FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney Had a Good First Day on the Job

A copy of the Sept. 24, 2001, edition of Time magazine signed by President George W. Bush went to auction in August 2003.

By Jim O’Neal

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was at the Harbor Court Baltimore, a five-star hotel overlooking the spectacular harbor. I was recovering from prostate cancer surgery that, fortunately, had been performed by world-famous surgeon Dr. Patrick Walsh, head of urology at Johns Hopkins.

I was in an overstuffed rented recliner watching CNN when “Breaking News” started on the tragedy in New York City. The news started erratic and devolved into chaotic as the story expanded to cover the Pentagon, President Bush, a third plane, and an abundance of speculation. A fourth plane, United Flight 93, would crash just after 10 a.m. in Shanksville, Pa.

Then there were scattered reports that all domestic flights were being grounded.

This was the work of one man, Ben Sliney, National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration. Although an experienced veteran, Sept. 11 was his first day in this head job. At 9:45 a.m., Sliney issued an order of formidable implications. He had already forbidden any aircraft from taking off from any airport anywhere under his national jurisdiction. He had also already closed the Atlantic and Pacific approaches to the United States and transatlantic planes were diverting to alternatives.

But now, at 9:45, Sliney instructed that a seldom-heard procedure – SCATANA (Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids) – be broadcast to every one of nearly 5,000 commercial airplanes in the air. “This is not drill.” It required ALL aircraft to land IMMEDIATELY at the closest airport. By 11:20, an hour and 35 minutes later, every plane was down … somewhere … on North American ground.

Airports were crowded and millions were inconvenienced, but the intent was achieved. The American skies were empty, except a few jets on patrol, several planes of prisoners and deportees, and some organs en route for transplant. A small irony was that the machine that had done so much to bond the nation had now been employed by an enemy to do the opposite.

I would say Mr. Ben Sliney had a good first day on the new job.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].