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22nd Air Force commander, United Airlines pilot reflects on 9/11 experience

Maj. Gen. Craig La Fave, 22nd Air Force commander, left, poses in the flight deck of a United Airlines Boeing 737 with fellow Air Force Reservist and former 22nd AF vice commander, retired Air Force Col. Louis Patriquin, during an airline trip in July 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Gen. Craig La Fave, 22nd Air Force commander, left, poses in the flight deck of a United Airlines Boeing 737 with fellow Air Force reservist and former 22nd Air Force vice commander, retired Air Force Col. Louis Patriquin, during an airline trip in July 2018. (Courtesy photo)

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. (AFNS) -- United Airlines Captain Craig La Fave flew from Washington, D.C., to Paris on Sept. 10, 2001. The then-Air Force Reserve major expected to make the return trip the next day on Sept. 11, but instead terrorist attacks unfolded that changed his country, industry and career forever.

“We got to the hotel and I no sooner put my head down than the phone rang in my room,” La Fave said. On the other line, his fellow first officer told him to turn on the news.

“I turned on the TV half asleep, having worked all night, and I saw the second tower being hit,” he said. “We realized they were United aircraft, so we all gathered in the lobby.”

For three days, La Fave and his fellow aircrew members and passengers anxiously roamed the city waiting for the air routes to reopen.

Maj. Gen. La Fave, now commander of Air Force Reserve Command’s 22nd Air Force, experienced the events of that day and those that followed as only someone who is both an airline pilot and Air Force member could—contemplating the gravity of what the situation meant for life as he knew it and what he would return home to.

“It was a tragedy on many levels—for my company it meant we lost two aircraft on the same day, an upwards of 35 employees, and we lost 3,000 American citizens,” La Fave said. “For airline families it meant disaster on many levels. It was the beginning of what we call the lost decade—it meant multiple bankruptcies for the airline and personal bankruptcies for some families. For those of us who were Reservists or Guardsmen, it meant going back to active duty, mobilizations and family separations.”

Grounded with other Airmen meant a collective yearning to get back to military units and get into the fight. Those feelings mixed with the uncertainty of what the conflict would look like.

“I was already asking, ‘how are we going to get these guys?’” La Fave said. “We were all ready to put our war paint on. We met other aircrews at restaurants with other Air Force reservists and Air National Guardsmen and everybody was mentally getting ready for what was to come.”

On Sept. 14, 2001, La Fave piloted the first United Airlines flight back from Europe to Washington Dulles International Airport following the attacks of 9/11.

“We were all very tense,” he said. “We left with a different set of security rules and we’re now returning with a whole new era (of rules). We flew there with our tool kits, our knives that we all had to surrender at some point to get home.”

“We got to the airplane and not everyone had perfect clarity on their family situations,” he recalled. “It was my leg to fly home and there were a lot of tears and a lot of stress during the crew briefing. I remember leaving the briefing thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up there, I’ve got to get my mind on flying; I needed to get my head in the game.’”

On what was a crystal clear day, La Fave’s Boeing 777 flew low over New York City on the approach to Washington.

“We had a bird’s eye view right over Manhattan of two smoking holes. And so, that really brought it all to the forefront,” he remembered.
The call sign for the flight that day was United 911. It was the last United Airlines Flight to ever fly under that call sign.

“As we landed, we had reservists reporting for duty,” La Fave said. “Some guys left the airline and never came back and some guys left and came back a year later. And for me, I left and went back to my reserve desk job to try to figure out how to get into the fight I thought might only last a few months.”

At the time, La Fave served as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee with the Defense Contract Management Agency in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to get back and be a flying squadron commander in a time of war,” he said, having come from an operational C-5 (Galaxy) unit at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, prior to that assignment. Some patience was needed as it took about four years for La Fave to make his way back to flying C-5s, followed by C-17s and eventually squadron command.

The general didn’t know it was still early on in what would evolve in both name and reality to the “long war.”

“The early days of the war I spent in the crisis coordination center of the Pentagon right next to the NMCC (National Military Command Center) as a watch officer,” he said. “Standing watch, tracking events and feeding information to my undersecretary. Watching it from afar, I didn’t quite like that.”

After making his way to a C-17 squadron, he volunteered for a ground deployment to Baghdad in 2007 and again to Afghanistan in 2012. La Fave spent five consecutive years on military leave from his airline job, but didn’t experience furlough like many of his fellow airline pilots.

“It reinvigorated me because they killed my countrymen and destroyed my industry, so I had a little bit of vengeance on the Taliban and al-Qaida myself,” he said. “And to this day, I’m still not over it and we’re still at it.”

The general saw the role of the Air Force Reserve evolve as the war continued, moving away from the strategic Reserve of his early career and toward an operational Reserve. He acknowledges not all Airmen lived the events of 9/11 as he did, especially those now serving who may have been preschoolers at the time.

“You could argue their motivations are pure and right and they’re doing what they can for their country,” he said. “The operational requirement hasn’t gone away and the requirement to utilize our operational Reserve is still there, so our reservists are front and center; they’re needed, they’re relevant in the fight and we need these Airmen to continue to serve.”

Now a traditional reservist and Boeing 737 Captain for United Airlines, La Fave says he’s impacted to this day by his personal experience on Sept. 11.

“It impacted a generation of Airmen, aviators, and of Americans I think,” he said. “My kids were impacted; all of America was impacted.

“So, we snapped a chalk-line there on Sept. 11, 2001,” he added. “Things were truly different on Sept. 10th. It does motivate me, every day.”

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