What was it like to be a pilot on 9/11?

— -- Timothy I. Meldahl was the captain of one of the last commercial flights -- quite possibly the very last -- to land in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. He offers his account of that fateful flight for USA TODAY readers:

I was tired. As the Captain of Northwest 28, a 747-200 scheduled to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco, my crew and I had been delayed by the remnants of a typhoon that had struck a day earlier. When we finally lifted off at 6:02 p.m., we expected the remainder of our trans-Pacific flight to be routine. Shortly after leveling off, we realized that Northwest 28 on Sept. 11, 2001, was to be unlike any flight we would ever be a part of.

It began with a query by one of the many airborne crew members monitoring VHF frequency 123.45. "Is anyone getting the same information that we are getting over our company frequency?" one pilot asked. Another crewman responded, "Yes. It appears that one or two light aircraft have struck the World Trade Center." A third pilot added solemnly, "They were not light aircraft. They were airliners. And there were four of them!" "Which airlines?" another pilot asked, almost in a whisper. The words "United and American" came quietly across the radio, followed by "May God help them."

Minutes passed as more air crew added pieces to the puzzle. We learned of the coordinated attack in which four airliners had been hijacked and flown into the Pentagon, the WTC and a field in Pennsylvania. It seemed a crisis was developing on the East Coast of the United States that was almost beyond comprehension.

We needed to act. I directed C.A. Mansfield, my first officer, to pull the power back on all four engines. I believed by reducing power, thus slowing the aircraft down, I would gain two precious commodities: time and fuel. I continued with my instructions. "C.A., I may be distracted as the night progresses so you will be flying and navigating. I will verify any important changes that occur but, for now, you have the aircraft." Zack Bergazin was the second officer. "Zack, our fuel score will prove very important tonight so I will work with you to manage our fuel and to monitor aircraft systems."

It was at this point that I called Pam, our purser, to the flight deck. After my explanation of developments, she shook her head in disbelief. With Pam's input, I decided not to say anything to the passengers. There was a very real possibility that we had hijackers on board and we did not want to alert them. A few moments later I addressed the entire cabin crew. I did my best to explain to them what had occurred over the past couple of hours and gave them instructions that they were to stay calm, be professional and remain alert.

I had just completed my instructions to the flight attendants when a message came across our inter-company communications. "GO TO HIGH ALERT" it screamed. We all knew what "high alert" meant in a military context but none of us had ever seen a message like this at the airline. The obvious question: Is there something we are not being told about our circumstances? As we searched our manuals for some interpretation of this alarming message, Pam called from the cabin. "Tim, I think we have a problem with one of the passengers. He is holding a briefcase very tightly and he appears quite confused. He may be a threat. What would you like us to do?"

"Watch him very closely, Pam and report any changes," I replied.

It was time for the flight crew to review how best to protect the cockpit. We settled on the two crash axes as weapons of choice and I began the briefing. "Zack," I started, "for better or worse, you are closest to the door and the first line of defense. If someone succeeds in opening the cockpit door you'll need to swing with all your might until they are no longer a threat. C.A., you have the second axe so you are next. If the situation calls for it you must swing and swing hard. If they get to me I will do everything I can to prevent them from getting control of our aircraft."

As I looked into their determined eyes, I realized we were as ready as we would ever be. It was time to check in with Oakland Center.

"Oakland Center, Northwest 28 checking in at FL370." "Roger Northwest 28, squawk 3456." It was good to hear from someone on the ground.

"Northwest 28, radar contact. You are cleared direct to the San Franciso VOR. Are you declaring an emergency?" "Negative," I answered. "Northwest 28, are you declaring an emergency?" center asked again, this time with an increased sense of urgency. Again, I responded, "Negative. Northwest 28 is not declaring an emergency."

The next words from center were chilling. "If you do not declare an emergency you will not be permitted to land on American soil." The flight deck became very quiet as we absorbed this. If we did not declare an emergency, we would not be permitted to land in the U.S.? This begged the question, "If not in the U.S., exactly where were we going to land?"

Zack spoke first. "Here is how I see it. There is a good chance that they simply do not believe that we are the original flight crew. Also, my guess is that we have been intercepted by fighters that are there to prevent a West Coast version of what occurred back east."

C.A. offered his input. "I agree with Zack. We are on a very tight leash out here and one wrong turn, one missed altitude or one call that does not make perfect sense could give them all the incentive they need to shoot us down."

Just then a chime went off: "Tim, this is Pam. We are watching that nervous passenger closely, the lights are up and the cabin is ready for landing".

It was time to respond to Oakland Center. Not knowing how my words may be interpreted by any fighter aircraft on our tail, nor fully comprehending why I was being forced to declare an emergency, I slowly, hesitatingly picked up the mike. I was out of options. "Oakland Center, this Northwest 28."

"Go ahead, Northwest 28" center responded. "Northwest 28 is declaring an emergency." I honestly did not know at that moment whether or not those would be the last words I would ever say.

"Roger, Northwest 28. Direct to the SFO VOR, descend and maintain FL210." Apparently, declaring an emergency (that we did not have) was all center needed to allow us to start our descent into San Francisco. During the descent, I turned to C.A. and said, "This is where you nail every heading and every altitude."

C.A. was doing a magnificent job of flying. On short final, he commanded "Flaps 25, landing checklist." The plane rumbled as the flaps slid noisily into place. Checklists completed, it was time to land. With a slight rotation of the nose, the main wheels of the 747 touched down smoothly as C.A. pulled all four engines into reverse to assist the brakes in stopping the aircraft.

"Eighty knots. I've got the aircraft," I said as we slowed to taxi speed. A nine and a half hour flight is fairly routine in the business of international airline travel, but this one was without a doubt the longest flight of my life.

As I taxied to the gate I looked around the airport noticing that not a single plane, truck or car was moving. There were no sounds on the radio. I turned the giant aircraft into the gate area, set the brakes and shut down the engines. When we finished our post-flight checklists, I thanked C.A. and Zack for their superb work and headed for the cabin. The plane was empty now as I thanked Pam for her extraordinary efforts and told all of the flight attendants that that they had truly made a difference.

The bus ride to the hotel seemed surreal, the world much different from just 11 hours before. When I arrived at my hotel room, I turned on the TV to witness for myself the destruction caused by the hijackers in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. I could not believe my eyes. Such devastation. Such sadness. I sat down on the side of my bed, put my head in my hands and when the fatigue took hold I felt the tears start to come.

Timothy I. Meldahl is the author of the Sheer Profundity blogsheerprofundity.blogspot.com. You can read a more detailed account of this story on that site.