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The 1st Air Force Pilot at Ground Zero—and the Last to Know What Happened

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 25, 2023 3:02 am

The 1st Air Force Pilot at Ground Zero—and the Last to Know What Happened

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 25, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Peter Braxton was the first military pilot in the air over the burning Twin Towers. It was his first day on the job. Peter’s here to tell his story.

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It was his first day on the job. And this is his story. Here's Peter.

My name is Peter Braxton from upstate New York, originally Rome, New York, a little town. There was a base there called Griffiths Air Force base. And my father was in the Air Force. And I guess this is where the story begins. My father, you know, sat me down when I was 15. And he, you know, he had this kind of father son conversation and he was, you know, a man of few words, but he said, Hey, you should serve this country before you enjoy this country.

You will look back on your service fondly. And I, you know, I was 15. I didn't know what that meant, but I did have an older brother who was about two and a half years older than me. And he ended up going to the Air Force Academy.

So I'm guessing at this point, you know, he must've had this conversation with him a couple years prior. And so now it was my turn. And I think out of maybe laziness, I just, I just applied to the Air Force Academy, followed my brother there. I got in, I got into a number of other kind of Ivy League schools out East. And my brother, I remember telling me, you know, you should, you should probably go to Princeton or you should go to Yale, you know, but, but out of respect for your father and his wishes at that point, I think I was like, okay, well, I guess I could do that later. It was, you know, it was a good experience having a sibling there cause he was going to look out for you.

And it's, it's tough school. I graduated the Air Force Academy in 1999. I was shuttled off to pilot training, a joint specialized undergraduate pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. You know, I never wanted to be a pilot. I always wanted to be a doctor.

My brother is a neurosurgeon and again, to his kind of his wisdom, you could always be a doctor. You can never fly again. This is your window. You have to, if I were you, I would, I would go fly.

And so I show up to Laughlin, I think it was April, 2000. And I quickly, it's a hyper competitive environment. These are alpha people. They're very, very bright. They're athletic, they're Patriots, they're officers. And it's, it's a hyper competitive environment, but it's also a weirdly cooperative environment. In any event, I graduated a distinguished graduate of my class.

And at the time, the number one graduate picks first and the number two graduate picks second and the number 38 graduate picks last. And I was just, I was getting homesick. My brother was at the University of Pennsylvania in medical school. I'm from upstate New York, the closest active duty Air Force Base was Maguire Air Force Base, New Jersey. I picked the base and then I picked the plane, the KC-10 extender, which is mid-air refueling. Its primary mission is power projecting and bringing, bringing the fight to the forward edge of the battlefield.

And that could be a fighter package. It could be bombers, it could be coalition aircraft. And I started that training, I think it was May of 2001. Well, I graduated Saturday, September 8th, 2001. I mission planned my first mission on Monday, September 10th, 2001. And I took off to coast out over the Atlantic at 6 AM on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It was my first day flying as a fully qualified US Air Force pilot. It was, you know, I mean, first day of work, fresh haircut, shiny boots, get up extra early, make sure you're on time early, you know, on time in the Air Force is early. And I remember mission planning the day before with a gentleman who was notorious about taking out the brand new lieutenants who just graduated and, you know, he was ready to kind of beat on you and stress you out and make sure you knew that it wasn't over, it was just getting started. So, you know, it's not necessarily like the Navy where everyone's got a call sign, but everyone does have nicknames. And, you know, we called him the Silver Fox.

He was, I was 22 years old and he had a full head of gray hair. And we took off and coasted out, out over the Atlantic, not too far off the coast of Atlantic City. And everyone remembers, if you don't, a clear blue, glassy, perfect September day in the Northeast in New Jersey. And then we got a call, a radio call from NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense, call sign Huntress. And I remember thinking, this is impossible. Like, NORAD is located in Colorado. How are they contacting me in this UHF frequency? But they know my call sign. So NORAD calls and says, Team T2, say your state. And I respond, New Jersey, which is the incorrect response to that question. I would later, very quickly, actually learn that they're asking for the status of your aircraft. You know, at the time, I mean, a sample would be, you know, Team T2, Angels 26, heading 340, four SEALs on board, five plus 15 fuel, fully operational.

And the only reason they're going to ask that question is because they need you for something. So this is around, I think, shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern time out over the Atlantic. And the, the Silver Fox, the instructor pilot immediately transfers aircraft control to me. So now I'm flying and he's taking the radios. He responds accordingly and properly. And NORAD directs us to contact New York Center, you know, whatever the frequency is, 135.8. He does that.

New York clears Team T2, direct JFK, pilot discretion, five to 50,000 feet. The, the colonel turns to me and says, deadpan, serious, not joking. I think someone detonated a nuclear weapon somewhere in the United States.

Now there's some context here. I, it's my first day of work and I don't know why he's saying this. I don't know what is going on. I don't think many Americans at this point knew what was going on, but he knew something was wrong. And, and, and looking back, he wasn't, he wasn't too far off. But it was my first day and I was confused. I have no idea why he would say that. But he knew why he would say that. And maybe he's trying to stress me out.

Perhaps it's a new guy initiation thing. When they cleared us, direct JFK, pilot discretion, five to 50,000 feet. That's when it kind of like dawned on me as new as I was that this was serious. That could only mean that all of the airspace was clear. You don't give somebody pilot discretion to climb, descend, turn left or right at their discretion, unless there's nothing else there that they can quote unquote hit or interfere with. And that's JFK, that's LaGuardia, that's Newark, that's Teterboro, not to mention this air corridor between Boston to Philadelphia, down to DC and all of the traffic that's coming over the Atlantic ocean from the night before.

All of that stuff has got to be out of there for them to give that. And that's when it kind of like dawned on me, something was wrong. And this is not something that the Colonel could make happen for fun. And you're listening to Peter Braxton recall his first day as an air force pilot and getting that call from NORAD and that pilot discretion to fly between 5,000 and 50,000 feet altitude. In other words, clear skies, not a plane in sight. And that's when he understood something serious had happened. By the way, if you know that area, there's JFK, Teterboro, LaGuardia and Newark, all within maybe 25 miles of each other, throw in Philly and Boston.

And that has never happened in American airspace. It's his first day on the job. When we come back, what happens next? Peter Braxton shares his story here on Our American Stories. Following last year's amazing turnout, the Black Effect Podcast Network and Nissan are helping HBCU scholars jumpstart their futures by throwing another Thrill of Possibility Summit. The Thrill of Possibility Summit is an opportunity to network with peers and professionals and gain career knowledge from leaders in the industries of science, technology, engineering, art and math, also known as STEAM. To kick it off, Nissan is giving 50 HBCU scholars who major in STEAM disciplines the opportunity for an all-expenses paid trip to Nashville, Tennessee, this year's summit location. This is a remarkable opportunity to be mentored by some of auto, tech and podcasting's brightest minds, bringing together notable voices of the Black Effect Podcast Network, featuring Charlamagne the God, John Hope Bryant and Debbie Brown, all brought to you by Nissan. Success is a journey. You're in the driver's seat.

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Ask your doctor about Cosentix. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Peter Braxton, an Air Force pilot on his on his first day at work on 9-11 piloting a KC-10 air refueler tanker and well learning that something disastrous had happened in New York City. Let's pick up where we last left off. So you know I'm flying now so I look out the window I'm in the right seat and and I I'm from upstate New York I understand and I'm familiar with the geography of of New York City, Manhattan, Long Island. I have family in Queens. I can see the smoke. I see the smoke and you know we're asking of course what's going on whether they what's that they don't I don't they don't know they don't want to tell us and it's kind of irrelevant at this point because we're an instrument of national power and we just need to execute the job we need to do what they tell us to do and so I look down I see the smoke and the only thing that this is embarrassing that that I could think of at this point was I remember being a kid watching the 1989 world series between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants I think it was game three live and there was an earthquake and there's bridges collapsing and there is smoke rising from San Francisco and there's fires and there's I mean obviously they cancelled the game and I was like oh my gosh I did not know this I did not know that New York was in a seismic zone I just thought that was a San Andreas or a west coast thing or a but New York City I thought it was built on bedrock and you know this wasn't going anywhere it must have been an earthquake people will ask if I saw the towers collapse and I must have but I was vertical I was my my perspective was bird's eye I was above New York not horizontal I didn't know it was the World Trade Center I saw the smoke I saw it was southern Manhattan and just then I think I was kind of snapped back to to reality because up next to our wing pull these two f-15 eagles fighter jets armed with bombs missiles jdms barrows aim night whatever you know I'd just never seen it before the the ultimate irony I mean you spend all this time in the military most people never see combat and in the us you're not typically seeing fighter you'll see them you'll see fighter jet and it's fun to watch and they do flybys but they're not they're unarmed they're not they can't they won't have these missiles on them flying over a stadium you know you just you could destroy Philadelphia with one of these things and you know here I am a couple hours into my first flight and these these jets pull up and we are all of a sudden doing an operational mission giving them fuel you know they come in low left they take the fuel they climb high right and they are armed to the teeth and they're armed and they are armed to the teeth and they're I mean it's like a movie it was like a movie they were peeling off flipping upside down and flying back to New York and so all of the fighter jets that you saw flying up and down the Hudson the East River you know patrolling New York and they had their specific mission and orders I refueled all of those jets and and of course the sun had set and the smoke was still going on and some of the lights in New York were coming on and the bridges were lighting up and we still didn't know what was happening what was going on but we were there we're doing the mission and and then I remember the other KC-10 coming and what we'll do typically is we'll transfer as much fuel as we can and reserve as much fuel as we need to get back and I remember I remember being put on like a 45-mile final approach and then we're flying straight in we land we pull into parking and I hop out of the seat and I go to the door and we open the door and we have these you know air stairs and I'm greeted at the door by an airman wearing a helmet and I'm you know a flak fest he's got an M-16 at the ready and he's you know sir I need to see your ID and I just I just remember thinking what okay I'm we're back what what happened isn't this jet enough identification for you like I'm I'm I'm one of the good guys and you know obviously I didn't say that but I showed him my ID he's doing his job he did an outstanding job that's his job I showed him my ID he escorted the entire crew off the plane like I guess in a movie to this intel vault and they had this vault and it was a vault it had like a vault with a door kind of like you'd see in a bank with it you know and we get on the plane and we you know drop our gear and and then just I mean the questions just came fast and furious it was you know did did you hear from United 93 was there a distress call from American 11 or American 77 and um no I didn't know we didn't get anything we didn't we weren't called I didn't hear any beacons or anything on the emergency um frequencies so I didn't get anything we didn't hear anything on the emergency um frequencies vhf or uhf and they still didn't tell us what happened I don't they still didn't tell us what happened so I hop in my car and the commute from McGuire to where I lived in Mount Laurel New Jersey it was about 45 minutes and you know you turn on the radio and you start to hear some reporting of what happened and at this point it's close to 2 a.m uh maybe 2 30 in the morning and um yeah I guess I'd been up at that point for almost 24 hours so I get back to the to my place it's a little townhouse in Mount Laurel I turn on the tv and it's like the first images that I saw of what had happened that were I'm sure playing on repeat on every news channel or every channel in America maybe even the world and I kind of like dawned on me that I was the first military asset there but I was probably one of the last people in America to learn what happened one of the one of the quotes I learned at the Air Force Academy um we have this little book called checkpoints and you got to memorize all these things one of them stuck with me to be like word for word true there is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit Ronald Reagan that is true you know there is no limit to the good you can do if you do not care who gets the credit but I'll leave you with this okay so people say well why weren't you interviewed you know as the first pilot over New York on 9 11 and you know you often think about like I guess the left tackle in football you know after the Super Bowl no one's talking to that guy like how was it you know like now I just did my job what if we weren't there well we wouldn't have won you know air of fueling is one of the things that really separates our ability to project power anywhere over the earth as a kind of a fighting force and without that and no one's going anywhere you have to have the fuel so I kind of look at it like well I was the left tackle and they they want to review the quarterback you know left tackle's fine with that but this is an opportunity to talk about the tackle like what were you thinking during the Super Bowl don't let that guy get around me contain that's it I know the play if I do my job the rest will take care of itself that's you know it's the left tackle story I guess and a terrific job on the production editing and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Peter Braxton for sharing his story and I love the metaphor he left us with and that is he was like the left tackle he was doing his job and we got to hear very different perspective because of it and what a job he had to do and it's true without air refuelers well America can't project its air power across the world and so yes the pilots get the headlines without the air refuelers and so many other countless people following their orders and doing their job well the pilot's job isn't possible by the way what a role his brother played in all of this and his dad his whole life would have been different as his brother said to him as it related to his desire to be a doctor his brother said you can always be a doctor you can't always be a pilot and you can't always serve your country said his father you should serve this country before you can enjoy this country my goodness if we could all of dads like that and project that kind of power onto our kids the power of service and of course my goodness being the first on site practically but the last to know what actually happened the irony of the story and the irony of service in the end the story of Peter Braxton the story of what public service sounds like especially in our military here on our 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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-25 04:22:57 / 2023-10-25 04:33:09 / 10

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