Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Local pilot looks back at 9-11

This column was published in early September 2007 in the Tri-Valley Herald.

Six years ago on September 11, 2001, after the Twin Towers had been destroyed, after our nation’s skies had been cleared of all air traffic, Bob Tucknott skirted the main entrance of the Hayward airport and drove a little known route onto the airfield to get to his plane.

“I was immediately run down by a security guard,” Tucknott said. “I explained the situation and told him to call the tower.”

Authorized to use any runway, Tucknott lifted off from Hayward for a short flight to Oakland. From there, he flew with his daughter, Renee, on a special mission to San Diego.

“I’d gotten a call from the director of the Alameda/Contra Costa County blood bank,” said Tucknott, who reminisced recently about his unique experience on September 11. “The director asked me to fly blood samples to San Diego by 11 p.m. that night. The samples were from a large supply of blood waiting to be shipped on a C-5 cargo transport from Travis Air Force to 9-11 survivors in New York and Washington D.C.”

A volunteer with Angel Flight West, which arranges free air transportation on private aircraft in response to health care and other compelling human needs, Tucknott received the call at 3 p.m. and got busy trying to obtain flight clearance. It took him three hours, but he finally got through to the head of the FAA.

“I was given a discrete squawk code that was given to the air traffic controllers from Hayward to San Diego,” he said. Tucknott also called the various controlling agencies to let them know the type of plane he was flying and the nature of his cargo.

“What an eerie flight that was,” he said. “As we flew that evening, there was complete silence on the airways. We were the only ones talking to controllers, who were all still at their positions.”
Tucknott said it’s usually difficult to get a word in edgewise with controllers, but this evening some seemed a bit bored and chatted with him and his daughter about their mission.

When Tucknott asked if any other airplanes were in the air, he was told two F-14 fighter jets were high above him. “It wasn’t until two years later I found out those F-14’s were actually escorting me to make sure I was who I said I was. They had orders to take me out if I deviated off course.”

As Tucknott landed in San Diego at 10:30 p.m., a crew was waiting to take care of his plane and carry the blood samples to a Red Cross truck for testing. Given the late hour, the weary couriers spent the night, then flew home the next morning using the same secret code and procedures as they had used flying down to San Diego.

“The flight was just as quiet,” Tucknott said, “though I started to pick up some police helicopter traffic flying in the L.A. basin.”

Tucknott, who owns an electrical contracting firm in Pleasanton, earned his pilot’s license 32 years ago. He has volunteered with Angel Flight West for 15 years, and has flown 236 missions for the non-profit organization.

His missions have included transport of children, deaf patients, rescue dogs, campers, adult victims, burn victims, and, among other human tissue, corneas.

In fact, Tucknott and a co-pilot once transported two corneas in the span of three hours harvested from an accident victim in the Stanford area to a recipient who was prepped and waiting in San Luis Obispo.

“The controllers recognized the urgency of the situation and gave us priority handling,” Tucknott said. “God was good to us and gave us a strong tail wind going down, which got us there in record time.”

Tucknott said the entire flight and transport were conducted without signing one piece of paper.

“This seemed a little unusual in today’s world with liabilities and the value of the cargo we were carrying,” he said.

Tucknott smiled as he went on to say that by the time he and his co-pilot were finishing their lunch in San Luis Obispo, the cornea operation was complete and the patient had a new set of eyes. To support the missions of pilots like Bob Tucknott, and to learn more about Angel Flight West, visit www.angelflight.org.

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