Sept. 11: Navy aviators pressed into action

An E-2C, an all-weather airborne early warning aircraft, flies past the Statue of Liberty.

An E-2C, an all-weather airborne early warning aircraft, flies past the Statue of Liberty.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was like any late summer day on the eastern seaboard.

Many people had left their homes for work in lower Manhattan, New York City’s central borough for government and business; students had either arrived at school or they were on their way; and the military began its day with training and operations. On this clear, picturesque Tuesday morning, two passenger jets flew intentionally into the World Trade Center, shattering the day’s tranquility and killing more than 2,600 people who were either trapped in one of the towers or held hostage of one of the jets.

Naval Air Station Fallon’s commanding officer, Capt. Evan Morrison, also began the day like his fellow aviators at the Naval Station Norfolk located on the southeast corner of Virginia. Morrison was winding down his assignment with his first fleet squadron, a three-year tour, and had five more months remaining. At the time, he had orders to report to Naval Air Station Fallon as a junior officer for his first shore tour. He was scheduled to deploy in early January 2002 as part of Carrier Air Wing 7 aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and, ironically, scheduled to start at-sea training on the morning Sept. 11.

That never happened.

“I remember getting out of the shower that morning and seeing on TV that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” he recalled. “As I was getting ready like a lot of people, I initially thought it was a bad accident. I had no idea the size of plane that hit the first tower.”

Morrison said as he was packing, the Kennedy had already pulled out of port because the air wing needed to perform carrier qualifications.

“So I am getting the rest of my stuff packed up, and then I see the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center, the second tower, and then immediately on the news the U.S. is under attack. Then you had the Pentagon and Flight 93 in Pennsylvania (two other that had been hijacked and crashed). I remember listening to the TV … the news reported that all air traffic has been grounded in the United States. I thought that’s interesting because I’m supposed to fly out to the Kennedy. Shortly after that, I remember getting a call from the squadron duty officer … ‘No, we are still flying. Get in as soon as you can.’”

An eerie feeling overtook the lieutenant, who grew up in Illinois and first joined the Illinois Air National Guard in 1986 before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Illinois University. He attended the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Fla., and later earned his wings in April 1998. The following year, Morrison completed his initial training on the E-2C, described as “an all-weather airborne early warning aircraft to the naval task force.”

Morrison, who was assigned in 2001 to the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121 (VAW-121), pulled up to one of the Norfolk’s gates.

“Everyone was in full battle rattle, machine guns and helmets, the whole works,” he said.

Morrison said he and the other aviators had no idea of the changing events. Once in the ready room, his skipper entered and instructed the crews that plans changed for the day. The aircraft carrier USS George Washington was off the coast and deployed to New York City, and the Kennedy was out at sea. Morrison said half the squadron received instructions to fly to the Kennedy, which would sail up the coast near Washington, D.C., and perform air defense. Morrison and the other half of the squadron headed to the Washington to conduct air defense operations, and the crews needed to qualify their landings and takeoffs on the carriers. Because he was a qualified LSO (landing signal officer), Morrison and other aviators qualified the pilots on the Washington and other types of aircraft in the carrier wing.

“That day a lot of those requirements were waived because of the severity of what was going on,” Morrison recalled. “I’ll just never forget qualifying aircraft for carrier qualifications with live air-to-air ordnance on the planes.”

While onboard the Washington, Morrison said sailors had a good view of Manhattan.

“We were close enough to ground zero that we could see the city. It was covered with a layer of smoke, and I could still smoking rising where the twin towers were. It was a very somber moment kind of seeing that and very very real of what was happening,” Morrison said.

At that time, Morrison said no one knew what was coming next.

“Every new rule was happening next as we knew we had to start doing air defense and start protecting the homeland,” Morrison pointed out. “Again very few flight deck crew onboard, and I remember them (Navy personnel) going down the flight line at Naval Station Norfolk and going to the different squadrons and getting certain maintenance personnel, line personnel and literally telling them go get on that C-2 COD (an aircraft that flies personnel to aircraft carriers); you’re going to fly up to the GW, and we don’t know when you’re coming back.”

Morrison said, literally, the sailors left with the shirts on their backs.

Likewise, Morrison said all of his clothes were on the Kennedy, and since he would spend the next five days aboard the Washington, he also needed a change of clothing. He had no underwear or toiletries. He said the Washington’s crew went to the ship's store and put together little bags with a pack of underwear, shaving foam and razors, shampoo and soap for the pilots and their crews.

“That was a sigh of relief,” he said.

The five days Morrison and other sailors and aviators were on the Washington gave another air wing time to report to the aircraft carrier. After spending less than a week on the aircraft carrier, Morrison then flew to the Kennedy, which soon left from the Washington, D.C., deployment to an operational area of Puerto Rico. Morrison and others began to prepare for deployment to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet area of responsibility that included Afghanistan.

A half year later in April 2002, Morrison arrived for his first tour at the then Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Fallon, which is now the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, for a two-year tour. Before Morrison became NAS Fallon’s commanding officer in March 2019, he had accumulated more than 3,300 hours in six different aircraft. He spent several tours in support of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Because of the four separate attacks on Sept. 11, Morrison said the world changed, not only for civilians but also for the military.

“It was a different mindset,” Morrison said. “We had to do our job, rely on our training and defend the homeland.”


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