An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

9/11 recollections on Twitter: sad, short, sharp storytelling

I figured Sunday would be a day to read stories on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a lump in my throat, then hug my daughter and my wife. (That beautiful September Tuesday remains the second-worst day of my life, surpassed only by the Friday in 1999 when my dad keeled over from a heart attack.) Instead, I spent much of the morning glued to Twitter.

I blame one person for that. Journalism professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis got up early to post a long series of tweets, synced to his timeline that morning–getting on the PATH train in New Jersey, exiting the World Trade Center just after the first plane struck, everything that happened after–that brought back the day with a grim urgency. A few examples:

Jarvis continued, recounting the second plane’s impact, being unable to see anything after the collapse of the South Tower and his subsequent wandering throughout Manhattan. But then he hit Twitter’s “rate limit,” silencing his account. He briefly resumed posting on Google+ until friends with connections at Twitter got his account freed up, allowing him to resume his story to its end–a reunion with his family at home.

Afterwards, Storify user Mary Bjorneby used that site to archive all of Jarvis’s tweets, start to finish–without most of his replies to people who offered thanks or inexplicable insults over his wasting their time. (He was right to curse them out. If somebody bores you on Twitter, unfollowing them will suffice.)

Other people had the same idea. Somebody else thought to set up a Twitter account, @UAFlt93, to relate the story of how the passengers on that flight fought back. A few news organizations provided live reenactments of their own–although the Guardian brought its own exercise to a halt after readers complained.

It is all compelling, upsetting reading. It makes one wonder what Twitter and Facebook would be like on a day like 9/11. May we never find out.

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