Sept. 11 U.S. pilot visiting area Sunday

Published 9:07 am Thursday, July 3, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- Maj. Dean Eckmann's name may be unfamiliar this far from Fargo, where he's part of the 119th Fighter Wing with the North Dakota Air National Guard.
He used to fly commercial jetliners for Northwest Airlines out of Minneapolis, but that's not his claim to fame, either, this man who will be visiting Dowagiac Sunday afternoon for the artist reception at the new Rose Gallery.
The sliver of his life story seared into every American memory came on that cloudless Tuesday of unbelievably blue skies, Sept. 11, 2001, when he scrambled from Langley, Va., to intercept threatening aircraft.
Eckmann, who knew much less about what was unfolding at the Pentagon than countrymen gaping at their television screens, and nothing about the demise of the World Trade Center until late that afternoon when he refueled, found himself flying at the tip of the spear of U.S. response to terrorist attacks.
His first thought was that an Oklahoma City-style truck bomb had ripped apart the nerve center of America's military might.
When his friend, aviation artist Rick Herter, who grew up near Indian Lake, painted the Air Force's official depiction of the first F-16 passing over the smoking Pentagon, that would be Eckmann's fighter.
Rolls Royce sponsored the Washington painting. Boeing underwrote its companion, the attack which collapsed the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Both are 44 inches high. One is 72 inches long. The other measures 74 inches in length.
They will be signing prints at the Rose Gallery during the 2-4 p.m. reception for Niles historical artist Darren Smith (see Pride in America, pages 2 and 13).
Eckmann, son of a police officer, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Fargo that Sept. 11 began as a "normal day," which he planned to spend flying local training sorties at Langley. They spend a week at a time on alert at Langley.
Sept. 11 Langley happened to be one of seven units flying an air defense role.
Inspired by the Cold War, once there were more than 100 alert sites guarding against a World War III-style attack from the Soviet Union.
By Sept. 11, Eckmann said, their mission in relation to Russia meant monitoring any movement of bombers along the coastline down to Cuba and fighting the drug war when "cigar" boats like those seen on "Miami Vice" or planes trying to smuggle in controlled substances.
They also maintain air defense "zones," identifying airborne "unknowns," and rendering help to any aircrafts in distress.
Eckmann is coming to Michigan for the Battle Creek balloon championships and staying with Herter and his wife, Connie, who live in the Oshtemo area.
Eckmann said as he prepared for his mission, "One of our crew chiefs came running upstairs" to the pilot quarters to report a plane crash into the World Trade Center.
He never suspected it was a 757 filled with travelers and didn't see any pictures immediately to suggest otherwise.
Within two minutes, the battle stations light activated and the green signaled a scramble, even though "we knew nothing."
There were clues, however, that this was extraordinary.
They were given a heading under supersonic speed -- one indication of a priority. The "zero-one-zero" heading sent them "right up the coast" to New York.
But enroute, orders changed for Eckmann and his two accompanying wingmen. The call for all planes and all pilots was unusual, too.
The wingmen were pushed over to military controllers and got more new orders -- a coordinate to proceed into Washington, D.C., from 75 miles away. Eckmann couldn't see smoke yet and still wondered what they were hurtling toward.
At 45 to 50 miles out, he said he began to make out smoke on the west side of the Potomac River. "It's black," he said. "Usually, it's gray or white industrial stuff. Black is bad," indicating structural burning.
He knows it's not the Capitol ablaze, but can't tell what is.
Reagan National? He flies there all the time.
As Eckmann closes to within 30 miles, "I could actually see it was the Pentagon," though smoke was so thick he still didn't know a jetliner had been drilled into the five-sided building.
Then Eckmann vectored in on two unknown contacts heading up the river toward the White House.
He scanned for something like the yellow Oklahoma City Ryder truck or "anything irregular, like people jumping out of the way."
Receiving a call from NORAD seeking damage assessment, Eckmann again approached the Pentagon. He said Herter did a masterful job of recreating the scene of "boiling" orange flame and oily black smoke billowing up, as if from a ruptured tanker.
Eckmann still couldn't discern any plane.
Eckmann's formation stayed overhead the whole time, but they were just about to be redirected to Flight 93 when it crashed in Pennsylvania after the famous "Let's Roll" rallying cry.
The Pentagon unequivocally denied military aircraft shot down the jet, although Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged on NBC's "Meet the Press" that F-16s flying over Washington were ready to intercept it.
Eckmann, who has been doing military flying since 1992 and with the Air National Guard since '94, agreed.
If it had come to shooting down Flight 93, he said, "It was not our decision. It's made higher up. We follow orders."
After 5 1/2 hours in the air, he made a quick call to his wife, who was "frantic and crying" after taking 50 calls from relatives and friends who weren't sure whether he was flying for Northwest or North Dakota.
Many moments of that day were so surreal they seemed swiped from the silver screen.