Selfridge Pilots Recall Sept. 11

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
"Are you OK?"

"It's bad."

Two simple messages, delivered to pilots wearing different uniforms, perhaps 1,000 miles apart. That they were delivered on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, seared them into the memories of the men who received them.

Lt. Col. Rolf Mammen and Lt. Col. Doug Champagne, both pilots at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, heard those messages on that chaotic morning when America came under attack. Both men were flying that day - Champagne in an F-16 Falcon in Michigan, and Mammen in an United Airlines airliner, over the Atlantic Ocean on a trip from London to New York City's JFK Airport. The two shared their memories of that day during a June 21 luncheon meeting of the Selfridge Base Community Council, a civic organization that promotes partnership between the base and the community.

Like many pilots who serve in the Air National Guard, Mammen works for a commercial airline as his full-time job, while serving part-time in the Guard. He continues to work for United and is now the deputy commander of the 127th Maintenance Group at Selfridge, which is charged with maintaining the base's fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. Champagne works full-time at Selfridge and is the commander of the 107th Fighter Squadron, which flies those A-10s.

While in Canadian airspace, headed for New York on what had been a routine flight that morning, Mammen was the first officer on a United flight when the crew received an odd message over a text communication system from United's flight control center. It simply read: "Are you OK?"

"We had no idea what that could mean," Mammen recalled at the luncheon. "Hijacking and crashing an airplane into a tower in New York was the last thing on our mind."

Mammen would spent most of the rest of that flight armed with a fire axe, guarding the cockpit door as his two fellow pilots responded to orders to land the aircraft.

"If anyone came through that door, I was going to start swinging," he said.

About that same time, Champagne and another pilot from Selfridge were just finishing up dropping some inert practice bombs on a target range near Grayling in northern Michigan. They had also fired all 100 live rounds of gun ammunition they had been carrying in strafing runs at the range.

As they were returning to Selfridge, the two starting pick up some odd radio traffic from Air Traffic Control, but, being in military aircraft, were not hearing all of the civilian ATC traffic. As they were passing Saginaw on the way back to base, the operations group commander at Selfridge came on the radio. He asked pointedly several times about their exact weapons status - had they fired all of their ammo at the target range?

Champagne said he began getting worried that something had gone wrong during his practice strafing runs. Had a round hit the ground in an odd way and skipped out of the impact area and hit something or someone? Had there been a maintenance crew in the range when he had been shooting?

Eventually instructed to land at Selfridge, they were told to immediately taxi to an area on the base designated for live ammunition re-arming of aircraft. A fellow pilot came out in a truck to meet them.

"I can't read lips at all, but I will never forget the words I saw him mouth to me, 'It's bad,'" Champagne said. He was still thinking something had gone wrong at the target range.

Only after Champagne and his wingman were on the ground did they learn how truly bad it was - about how two commercial airliners had hit the World Trade Center in New York, causing the eventual collapse of those towers; about how another had slammed into the Pentagon; about how another had crashed in Pennsylvania after the crew and passengers discovered what was happening and rushed the cockpit; about how some 3,000 Americans had been killed and that the country was now at war.

Back on the ground at Selfridge, Champagne learned that higher commanders had briefly considered ordering him to fly straight south to use his unarmed fighter jet as a shield to protect Chicago from a possible attack. Later that day, Champagne and another pilot would take to the skies again, to fly the first combat-loaded patrol over Detroit.

Within hours of the attack, hundreds of Citizen-Airmen had reported for duty at Selfridge and the 127th Wing began standing 24-hour alert duty to provide aerial cover for much of the Great Lakes region.

While Mammen was enduring the stress of flying on Sept. 11, his family was suffering as well. As his wife watched the events of the morning unfold on television, she knew that her husband - a United pilot - was due to land at New York that morning. And she had watched a hijacked United aircraft crash into one of the Trade Center towers. It would be hours before she learned that her husband was safe - diverted to a landing in Halifax, Canada with some 4 dozen other airliners. His daughter, who was nearing her 11th birthday at the time, learned at school that "planes were crashing in New York" - and knew her dad flew into New York.

"For me, 9-11 was personal, very personal," Mammen said. "People I knew, people I had flown with before, had been on those planes that had been hijacked and crashed. My daughter lost part of her childhood that day.

"Those hijackers came into my office that morning, killed some of my friends and then used my office to kill about 3,000 Americans. You bet that is personal."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds, perhaps even a couple thousand, of Citizen-Airmen in the 127th Wing at Selfridge have been recalled to duty either locally or been deployed overseas to respond to the Global War on Terror. This year alone, more than 200 members of the Wing have been deployed to locations in more than a dozen countries.

"This is a long war," Champagne said. "And it is not over."