Tinker Air Force Base was a hub of activity on Sept. 11, 2001, with the Oklahoma base’s planes making sure nothing was flying above the U.S. that wasn’t supposed to be there.
Sister station KOCO 5 spoke with three Air Force officers who were in the air and on the ground that fateful day.
“What? Like, ‘That’s dumb. That thing’s so big. How do you not miss that thing, right?’ And we thought about it for a minute, and he turned on the TV and we watched the second plane hit. And it was like instantly the entire room just changed,” Col. Keven Coyle, with the 552nd Air Control Wing, said. “And he looked at me and goes, ‘You need to go get your 72-hour bag right now.'”
“So, just like everyone else, the light bulb clicks,” retired AWACS Officer Andrew Bruce said. “The unimaginable had happened at that point. But we didn’t know what that all meant, either. Just like everyone else, you’re trying to figure it out.”
Forced immediately into action, the thousands of people working at Tinker Air Force Base 20 years ago will never forget the moments they knew their country needed them. That included scrambling to get into place before the base was inevitably locked down.
“I got pulled over, and I, essentially, I just said, ‘Hey, officer, I know I’m going fast. Gather my data and send me a ticket, but I got to get back to the base.’ And he goes, ‘Whoa. What’s going on?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know if you heard the news at all.’ And he goes, ‘No.’ And he got back on the radio and within about two minutes he goes, ‘Just follow me.’ And he escorted me back to the base very fast,” Coyle said.
They were then sent on missions they’d never flown before, including patrolling for hijacked aircraft.
“Launch and look over what’s going on in the western half of the United States because we don’t know what else is going to happen and if anything else is going to happen. As it turns out, nothing else happened over there. But it was very, very eerie,” Bruce said. “You’ll launch in the United States nowadays, and you got that nice radar dome on top, and you can see thousands of dots. And you know, there’s airliners everywhere. And we launched that day, and it was a blank screen except for just a couple of handful of dots, and you knew exactly who these, every one of them was.”
“One thing I do remember he goes, ‘If you have any reservations firing on civilian airliners, then speak up now. That’s not going to be held against you, but we need to know,'” said Col. Jim Mattey, with the 513th Air Control Group. “Man, silence came across the room because the gravity of the situation really hit, because we never thought that we actually have to fire on United States aircraft.”
And, 20 years later, the moments live with them.
“In this unit, I think we still have four members that were around on that day serving. And you bring up 9/11, and, automatically, you know, it kicks in,” Mattey said. “You know exactly where you were. You can feel it. You can taste it. You can sense everything that was going on. Those deployments, their hardships. But I tell you what, you made some amazing relationships.”
And the sense they were there when their country needed them.
“It was nice to have the stability of knowing what I was doing was of benefit, but it was also kind of refreshing to know that we were needed. I think that’s kind of the key. In any situation, people want to know that they’re valued and needed,” Coyle said. “And that day, for sure, we felt that we were valued and needed as an Air Force. And you can’t buy that. It was great.”
After that memorable, surreal day, many men and women from Tinker Air Force Base were deployed to fight overseas, spending years more serving their country.
Watch the video above for the full story.