Archive for the 9/11 Category

An Aircrew View of 9/11

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline industry, airline novel, airline passenger, airline pilot, aviation, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2020 by Chris Manno

We never forget, those of us who were airline pilots and flight attendants on that awful September day. Since then, we’ve added to our aircrew ranks a whole new generation of pilots and flight attendants who were just kids when the twin towers fell. And yet, they are part of the aircrew tradition, inner circle, and the sacred trust to never, ever forget.

Here’s what that cataclysm looked like from the crew view on that day. Those who were crewmembers will remember, those who are new crew will live it in a way like no others, because this is their realm and their legacy to carry forward. And those who aren’t in the crew ranks, well, here’s what that fateful day was like.

From Air Crew Confidential: The Unauthorized Airline Chronicles, the new release from Dark Horse Books:

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Fallen

            “Why?”

            “Yes, why,” Mandy repeated into the handset. She hoped she didn’t sound peeved, but she was. “Why are we descending?”

            And descending fast, barely fifteen minutes after climbing and leveling off at cruise altitude.

            “Why,” the first officer repeated, then she overheard the captain talking in the background. “We’re not exactly …”

            More garbled cross-cockpit talk that she couldn’t make out. But it sounded urgent. We’re not exactly sure? How are the pilots flying the plane “not sure” why we’re descending?

            Gary poked his head out of the forward galley curtains, hands upraised as if to echo her own what the fuck? Mandy searched his eyes but couldn’t decipher the fine line between annoyed and concerned. But Gary wasn’t smiling.

            “Look,” the first officer said at last. “We’re pretty busy. We’ll call you back when we can.”

            The interphone went dead. The engine roar rumbled back to a whisper and the nose dipped lower. The seatbelt sign chimed on.

            “Your guess is as good as mine,” Gary commented quietly in passing. He checked the seatbelt and passengers in First Class as Mandy made her way down the long aisle to do the same in coach.

            There was at least another two hours of flying time left. Descending? Why? What don’t we know? What don’t they know?

            “Miss,” a passenger held up his hand like a kid in a classroom as she passed. “Why are we going lower?”

            She made her face blank..

“Oh, just routine,” she lied, now wavering herself on the razor’s edge between annoyance and concern. “Fasten your seatbelt, please.”

She scooted aft before he could ask another question. Turbulence rocked the jet. A couple passengers let loose an “oh!” and one cursed.

Darcy met her in the aft galley.

“This is weird,” she said.

Mandy nodded.

“I called up front. He said they’re busy, will call back.”

            The P.A. crackled. Background noise from the cockpit filled the speakers, scratchy, distant.

            “Ah, folks, from the cockpit …”

            Just spit it out, Bill. Or Bob, whatever name applied to the interchangeable pilot man in the left seat. They were terrible at ad-libbing announcements. The P.A. went dead.

            Mandy crossed the line back to annoyance. Come on, guys, give us some idea of what we’re doing. The cabin interphone chimed.

            Darcy grabbed the handset just a nanosecond before Mandy could reach for it. The rudder fishtailed and the rear of the plane swayed.

            The groan of hydraulic motors driving the slats forward and down from the wing leading edge shook the cabin.

            “He says we’re in a holding pattern,” Darcy said at last. “Landing at Billings, Montana.”

            What? Why, Mandy wanted to ask but held her peace. Why Billings, and why holding for Billings? There couldn’t be more than two aircraft inbound to that Podunk in an entire hour. 

            “Okay,” Darcy said. “You’re sure?”

            Sure about what? Mandy sighed. She’d actually dialed Crew Sked that morning, but decided to save the sick call for the baby shower Saturday instead. Now she wished—

            “He says Air Traffic Control has ordered all aircraft to land immediately,” Darcy said quietly. The aircraft slowed and the deck became level again.

            “What? Seriously? Why.”

            “He didn’t say.”

            “Ah folks,” the P. A. rasped from the overhead speakers, “This is the captain again …”

            Just talk, she wanted to scream. And never mind ‘this is the captain;’ don’t you have a name? Aren’t you ‘Captain Smith,’ or Jones or Miller or whatever no-name name pilots always have?

            “We’re diverting into Billings, Montana, because …”

            Now they’d go illegal for sure, run out of crew duty time, and be shipwrecked in Billings-effing-Montana. Should have just stretched the sick call through Saturday and—

            “… because the FAA has ordered all aircraft to land due to some sort of national emergency.”

            What? Call lights began to chime in the cabin.

            “…. Ah, we don’t have any more information than that at this point in time …”

            A hydraulic pump whined again. The aircraft floor seemed to buoy upwards. Flaps. And glancing out the window, ground details spelled out ‘we’re pretty close to landing.’

            “We’ll have more info for you as soon as we get on the ground. Flight attendants, prepare for landing.”

            That’s it? What the actual frig was going on? She turned to Darcy whose eyes were wider than she’d ever seen on a human. The air grew warm and stuffy, probably because the first officer hadn’t pre-cooled the cabin for the unplanned descent.

            “Fourteen-F” Darcy said carefully, her voice quavering. “Got a cellphone signal. He’s says there’s been a terrorist attack on New York City.”

            Two plus two, Mandy thought; national emergency, terrorist attack. But where do airliners fit in? She set the thought aside and did a final cabin walk-through. The scowling air noise doubled in strength, then the main gear thumped into place with a thud that shook the floor beneath her feet. They were very, very low. Her cellphone buzzed in her pocket.

            “At least two flights hijacked. Are you okay? –Dad.”

            The blood drained from her head. Attack? New York? Hijacked? She plopped down on the jumpseat next to Darcy and strapped in. She handed Darcy the cell phone, flipped open like the wide jaws of a faceless joker. A faceless, heartless joker. Darcy covered her mouth and closed her eyes.

            Fight it, Mandy urged herself. You’re looking at this through a straw, seeing only a tiny bit of the picture. Classmates all flying today too—what if? If you’re going to predict the future, at least make it something good. Kerry’s based in New York now; Samantha just transferred to Boston.

            The interphone chimed and Mandy snatched the handset from the cradle.

            “Mandy in back,” the words floated out of her mouth on their own, out of habit only, her mind flying fifty miles ahead of her heart, threatening to implode. What if?

            “My partner says we lost one of ours,” Gary said. “Into the World Trade Center.”

            She dropped the phone. Darcy picked it up and replaced it on the aft console, then stared at Mandy. She shook her head, covered her eyes.

            Rolling, turning, more flaps; tears—no, stop that. Later, maybe later. Avoid the eyes looking backwards, the passengers wired like copper, conducting an electrical current of worry and concern over fragments of details discovered as cell towers answered when the airspeed slowed.

            We lost two of ours. Into the World Trade Center.

            A molten core, boiling tears of fear and knowing sadness, threatened but Mandy kept the lid on. There was a job to do, procedures to walk through, and things to disarm and stow and check and report and not think, please god not think but just do.

            Into the World Trade Center.

            They taxied in forever, it seemed. For heaven’s sake, the airport wasn’t that big! She peered out the round exit porthole and a line of jet tails stretched to the edge of the runway—five, six? He couldn’t count them all.

            “Boston,” Darcy said, holding up her phone. “CNN says it was our Boston flight.

            And Mandy knew, just knew. The she could not forget what she’d learned from Aunt Coreen after her cousin had taken his own life.

            “There’s that second or two,” Aunt Coreen had said, “When I wake up. Just a few heartbeats, really, when I don’t yet remember what happened, that he’s gone.”

            These, Mandy decided, were those seconds, heartbeats. She didn’t quite know yet. And she didn’t want to wake up, not to the loss, the grief, the fear and pain.

            And the certain knowledge that nothing would ever be the same again. More taxiing, turning, creeping, slow. Still moving. The certain knowledge that there was pain and loss, and it wouldn’t go away. Ever.

            Darcy took her hand and squeezed. Mandy squeezed back and savored the last few moments of peace before she’d actually have to know, to own, and never forget.

Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved

From Aircrew Confidential: The Unauthorized Airline Chronicles

Available soon in paperback and Kindle (pre-order HERE).

The Half Truth of Mary Schiavo

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airport, airport security with tags , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2015 by Chris Manno

The Half-Truth of Mary Schiavo

Mary Schiavo, former Department of Transportation Inspector General and a frequent critic of airline security, made headlines recently with remarks that flight crews nationwide consider inflammatory, untrue and ultimately, disingenuous.Ms. Schiavo alleged that Known Crew Member (KCM), an advanced security program that currently validates airline crew members’ identity from a national data base, then allows them airport access without further search, creates a security risk for air travelers. But the fact is, Ms Schiavo is aware that the KCM program is the best and most technologically advanced solution to a problem she faced–and never solved–during her tenure as head watchdog at the Department of Transportation.security-den1The KCM database matches crewmembers employment and security certification with a current photo that is kept updated by each airline and the TSA. This is a face-to-face scrutiny and validation even more advanced than the widely acclaimed Global Entry program designed to efficiently certify the identity and security of air travelers entering the United States.

Schiavo knows that airports in the United States are small cities in themselves, comprised not only of the wide-ranging flight support activities required to handle transport aircraft, but also to meet the needs thousands of passengers transiting these facilities daily.

There are food service, passenger service and retail facilities in each airport, mostly on the “secure side” beyond the security screening checkpoints. Thousands of employees performing duties at airport passenger service, retail and restaurant facilities must move in and out of the secure side of the airport and Schiavo is well aware of the access systems such as keyed or electronic access doors for that purpose in every airport.

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Never has the 100% screening of all airport workers been considered practical or feasible and therefore alternative employee modes of access have of necessity been standard in order to allow passenger screening with reasonable wait times.

But that’s only the “front of the house” security theater that Schiavo knows co-exists hand-in-hand with a wide open back door access at every airport: vehicles ranging from semi tractors pulling forty-foot trailers to dump trucks and bulldozers are waved onto the airport ramps near fueled and taxiing aircraft daily with only a cursory glance at an identification badge. Thousands of those identification cards alone are deemed sufficient to allow flight line access to contract workers from construction, repair and most frequently, food and retail merchandise delivery, never mind the non-stop caravan of catering trucks wandering the flight line largely uninspected.

Meanwhile, KCM is the only security program assuring that crewmembers are who they say they are and have current and valid access credentials. Crewmembers are but a fraction of the multitudes granted airport access, yet they are the only group whose identity and legitimacy is positively verified. This, after background checks, random drug tests and no-notice personal items inspections by the TSA.

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The irony is, Schiavo singles out those crewmembers and the most secure, updated, state-of-the-art security access program for unwarranted, alarmist sound-bite criticism. If anything, KCM should be the model for all airport access programs. The worst part of her criticism, however, is her allusion to the September 11th hijackings, implying that “Known Crew Member” is in any way risking another such a tragedy.

Certainly, the former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation knows all of the above. That she chooses to mislead the traveling public on such a crucial issue is both disingenuous and deplorable, and her September 11th allusion is unforgivable.

Here’s another perspective on Schiavo’s comments, from a veteran flight attendant. Just click on the photo.

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9/11: An Airline Pilot’s Perspective

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight attendant, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by Chris Manno

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This is the most awful day of remembrance and I hate it–but I will always keep faith with those we lost.

From an airline pilot perspective, we’ve lost a lot, never to be be reclaimed. On that day, I had been a captain at the world’s largest airline for over ten years. Then, I used to think of air travel as a modern miracle shared between passengers and crew. That meant freedom for all to range at will across the skies over our far flung nation, coast to coast and beyond.  Sure, we took security precautions against crackpots and even political hijackings. But it wasn’t then as it is now: we live with the realization that we are in the crosshairs, targeted by uncivilized, radical and suicidal zealots seeking to use our “miracle” as a weapon which will kill everyone on board in the process.

Now I look at everyone boarding or even approaching my jet to service it with a suspicious eye, watching for signs of malicious intent. Now I seldom if ever leave the cockpit in flight. And now many pilots fly armed with a 9mm handgun.

The shine is off the miracle of flight, replaced with a healthy dose of vigilance and defensiveness. That’s the new reality of air travel post- 9/11. I still grieve–and always will–for those we lost that day. But I go forward, flying in my thirtieth year as an airline pilot, just as I did the week the airlines returned to the air after the atrocious, cowardly terrorist act.

Today I join thousands of my fellow crewmembers, remembering that awful day but flying nonetheless. That’s what we do, that’s what we refuse to surrender to those who wish us ill. In that way we honor those we lost, and commit to overcome the darkness that brought about the tragedy of 9-11. Never forget and, most of all, never give in to those who would steal and destroy our miracle of flight.

Never, ever forget.

 

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Passengers Removed for Non-Compliance: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger, passenger compliance with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by Chris Manno

Kicked off: 100 Jewish students were asked to leave an AirTran flight headed for Atlanta from New York last Monday

You probably read the headline, which made the news more because of the students’ baseless allegation that they we’re removed from their flight because they were Jewish. (Read the story: click here)

But let’s go beyond that smokescreen and look at the real issue from a pilot’s viewpoint–because it was a pilot’s responsibility to have them removed for non-compliance with crewmember instructions.

There are two issues here: electronic interference from handheld devices in flight, and equally important, compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. First, let’s look at electronic devices and their possible effect on a flight.

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Let’s go to the heart of the matter: landings. Why? Because this is the phase of flight during which the instrument guidance is arguably to most vital: you’re dealing with limited or practically speaking, no visibility as you attempt to land (versus taking off, when you’re climbing away from the terrain) and are therefore very dependent on your instruments for crucial guidance about pitch, roll descent rate and altitude.

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Pilots are dependent upon the information gleaned from an array of very sensitive electronic signals generated both on the ground and on board, which provide critical safety and navigation parameters for an approach. Would a handheld device somewhere in the cabin affect these signals or worse, put out signals of it’s own that would interfere with aircraft systems?

Engineers say “maybe,” which is secret engineer (god love ’em, they’ve built us some fantastic air machines) code for “we can’t rule that out.” Do you as a passenger want that “ruled out” as your flight approaches the concrete on instruments at 160 mph?

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A typical counter argument we often hear is this: “Sure, fly-by-wire (meaning, no direct cables to controls but rather, electronic servos) aircraft like the Airbus could be susceptible, but your average passenger jet actually does have cable controls, which are not subject to electronic interference.”

But the problem is, even those aircraft with direct control linkage, when operating on autopilot, are then controlled by servos that are susceptible to electronic interference. A stray signal can–and has–created a spurious autopilot input and when aircraft (fly-by-wire or control cable) are within feet of the ground, that interference can be disastrous.

Big picture answer, from the pilot perspective: we work hard to eliminate all variables in the safe approach to poor ceiling and visibility landings. We HAVE to ensure the validity of the data that substitutes for our own visual cues in order to land in marginal flight conditions, or we simply can’t–or won’t–land.

Which brings us to issue number two: compliance with federal regulations and flight crew instructions. And let’s get back to the youth group in question. Complaince is a binary–you either do, or don’t. There’s no room for “we think it’s okay to have our cellphones on in flight–so we won’t comply.”

They clearly don’t understand the binary nature of compliance or more importantly, the equally black and white nature of my options as a pilot, given the circumstances: I have to ensure the flight is operated in full compliance with all federal regulations (“cell phones and personal electronic devices off for taxi-out and take-off”), just as I have to–as noted above–be confident in the integrity of the instrumentation upon which I base our ability to safely fly.

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To make matters worse, albeit simpler, in today’s air travel environment, the issue of compliance is even more cut-and-dried than ever. Used to be, if we had an non-compliance issue, I could personally go back and explain the situation and gain the compliance we need to satisfy the ironclad regulatory and safety requirements mentioned above. Those days ended on September 11th, 2001. Now, pilots will by regulation (if not common sense) stay on the flight deck and simply enforce whatever the cabin crew requires to ensure compliance, period. Rule one in that dilemma is don’t take off with a problem you don’t want to handle again in the air or on landing.

There again is the simple binary: comply, or don’t fly.

Student group boarding the AirTran flight in Atlanta.

I don’t wish the kids involved in this incident anything other than better experiences in the future, although given the regulatory and safety explanations above, I can’t find it anything other than disappointing that some of them would try to make this an ethnic or racial incident.

In fact, summer time is all about student travel, often in large groups, and most are very well-behaved. I’m glad to be taking them on the first or last leg of their adventure. But maybe the primary lesson that needs to come before–and during–the educational experience is one regarding mandatory compliance with legitimate instructions: comply, or don’t fly.

And now they know why.

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September 11th: One Pilot’s Remembrance.

Posted in 9/11, air travel with tags , , , on September 5, 2011 by Chris Manno

Say March may take September,
    And time divorce regret;
But not that you remember,
    And not that I forget.
    –AC Swinburne, 1864

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There’s a strength born of remembrance hot-forged in the fire of regret, a bitter pill scarcely outweighed by the power of redemption in the act itself. In the case of September 11th the scale barely tips, but it’s upon us again nonetheless.

With it comes not only the resurrection of a grievous wound but also the poking and prodding at the scar by so many interested less in creating remembrance and more in selling the effect. That’s why now as I did immediately after the contemptible acts, I avoid the sensationally maudlin media coverage of old footage and new outrage, of pained loss and revisited dread.

Because it’s an unworthy intrusion for my colleagues who share the view from above 30,000 feet in more than just the passing from one point to another, flown today with a reverence made all the more poignant by the losses of that day. We know the reality of flight shared by all who fly for a living, including those we lost: no one is worthy of the priceless privilege. In fact, no one is even equal to the honor and the blessing of piloting a jet—and so, we reason, it might just as well be us.

And that plus the long and relentlessly demanding road that leads to the secure side of the cockpit door, a grueling process of weeding out and exclusion so unyielding that as many quit as are eventually eliminated, never mind those who are killed along the way, leaving the lucky few who are left with a worshipful respect for the words “head for the jet.”

That’s the moment when a lifetime of both personal and professional endeavor pays off in the solemn ritual of preflight, then the ultimate privilege of lifting a miraculously complex and capable jet into the air with hundreds of trusting souls on board.

The most insightful among us are keenly aware of the collective rather than individual triumph in the power to launch thousands of tons of metal and bone miles above the earth at shotgun speed, precisely, deftly, safely.

For in that moment flies a hundred years of American ingenuity, of engineering and manufacturing genius, of industrial diligence and commerce and financing to support not only the multimillion dollar jets, but also the mobile society shrinking the vast borders of the great nation, granting—actually, mandating—free access and choice and opportunity, coast to coast. That’s the best and brightest story of civilization this world has ever known.

The tragic irony is that the bond of trust we as pilots share with the public, the very essence of the free access to travel and leisure and commerce became the loophole through which those who oppose what we as a nation stand for breached the boundaries of civilized humanity to commit a despicable act.

But while they succeeded in one act, they failed pitifully in their unworthy cause. With courage and great resolve, the men and women who fly the jets returned them to the sky within days. The American spirit rebuilt, redesigned and secured air travel and the nation returned to the air resolute, undaunted and in greater numbers than ever before.

We returned to the cockpit, to flight, because that’s who we are as pilots. But Americans returned to air travel because freedom, opportunity, choice, prosperity and ultimately, worldwide access defines us as a free and open nation—and I am one pilot forever grateful to the flying public for that indomitable spirit that did not and will not yield to fear in general or a contemptible act in particular.

A decade later we fly yet another generation of even more technologically advanced aircraft with greater capacity and even longer range, bringing ever more distant shores within American reach. That fact stands as a testimony to the ultimate fortitude of freedom and decency that undergirds humanity despite the occasional hateful attempt to the contrary. And every flight since that day serves to honor those who lived and flew that American dream to their very last breath.

So I choose to remember that—and them—at the appropriate time, place and altitude, with equal measures of humility, gratitude and renewed hope. In the days approaching the infamous anniversary, the wayward news media—lost in the wasteland between entertainment and reporting—will twist and wring the painful memory for the sake of a buck.

Regardless, quietly and at altitude, flying the jet nonetheless is all the remembrance I need.

Captain C.L. Manno
American Airlines

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But rose-leaves of December
    The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
    The day that I forget.

–AC Swinburne, 1864

September 11th: Where Were You, Where Are You?

Posted in 9/11, air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, blind faith, faith, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, security, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2010 by Chris Manno

It’s difficult to remember, but hard to forget: where were you when the World Trade Center fell? And as importantly, where are you now?

The first question takes you back to a time that’s growing dimmer, but no less painful. The shared stunned looks where there were seldom looks exchanged: at a stoplight, from one car to another, the look of incredulity between drivers as if to say, “what just happened to us?” There was, for that moment, an “us” between random strangers struck at the same time by the horrific events as they unfolded.

Then the common denominator that mattered was both the pain of reality and our citizenship in a nation under attack. For me at that moment, sitting in a flight simulator giving flight training to a new copilot who would in short order be furloughed as a direct result of the 9-11 attacks that ravaged my airline and ultimately, the entire industry, the reality was ugly: jets commandeered, fellow crewmembers murdered at their duty stations. Our sleek, beautiful, powerful jets which we always used for good turned into missiles by dark forces intent on bad.

I’ve always liked the fact that our jets carry the flag on every tail, that our name says “American” in bold letters. And even though that’s probably why our jets were selected by the terrorists for maximum psychological impact, that very fact was also their downfall.

The flag and all things American were reinvigorated from the east coast of this nation to the west. More than just a glance between stunned drivers at a stoplight, the entire nation seemed to rise in dedicated opposition to the terrorism and extremism that cost thousands of innocent American lives.

Several flight crewmembers I know decided to be done with flying as a result of the infamous attacks, and I don’t fault them for that. It’s not like when we were in the military, where it was accepted as a fact that yes, you could get killed flying a mission. Our 9-11 colleagues weren’t on a military mission–they were just doing their jobs when they were murdered.

But there was never any question, at least for me, about getting back into the cockpit and flying again, even knowing that the terrorist threat still existed. It’s a different world now in flight, with security being a constant challenge to a degree unheard of before 9-11. Maybe that’s one positive change, although working under such a threat has changed the profession in ways I don’t always like.

But I believe my part in the opposition of terrorism is to refuse to let the dark forces win. We will fly coast to coast because we can, we want to, we have to. We don’t bow to threats and violence, as a nation or as a flight crew. We fight back for what’s right–which brings us to where we are today.

The fight goes on, and with it comes a huge pricetag in lives and loss. That’s the part of where we are today in the post-9/11 world that worries me.

Because except for on the anniversary of that awful day, there’s little day-to-day remembrance of the important people: not only the thousands whose lives were taken on that day, but also those given since then to keep the rest of the nation safe. That, in my mind, should not be something to “remember” periodically. Rather, that should never be forgotten–ever.

We see the remains of fallen fighting men and women passing from one coast to a hometown on our jets every week. We honor them the best we can. And like most flight crewmembers, we keep alive the memory of colleagues who were killed in the first battle of the war against terrorism.

Never mind the partisan politics of the war on terrorism; the squabbles over the mosque near ground zero, or opposition to the war on terrorism.

Today is about remembrance and appreciation for those fighting the war, those who have lost their lives to the enemy and those carrying on the fight today. That’s what’s most important to me and to many others on this day of remembrance . . .

. . . and every single day of the year, in every single moment in the air.

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