By TOM DAYKIN
Midwest Airlines pilot Gerald Earwood was flying about 100 miles west of New York when he first noticed what seemed like wisps of smoke coming off the World Trade Center.
Roughly 15 minutes later, Earwood and co-pilot Eric Fjelstad were frantically maneuvering their DC-9 jet to avoid colliding with United Airlines Flight 175, the second airplane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Their work, following orders from air traffic controllers, saved the lives of about 30 passengers and five crew members of Midwest Flight 7.
A minute or so later, United 175 — which also came close to colliding with other planes that morning — struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.
A collision between United 175, flying out of Boston, and the Midwest jet, flying from Milwaukee to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, “would have changed history,” Earwood said this week in an interview with the Journal Sentinel, his first newspaper interview about the incident.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it numerous times,” Earwood said. “But I never knew, and to this day I still don’t know, how close we came.”
The near collision is among several stories told in the new book, “Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11,” by Lynn Spencer. The book, published this month by Simon & Schuster, tells how airline pilots, air traffic controllers and military pilots reacted to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Spencer, a commercial pilot and Milwaukee-area native, interviewed controllers, Federal Aviation Administration officials, military pilots and civilian pilots, including Earwood.
The story of Midwest Flight 7 is among the most compelling in the book, which also features one other story of a Midwest jet that was diverted from Newark, N.J., to Pittsburgh during the chaos of that morning.
It would be difficult to estimate the number of lives that would have been lost if a midair collision had occurred between Midwest Flight 7 and United 175 before the south tower was hit, Spencer said. Burning debris from two jets could have been scattered throughout New York. “It’s hard to know how many buildings would have burned,” she said.
Smoke got thicker
Earwood, 46, has been flying for Oak Creek-based Midwest since 1990. He recalls leaving Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport early in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, and watching the sun rise through clear blue skies as the flight headed east over Lake Michigan.
The first hint of anything amiss came about an hour after the flight left Milwaukee, as Earwood and Fjelstad noticed unusually slow radio responses from air traffic controllers in New York. A short time later, as their jet flew over eastern Pennsylvania, they glimpsed smoke rising from the World Trade Center, a familiar landmark for pilots flying to New York. American Airlines Flight 11 had hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m., but the pilots learned about that only after their plane landed at LaGuardia.
Earwood and Fjelstad thought the smoke might be a fire, or perhaps steam being discharged from the building’s boilers. As they got closer, Earwood told Fjelstad that the increasingly thick smoke might make it difficult for them to keep the airport in sight. They were approaching LaGuardia from the southwest, just off the Staten Island shoreline, and Earwood was growing impatient as he waited for a controller to respond to his latest radio transmission.
Suddenly, a controller called repeatedly for Midwest 7. Earwood responded and was told to turn left, as quickly as possible. The jet was about two miles southwest of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which marks the entrance to New York Harbor.
As they began turning left, the controller broke in about 20 seconds later, Earwood said. This time, the controller was yelling for the pilots to tighten their turn, to make it as sharp as possible.
“I’ve never had a controller scream at me like that,” said Earwood, who was used to hearing controllers speak in calm, even- handed tones.
Seconds later, the controller broke in again, now calling for the plane to turn hard to the right.
“I remember those words, ‘Hard! Hard right turn!’ ” Earwood said.
Earwood and Fjelstad were straining at the controls, “yanking and banking,” as Earwood put it. Among other things, Earwood was concerned that if the DC-9 banked too steeply, the jet could stall and begin a rapid dive.
The two turns took a minute or so to execute. A flight attendant was tossed to the floor. But the maneuvers weren’t particularly violent, Earwood said, and none of the crew or passengers was injured.
Ordered off jet
According to Spencer’s account, other flights also were being cleared out of the path of United 175. The hijacked flight’s radar signal and the signal for Midwest 7 became so close that they appeared to horrified controllers to be merging, the book says. But United 175 continued on toward the World Trade Center.
A collision was avoided “by the narrowest margin,” Spencer writes.
United 175 hit the south tower perhaps 60 to 90 seconds after passing Midwest 7, Earwood estimated.
Meanwhile, Midwest 7 was directed back onto its approach to LaGuardia. As the plane turned back toward the airport, Earwood overheard a radio transmission from another pilot. A second airplane had just hit the World Trade Center.
“I looked up, and I saw the fireball,” said Earwood, who didn’t make an immediate connection that the south tower was hit by the plane he had maneuvered to avoid.
Thick smoke from the explosion obscured the airport, so the controllers had Midwest 7 fly east for several minutes before turning around and coming back to land. The jet was on the ground for about 30 minutes after taking evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with United 175. As they waited on the runway, Earwood and Fjelstad could see the towers burning.
Once Earwood got off the plane, he checked his cell phone and found three messages from his wife, pleading for him to call as soon as he could. She filled him in on what was happening.
“As she’s talking to me, she says, ‘Oh my God, an airplane has just hit the Pentagon!’ ” he said. “And that’s when I knew it was time to get out.”
Earwood returned to the DC-9, where Fjelstad and the flight attendants were preparing for their next flight. He told them to get off the plane immediately.
“I said, ‘We’re under attack by terrorists. The last place you want to be is in an airport when we’re under attack by terrorists,’ ” Earwood said.
Around then, a New York port authority police officer showed up and ordered the crew off the jet. The officer told them that police didn’t want terrorists kidnapping pilots and forcing them at gunpoint onto a plane.
First airline to fly
Earwood didn’t begin making the connection between his evasive turns and United 175 until the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, when he told a Midwest flight manager about the incident. He later unsuccessfully sought FAA records that might shed more light on the near-collision.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said some information remains under wraps, but she also said many of those Sept. 11, 2001, documents are being turned over to the National Archives.
Earwood and other Midwest crew members stranded in New York were able to leave two days later. Dale Schaub, Midwest’s chief pilot and a former Air Force major, called in some favors and got federal government approval for Midwest to fly home — making it the first airline to fly from LaGuardia.
“Midwest Airlines shined during that time,” said Earwood, recounting how Schaub, now retired, and other airline employees worked to ensure the safety of their flight crews.
Just as the flight home was about to take off, Earwood and Fjelstad were told by the controller that there had been a bomb threat at the airport. The takeoff was aborted, and the 35 or so passengers — all of them Midwest crew members anxious to return to Milwaukee — had to wait on the runway while the jet was inspected, and it later got clearance. The incident didn’t truly hit home, Earwood said, until he saw the 2006 movie “United 93,” which depicts the events of Sept. 11, 2001. A psychiatrist from the Air Line Pilots Association, whom Earwood was seeing to help him deal with what happened, told him the movie featured an account of a near collision.
In the movie, that incident refers to a Delta Air Lines flight, and press accounts from 2001 and 2002 reported that United 175 nearly hit a Delta jet. But Earwood is convinced that the scene depicted in the movie — with dialogue from the controller similar to what he recalls — is a depiction of Midwest Flight 7. “It sent chills up and down my spine,” Earwood said.
Nearly seven years later, Earwood still thinks about what happened every time he flies to LaGuardia.
“It’s something that will live with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I just can’t imagine the horror of being on that (United 175) airplane. . . . I think about those people a lot.”
One thing he’s never considered is to stop flying. He started flying as a 17-year-old in 1979.
“I was not going to let them scare me out of my life,” Earwood said.
To hear Midwest pilot Gerald Earwood retell the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in an audio slideshow, go to jsonline.com/links.
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