Martha’s Vineyard Airport Director Geoff Freeman was an airport operations specialist and firefighter back on September 11, 2001. It was his day off. “I was actually sitting in Bert’s Barbershop at the time,” Freeman told The Times.
When news of the first plane strike reached his ears, he didn’t automatically assume something sinister was afoot. Freeman thought the first plane must have been something small and accidental.
In his car a short time later, he heard on the radio about the second plane strike, and that changed his thinking and also changed where he was headed. Calls came from the airport for him to come in.
“And then hearing the attack on the Pentagon, it just really was a shock to the system that, you know, the United States is under attack. What is next? That’s when rumors were starting to fly that things were happening out on the West Coast — just a lot of rumors and false information flying around during the heat of it all — quite, quite unnerving. You just didn’t know what was going on.”
When he got to the airport, he assisted with an evacuation of passengers and airline employees from the terminal.
“We just moved everybody away because we didn’t know — there were potential threats in general coming from the FAA, saying that all these planes are coming in from different areas and just weren’t talking to anybody,” he said.
Operations staff then started moving aircraft and blocking entrances.
“There was no direct information,” he said. “There was nothing coming from TSA because obviously TSA didn’t exist at that time.”
The FAA was communicating with the airport tower, he said. The FAA eventually told the airport to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity.
The September 11 attacks triggered a military and aviation protocol called Security Control of Air Traffic and Air Navigation Aids (SCATANA), which ordered all American air traffic grounded.
However “very few” flights were diverted to the Vineyard as a result, Freeman said. “We did, however, receive some aircraft that were en route to the Vineyard that took off from uncontrolled fields, flying without any instrument flight plans — just VFR, visual flight rules — that didn’t know anything about what was going on until they landed here at the Vineyard airport.”
He recalled U.S. Airways Express had a plane that became stuck at the airport due to the national aircraft grounding.
No military flights came to the Vineyard, he recalled. “We obviously heard a lot of the activity from Otis Air Force Base at the time,” he said. “That was the active Air Force base in the region. They were one of the first who were over the skies of New York City at the time.”
Aside from Cape Cod military activity, Freeman described the atmosphere at the airport as dead quiet, a “deafening silence” with no planes in the air. “You know, just a very blue sky, crisp kind of day. Perfect flying day. And not to see or hear any activity was very strange, even for a small airport like ourselves … Everyone was in shock.”
Freeman said the post–Labor Day financial numbers weren’t as significant as they are today, so the airport didn’t take a severe financial hit from the grounding and closure. “I think the major toll for the airport, along with everybody else, is being witness to this,” he said. “You know, the shock. No one expected anything like that. Similar to the pandemic. You know, you just shake your head every once in a while and say, “‘Wow, is this really happening?’”
Then came the Army National Guard, he said. “Having their presence was a very strange feeling — having armed personnel in and around the terminal complexes was definitely strange … They weren’t necessarily screening passengers, but they were the extra layer of security on top of local law enforcement.”
The attacks also heralded air marshals. “They were present more often than not; even to this day, they are still present,” he said.
Two of the planes that were hijacked took off from Boston. That weighed on Freeman and his colleagues, he said, and triggered fears hijackers might have scouted the Vineyard in their planning. The attacks continue to resonate with Freeman and his staff, he said.
“It affects us every day,” he said. “We’re in the business of aviation, and security is No. 1. Those events — there’s not a day that goes by that we’re not affected by it.”
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