Carmel Valley Woman Recounts Piloting a Jumbo Jet on 9/11
Almost everyone has a story of where they were on September 11th, 2001, but not many can tell it from the cockpit of a 747 Jumbo Jet. On 9-11, Phyllis Cleveland of Carmel Valley was the pilot of United Airlines Flight 810, from Osaka, Japan, to San Francisco with about 240 passengers on board.
Lewis Leader (LL): So, there you are, you’re flying this route that you’ve flown many times. It’s dark because it’s the middle of the night, in effect. Most of your passengers are asleep. There’s no flight that’s routine, but, still, things were going as they had in the past. Tell us what changed all that in a heartbeat.
Phyllis Cleveland (PC): We get this message over our ACARS machine, which is kind of like a teletype: “There has been an apparent act of terrorism in New York. We have been advised that there may be additional hijackings in progress and you should be on alert and shut down all cockpit access in flight.”
LL: What was your immediate reaction when you saw that?
PC: Basically, it’s what! This isn’t making any sense. The things that jumped out at us was “additional hijackings,” so how many hijackings have there been, where are they, where are they going? And then they say to shut down the cockpit access. Wait a minute. We still have four-and-a-half hours to fly. So what is going on?
LL: Secure the cockpit. How do you secure the cockpit?
PC: Those doors were not secure. Some of them, you could actually lean on them and they would open up. So securing the cockpit in our case was going to be nothing more than if we had to fight somebody off, all we have in the cockpit is a crash axe and a fire extinguisher. So we didn’t want anybody to penetrate the cockpit door because once they got that far, we were pretty helpless. As we were getting more and more information through Armed Forces Radio we were learning the airplane was being taken over and flown into buildings. So, this puts a whole different slant on what we were doing. So we wanted to get a couple of guys up in the upper deck who could maybe block somebody running to the cockpit.
LL: So, you’ve now got these four presumably young men sitting outside the cockpit. You and the captain and the co-pilot. What next?
PC: So who are we looking for? And this was our biggest problem. Even the four guys we had outside the cockpit. Were they really OK? We don’t know that. So now we’re starting to get information from the company that they’re closing all U.S. airspace. So we're thinking, OK we can’t make it to San Francisco. We’re going to have to divert. So, Seattle, we thought about Seattle. They said no, “All U.S. airspace.” Anchorage, which was going to be our big out. They said “No,” including Honolulu.
LL: So, you now got directions to fly to Vancouver? And the only ones who really knew what was going on were the three of you in the cockpit, right? The four fellows outside didn’t and the flight attendants didn’t?
PC: No. We did not tell anybody we were diverting to Vancouver. We didn’t want to tip anybody’s hand if there was something planned because now we’re within cellphone range, even, for some people. We landed 11:15. At that time, that’s when we told the passengers where we were and why we were there, and we opened up Channel 9 and put a radio broadcast on so everybody could hear what we were hearing cause we wanted to let them know. And they had a right to know why we were where we were. We didn’t get to a gate until a little after two o’clock in the afternoon because they were bringing each flight in slowly up to the gate. We had to be debriefed by the local gendarmes as a crew, and then they would slowly take off 12 passengers at a time. So it was a long process before we could finally leave our airplane.
LL: How long were you in Vancouver and then what happened next?
PC: We were there two days. 9/11 was on a Tuesday. They called us on Thursday at 5:30. We were going to be the first flight out if the U.S. airspace opened up that day.
LL: Before you took off, what had happened to the passengers on your flight and other flights?
PC: All those passengers had to go through U.S. security, so they had to be shipped to Seattle by buses. San Francisco at 2:30 in the morning, 3:30 in the morning and it’s always busy. We were the first plane to come in. There was no movement on the runway at all or anywhere around the terminal. There was hardly any traffic on 101. There wasn’t anybody in the terminals. There were no ships out in the bay. Nothing. So when we came in it was really spooky, especially since we’re the first airplane in. We didn’t know, we were hoping everything was secure at that point. But now you don’t trust much of anything. So we landed, taxied up to the international gates, and there was all our tug drivers lined up with American flags and Welcome Home signs.
That was Phyllis Cleveland of Carmel Valley. Prior to becoming a pilot for United Airlines , she already had had a long career in aviation, including as a general aviation pilot, and working for many years for the Federal Aviation Administration. At the time of 9/11, Phyllis had been a United Airlines pilot for more rhan 12 years. She knew two of the captains, two of the co-pilots and many of the flight attendants who died that day. Phyllis retired from United Airlines in 2007.
About the Interviewer: Lewis Leader is a journalist who was a longtime newspaper reporter and editor for 27 years with various publications including the Monterey Herald, San Francisco Examiner, Toledo Blade and Los Angeles Times.