• Michael Gray

A Bomb on a Plane

September 11, 2001

At 8:01 a.m., we were the second flight scheduled to take off from the DFW Airport for LaGuardia. Each morning, a slate of planes took off for the eastern seaboard—Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. My plane was crammed full of passengers and jet fuel. As fate would have it, we happened to be the first of the eastbound planes to pull back.


I taxied to the runway and received clearance to take off.

Advancing the throttles up to 80 knots, I headed down the runway and heard a voice in my headset. “American 708. DFW Tower. Cancel takeoff clearance.”


This never happened.


I glanced at my copilot to make sure I’d heard that right. He nodded, so I aborted the takeoff.


As I pulled to the taxiway, the morning got stranger. The tower ordered me back in line. I asked for some information and they said, “A small airplane has hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.”


I informed the crew and passengers of the delay and told them we were waiting for further instructions. A few minutes later, the flight attendants buzzed me. “Some of the passengers have AM radios and they’re listening to the news. It’s not a small plane but a commercial jet like ours. One passenger said it was ours.”


“Okay,” I said. “We’re trying to find out now.”


Back in line, I had four planes in front of me and five planes to the rear. As the aircraft idled in line, my ACARS printer dinged. I looked down and saw a roll of paper spitting up. I pulled on it so I could read the words. “Captain Toler. There is a POSITIVE SABOTAGE THREAT on board. Return to the gate as soon as possible.”


A “positive sabotage threat” told me I had a bomb on board. I read the rest of the message. “Do not respond on the radio. It’s being monitored. Call dispatch from the gate using a landline phone.”


Instantly, my heart took off. I had a ticking time bomb on board, yet I was stuck in line. Like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, there was nowhere to go.


I contacted the control tower but couldn’t tell them my problem. I searched for words to convey the urgency of the situation but stumbled over them. It was maddening.


“Uh, DFW Tower. America 708. I’ve got a mechanical problem. You need to let me return to the gate now.”


“American 708. What kind of mechanical problem?”


“It’s a problem that requires my immediate return to the gate.”


“Can’t you wait until the planes ahead clear?”


“Negative. I must return now.”

After several back and forth conversations like that, they managed to get everybody out of the way. They put some on the runway and put others on a parallel taxiway. I taxied to the nearest perpendicular taxiway and drove to the ramp fast. But I needed to tell the passengers something, especially if the bomber was on board.


“Folks, this is the captain speaking. We have a mechanical problem—a red light on the control panel. We need to get it checked out back at the ramp. Sorry for the delay. I’ll need you to deplane when we reach the gate.”


Now I had another problem. “American 708. Ramp Control. The gates are completely full.”

“Sir,” I said forcefully, “we have a mechanical problem and need to get the passengers off this plane.”


This was bad. The bomber could easily see that I was trying to pull into a gate and let the passengers off. If he was able, he could detonate it now. If the bomb had a timer, every second meant we were that much closer to an explosion. But if by chance the bomb had an altitude sensor exploding the plane at 20,000 feet, then we were safe. I pondered the possibilities.


Triggering a bomb remotely would require the bomber to be on board and use a wireless device. If so, he was ready to die for his cause.


As I turned it over in my mind, it was likely on a timer. Still, I hoped for an altitude sensor.


The flight attendant buzzed me and said, “Captain, we just heard from a passenger that another commercial jet has flown into the second tower.”


This wasn’t going to be an ordinary day. There was no way I was flying this plane anywhere. I had to get my crew and passengers off now!


I clicked on the radio. “Ramp Control. This is American 708. You have five minutes to open a gate or I am deploying the slides. Then you guys can worry about how you’re going to get the passengers up to the terminal because they’re going to be out there walking around on the ramp.”


That did it. They backed out a plane that had not started boarding to make room for us. I pulled my plane in and slammed on the brakes. We hustled the passengers off, letting them take their carry-ons. What the authorities did with the passengers, I have no idea.


Once everyone was off, I raced to a bank of payphones in the gate area and told them the aircraft was clear.


“Captain Toler,” they said, “we need to clear the airplane before we send the dogs on board. Make sure the plane is completely empty.”


I had to go back onto the plane—the one with the ticking time bomb—and search the lavatories, under the seats, anywhere a person could hide. If the bomb exploded while I was there, my survival rate was slim. I took a deep breath, straightened my cap, and walk down the jetway.


For the rest of the story, buy the book, The Dog That Saved Me, at this link. https://tinyurl.com/y8f35ggy


Author Bio: After twenty-eight good years with American Airlines, Captain Tom Toler retired in 2004. In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard swore him in when he earned his Master of Steam or Motor Vessels of not more than 100 Tons Upon or Near Coastal Waters. He spent the next ten years traveling all over America’s lakes, rivers, and coasts. After fifty years of life in the skies and on the water, Captain Tom came back to land where he spends his time giving speeches and meeting with book clubs and other groups. You can contact Captain Tom at CaptainTomToler@gmail.com.

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