bound for San Francisco with just 37 passengers aboard. Hijackers took it over at 9:28 a.m., apparently intending to turn it around and crash into a Washington target -- perhaps the Capitol or the White House. But United 93 passengers learned of the day's previous three plane crashes through phone calls and ended up storming the cockpit, forcing the Shanksville crash at 10:03 a.m.

Today, Bular is US Airways' senior vice president for flight operations and inflight services. He is not only an airline guy but also a Pittsburgh guy, born in nearby Bentleyville, Pa. As a youth, he joined the Air Force, came out as a pilot and joined US Air in 1980. By 2001 he worked near the airline's operations control center, just outside Pittsburgh in Moon Township, Pa.

As the morning of Sept. 11 unfolded, Bular was working in a situation room with about two dozen others, taking in the information pouring in from phone calls, cockpit crews and CNN. The first aircraft hit the World Trade Center in New York around 8:46 a.m; about an hour later, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down U.S. airspace to civilian air travel.
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For US Airways, Bular said, some of the first big decisions involved airborne international flights. Sixteen flights were flying west from Europe to the U.S. when U.S. airspace was closed. The team agreed to use 40 west, a longitudinal line in the Atlantic, as a decision point, sending planes back if they were east of the line. However, "because of the time of day, early morning on the East Coast, the majority of flights were approaching the east coast of Canada," Bular said.

"I tried to convince the FAA to let us get them into Bangor, Maine," he said. "They wanted to put the flights down in Canada; I was pleading with them not to. Their argument was that the east coast of Canada is full of airports with long runways enabling big jets to land safely. My argument was that the infrastructure was not set up to deal with that volume of passengers -- what would they do with all those people, some elderly, some with medical needs? But they would not budge."

Bular argued, over the phone and with the FAA's US Airways representative working beside him, that if the passengers could get to Bangor, they could be bussed to their homes. Whereas in Canada, they could be stranded -- which, in fact, they were. But many passengers, from US Airways and other carriers, made lasting friendships with Canadians who took them in during the ordeal.

US Airways ended up parking 11 aircraft in Canada -- one in Moncton, two in Gander, one in St John's, one in Stephenville, and six in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The last plane did not return to the U.S. until Sept. 16. One reason for the delay was that in some cases, aircraft parked on the runways blocked other aircraft. US Airways also had five aircraft that remained in Europe -- two in London and one each in Madrid, Paris and Munich -- until Sept. 14.

Bular managed the landings not only of international flights, but also of domestic flights. He had to be sure that the planes did, in fact, land. "Obviously, there were some anxious moments," he said. "We would lose communication, have trouble communicating with a certain flight on ACARs (air to ground data system) and we would imagine the worst. But finally we worked through it, got everybody down and accounted for, and there was a great sense of relief."

But not for long. Flight 93 crashed shortly after 10 a.m. ET. "The flight path went close to Cleveland before the airplane did a sharp turn and headed back southeast and flew over Pittsburgh," said Bular. Knowing he was closer to the scene than any United executive could be, Bular called his counterpart there, who was a friend, and offered his help.

"He said, 'We can't get to the site, the airspace is closed,'" Bular said. "I said, 'Our airplanes are all down and there's enough staff to take care of the logistics. I can babysit the site until your personnel can get there.'"
A view at one part of the temporary memorial for the passengers of United Flight 93 is shown Aug. 26, 2002, near Shanksville, Pa.

With the mission quickly approved, Bular left operations control and swung by his house. "I grabbed a sleeping bag and some old clothes, and I made sure I had a lot of company ID with me," he said. "I thought I would be sleeping in my car." He drove about two hours and made his way to a temporary command post. His job was to assess the scene and to make sure the airline's interests were represented.

"I found some guys with a helicopter from a local hospital rescue unit," he said. "I introduced myself, told them I was there as a temporary representative for United until its personnel could get there. They said, 'You should see the site' and we flew over it.

"It was nothing but a crater," he recalled. "I've seen other accident sites. This one had a very vertical impact. There were few discernible pieces of the aircraft. It hit so hard the dirt covered it up."

How did Bular react? At the time, he barely reacted at all. "It was such a shock that I didn't really think much about the whole event until after it was over," he said. "I was so busy. The adrenaline was rushing. The military guys would call it 'the fog of war.' You are so wrapped up in making decisions. I was busy calling back to my operations team in Pittsburgh, and I also knew I had to call United to tell them what was going on. I didn't have time to think back and reflect until a day later."

Gradually, over several hours, teams from law enforcement, the military and United began to reach the area. When local military personnel arrived, Bular knew some of them from his 13 years in the state's Air National Guard. Although the airspace was closed, United managed to secure government approval to dispatch a single aircraft, a Boeing 727, to carry employees from Chicago to Johnstown, Pa., from which they could get to Shanksville.

On its way from Chicago to Johnstown, "that plane came over the accident site and did a slow flight circle over it," Bular said. "It was so eerie. There had been such an absence of noise until that moment. Then you heard the sound of a jet.

"You just don't realize how many airplanes are flying around until there aren't any," he said.

When his moment of reflection came a day later, Bular said, "I was very fearful for our industry. I spent 20 years in the Air Force, seven on active duty, then 13 in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, and I knew our country would bounce back. But I had been in the airline business long enough to know this would be a catastrophic event that would change the way we looked at things forever, in the security and the business model of the airlines, which was already starting to show cracks and creaks.

"I did not know how it was going to end up, but I knew there would be some hardships coming and it would become a very different industry" he said, because security concerns would make travel so much more difficult.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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