ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — Lt. Col. Scott Crogg can still remember the little things as he sat in the cockpit of his F-16 Fighting Falcon 10 years ago.
Clear blue skies, his wingman Maj. Scott Brotherton and no other planes in the sky — except for the large jet trailing behind him.
It was Air Force One, and Crogg was charged with protecting "a valuable package."
"It was an interesting day," he said.
Crogg, a reservist and commander of the 44th Fighter Group at Holloman Air Force Base — he's also a licensed commercial pilot for Delta Airlines — was tasked that day with protecting President George W. Bush and Air Force One as it trekked across the heartland of America in the midst of terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
"I was in an F-16 unit in the Texas Air National Guard, which ironically is the same unit President Bush spent his military service time in — the 111th Fighter Squadron at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston," he said. "I was sitting alert the day before 9/11. I never sleep well on alert because there are a lot of other guys out there and you might be awakened in the middle of the night to check out some unknown aircraft or helicopter."
No sooner had Crogg drifted off to sleep after his 24-hour shift, news of an airliner striking the north tower of the World Trade Center was broadcast. Soon after came live video of a second plane crashing into the south tower.
"When I saw the second airplane hit, I think that triggered something in all of us. I made the decision to go into work," he said.
As Ellington's director of operations at the time, Crogg began calling his crew into work. He also began preparing his F-16 for takeoff.
"I took the first person who came in to work — Maj. Shane Brotherton — and we left," he said. "Two planes had already scrambled to meet President Bush on his way west from Sarasota, Fla. We jumped into our planes and proceeded to meet Air Force One."
Air Force One was destined to land first at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., to refuel. That is also where the president recorded a quick statement for nationwide broadcast.
But before Air Force One could land, Crogg first had to "sanitize" the area above Barksdale.
"We set up a combat air patrol, which basically is sanitizing the area and making sure there were no threats over the base in Louisiana," he said. "When (Air Force One) got airborne, we followed them to Nebraska. We visually picked them up around 10 a.m. Central Time."
Crogg said the combat air patrol flights over Barksdale that day reminded him of earlier missions he had flown in the Middle East.
"I've flown over that patch of the United States lots of times, but to be flying over that area doing circles, looking for threats and sanitizing — the same thing I'd been doing for years taking off from Saudi Arabia and flying over Iraq as part of NATO's no-fly zone ... that really hit home. And there we were doing it over the United States.
"I think it was at that moment when everyone knew things were going to be different."
Crogg said he was unaware of Air Force One's intended destination, and since military pilots aren't capable of stowing maps of the entire country in the cockpit, he had to rely on maps of Texas and Louisiana — at least for a short time.
"We didn't know where we were going and no one would tell us over the radio, which I don't blame them," he said.
Crogg followed Air Force One for the next hour to Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. After that, he remembers gathering as many maps of the country as he could just in case his mission wasn't complete.
"We weren't sure when we were going home," he said.
After several hours of waiting at Offutt, Crogg learned his mission was to continue.
"I was informed that Bush didn't want other escorts between Nebraska and Washington, D.C.," he said. "He specifically requested that he would like for us to go with him."
Like most Americans on that day, he wanted to get in touch with his family to let them know of his safety.
"Being military members, all we could do was make a phone call and say, 'I can't tell you where I am. I can't really tell you what I'm doing. I'm fine. I'll call you tonight.' We couldn't talk about it until that mission was done," he said.
As the lead escort, Crogg felt a sense of loneliness piloting the skies between Nebraska and Washington, D.C.
"It was surreal because there was nobody else airborne," he said. "I'm also a pilot for Delta Airlines. It was bizarre being one of the only airplanes to be airborne. Any airplane that was spoken about by AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) was something we needed to identify. We couldn't allow anything to get close to the president."
If an unidentified aircraft were to approach Air Force One, Crogg said he would have been forced to engage — even if it meant killing a fellow commercial airline pilot, the crew and passengers.
"I guarantee you nobody wanted to be that guy," he said. "We had explicit guidance that (downing a commercial jet) was now on the table. This came down from the top. We would have waited until it was absolutely 100 percent obvious because there's one guarantee: when you shoot down an airliner, at least 200 people are going to die.
"We just had to have a lot of faith that someone else had more information than we did that an airplane was worth more to us down than up — and also knowing that those people were probably going to perish anyway if it flew into something."
Crogg escorted Air Force One to Andrews Air Force Base. He watched from the end of the runway as Bush deplaned and boarded Marine One, the presidential helicopter that eventually took him back to the White House.
"By the time we got our airplanes in the hangar, shut them down and got to our hotel, the president was addressing the nation from the Oval Office," he said. "It was then that we felt like we did our part, so we called our families and told them what we were doing."
Crogg remembers the following day when he returned home to Houston.
"It was a really long, early morning — and lonely — flight back," he said. "I talked to no one on the way back to Houston, other than to hand off air traffic control centers. Being an airline pilot, I'm used to hearing the radio going nonstop and not being able to get a word in edge-wise. I think I talked with three people on that flight back. It was really bizarre."
Crogg continues to fly for Delta, which has granted him a military leave of absence for almost five years. But, he said things "just aren't the same" as before Sept. 11, 2001.
"It went from being a fun job where you could leave the door open and talk with the rest of the air crew to being sealed up behind a reinforced steel door," he said. "When you shut the door for a flight, you don't come out unless you absolutely have to use the restroom or there's something else going on.
"I think we've all gotten used to it."Comment on this story
And Crogg said passengers have approached him and the flight crew about "suspicious-looking people."
"It freaks people out if someone on a plane is speaking Arabic ... and he's a young male. People must have faith that TSA did their job, baggage handlers did their job and everyone that has access to restricted areas did their jobs.
"Myself and the flight crew ... we all have families, too. If we thought a flight was unsafe, we wouldn't go. It's not worth it."
Information from: Alamogordo Daily News, http://www.alamogordonews.com