Air Force One pilot: ‘We had no idea’ 9-11 would happen

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The pilot for Air Force One during President George W. Bush’s time in the White House witnessed history on Sept. 11, 2001, and he says Bush “had no idea what was about to happen.”

As pilot for Air Force One from 2001 to 2009, Col. Mark Tillman flew one of the world’s most technologically advanced planes. The now-retired Tillman told attendees of the CCJ Fall Symposium at the Montelucia Resort and Spa in Phoenix on Wednesday, Nov. 9, that even with 47 phone lines and advanced communications onboard the specially outfitted 747-200, the on-air chatter that day and the previous day while flying Bush to Sarasota, Fla., was normal and nothing out of the ordinary.

When the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, action plans went into place. “We were told nine airliners had been hijacked and that Air Force One was targeted,” said Tillman, acknowledging that while those stories later proved false, there was no way to confirm or deny them in the midst of the chaos of the day. “We were told the Pentagon was bombed by a ground attack and not to return to D.C. as planned.”

Bush eventually was taken to Nebraska to an underground military bunker where he and his team assessed the situation and he talked to the nation. Bush returned to Washington later that day.

Two years later, Bush flew to Baghdad to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the troops stationed in Iraq, which proved to be an extremely covert operation. “Think about flying the president of the United States into a war zone,” Tillman said. “It’d never been done.”