BLOOMINGTON – When The Pantagraph asked readers for their memories of 9/11, several offered the same specific memory: seeing Air Force One over central Illinois on the afternoon of the attacks.
Many remembered a large jet escorted by other planes, which matched the way the presidential plane returned to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.
So was this a reality or just an urban legend?
Or was it another plane?
The 89th Airlift Wing, which maintains and operates the Presidential Lift Unit, told the Pantagraph it could not discuss the flight path for safety reasons. The George W. Bush Presidential Museum and Library in Texas did not respond to a request for an interview. Officials at the Central Illinois Regional Airport also declined to comment.
Yet 20 years later, locals swear that’s what they saw, even though the military won’t confirm it.
Memories of September 11 from Pantagraph readers
Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West was at Station 4 on South Morris Avenue that afternoon. He remembers looking up and seeing the peculiar sight.
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“It’s strange that there haven’t been other planes in the sky,” West said, “and here is the nation going through this tragedy, and here is the leader of our country going back to Washington for figure out what we’re going to do. “
West said, “It was just weird.”
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“Blue like blue can be”
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded 4,500 commercial and general aviation planes after the attacks in New York and Washington for fear of further hijackings.
Bush was speaking in Florida when the first plane hit and was rushed to a military base in Louisiana, then Offutt in Nebraska. The plane left for Washington at 4:36 p.m., a path that could have passed through central Illinois.
On September 11, air traffic controller Anne Walther was at Peoria International Airport, where the clear skies provided great visibility.
“One of those days when the sky was blue like blue can be,” she said.
Walther, who has since retired, lived near Ellsworth and previously worked at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington. She was on leave on September 11, but decided to go to work after hearing about the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
“When it happened, I got dressed and just went to work. I didn’t call, I just went, ”she said.
When he arrived, the controllers had pretty much cleared all the airspace.
“Everyone was sort of looking at each other, like, ‘What’s going on in this world?’ She said. But they continued to work on it.
“The controllers were just amazing, doing all that work to land the planes,” she said.
After all the air traffic was grounded, she said, they saw a Boeing 747 with three or four escort planes. They looked through binoculars and could make out a specific paint job on the plane, she said.
Although she cannot officially confirm or deny that the plane was Air Force One, Walther said, “We knew it was actually the president.”
“Others thought about it too”
Patty Swartz also remembers it as a beautiful day. She was helping her son, Sean, deliver newspapers after quitting his job at Caterpillar in Pontiac.
Swartz said they were on their roads around 5 p.m. – she was on Tuesburg Court, near Pontiac Township High School, and her then 13-year-old son was on Boulder Drive in the Illini Subdivision. The mother said they always separated the papers and went beyond their housing estate to help Sean give birth.
“When we got back together, we shared that we had seen Air Force One fly in the sky above us,” she wrote to the Pantagraph.
Jeff Flairty, deputy chief of operations for the Bloomington fire department, said it was late in the afternoon that day when he saw a trail in the sky as he drove west of the town on Six Points Road. Then there was a plane and a few escorts in sight.
“I said to my children, ‘This is the President of the United States,’” he said.
Illinois State University professor Mike Sublett said in an email to the Pantagraph he was sitting in the back seat of a pickup truck when he spotted a blue plane late after – midday of September 11. He was with another professor and his students, returning to campus from a field near the Illinois River, heading south on Interstate 39.
“For some reason,” he said, he looked up into a “perfectly blue sky” and saw a big blue plane with two smaller jets beside it.
Sublett, who said they were about an hour north of Bloomington when he spotted the plane, added he was surprised by the sighting. He said he felt reassured that the president, who had disappeared from sight earlier in the day, was still there.
Back at Peoria Airport, the phone started ringing like crazy, Walther said, “because other people thought so too.
“Everyone was like, there’s this plane in the sky,” Walther said. “What’s going on, have we been attacked?” “
That night, President Bush delivered a speech to the nation on the events of that day.
Walther, who now lives in Oklahoma, said the afternoon scene in central Illinois is always memorable. She credits air traffic controllers with calming down an otherwise hectic day.
“For us, it was just another plane in the sky,” she said.
Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison