Remembering a 9/11 Hero through the Eyes of a Friend
Captain Jason M. Dahl, United Flight 93 Pilot
By Mary Jacoby Hastings
There are countless untold stories from the millions affected by September 11, 2001. Inside information that never made the news continues to be revealed, sometimes subtly. Among the stories are those from pilots like United Airlines Pilot Tom Bush of Littleton, Colorado who was about to take his flight into the air just as the FAA sent out the urgent message to return to the gate.
On September 9, 2001, Bush arrived in New York from Denver where he says he had the urge to visit the World Trade Center, something he had always wanted to do, but never more so than now. After an overnight layover in the big apple, Bush was detained at La Guardia. A front moving through New York forced air traffic to engage in severe weather avoidance procedures (SWAP), which impacted numerous cities. Bush’s flight scheduled to leave New York for Chicago was among those delayed. As he, the crew and passengers waited on the tarmac for four hours, Bush visited with passengers in the first class cabin as he looked out at the Manhattan skyline and the Twin Towers he had hoped to visit. “I remember just looking at them,” says Bush.
It was late at night on September 10, 2001, by the time Bush had flown from New York to Chicago and on to Columbus. Because the FAA sets a minimum rest period for all pilots and crews, Bush was unable to get back into the air until roughly 10 a.m. the morning of September 11, 2001. It was a clear day for flying on 9/11. The inclement weather from the previous day had moved on leaving the air crisp and fresh.
Bush headed to operations to sign off on a Columbus to Chicago flight plan that morning. As he was doing so, he noted something unusual was unfolding when he heard a breaking news alert coming from an adjoining room. He stepped into the crew lounge and looked up at the television monitor just as a plane crashed into the second tower, the north tower of the World Trade Center at 9:41 a.m.
“Weird,” he thought as he caught sight of what he thought was a small plane crashing into a New York high rise. “I knew we were under attack, but I thought it was a small plane,” remembers Bush.
“At that point, I just wanted to get in the air and head west,” thought Bush as he continued to do his job.
When his flight was cleared for takeoff from Columbus back to Chicago, Bush and his crew finished the final checklist and started to push back from the gate. At this point, an announcement over the radio informed his crew that all runways were closed. After firing up the engines, Bush returned to the gate at which time passengers disembarked. The flight crew was then instructed to taxi to a holding area. Bush says planes “were just dropping out of the sky;” every pilot ordered to land at the nearest airport. The small Columbus airport was overwhelmed and pilots were scrambling to get large jetliners out of the way to make room for more incoming flights. A lot of juggling took place on the runways of Columbus that day.
“People had a real sense of what was happening by then,” says Bush. The main cabin had been buzzing with chatter from the passengers as text messages began arriving with news of what was taking place to the east. Once back in the terminal, Bush observed that absolutely everyone was glued to the television monitors in the concourse.
It became increasingly apparent that something on the scale of an unheard of national tragedy was unfolding. Little did he know at the time but someone Bush knew well…a neighbor, a friend and fellow pilot was soon to become part of history on yet another day of infamy for America.
Bush was a neighbor and friend of United Airlines Captain Jason M. Dahl, the pilot of the ill-fated United Flight 93 that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside outside Shanksville on September 11, 2001.
This was a flight that Dahl voluntarily took to keep logging airtime. He made specific accommodations to set a schedule that would allow him to be home for his fifth wedding anniversary on September 14, 2001. The pilot originally scheduled to sit in the cockpit that day had stepped aside to allow Dahl to take Flight 93. Dahl, like Bush, was a training pilot that spent most of his time with flight simulators, but was required to log a mandatory number of hours within a given amount of time.
Things began to unravel for Captain Jason M. Dahl, pilot of United Flight 9/11 when he received a text message from the United Airlines Dispatch Center warning about cockpit intrusions immediately following the events that transpired in New York City. Dahl sent a response to confirm the message just as the cockpit doors crashed open and Dahl was heard shouting, “Get out of here!”…signs of a struggle ensued…then, silence.
As he sat in his hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, Bush wondered if he might know someone that may have been on one of the doomed airliners. Bush’s wife Diane called as he searched for information. After a long pause, she was able to get the words out, “It was Jason.” Another long pause followed as the reality sank in, it was Bush’s colleague Jason Dahl that was piloting United Flight 93 out of Newark on a San Francisco-bound route.
Just days prior Bush and Dahl had been helping a neighbor with a hot tub installation. That was the way friends and neighbors remember Dahl, someone that always happened to have just the right tools at hand and was ready to help anyone in need.
Fellow pilot Bush describes Dahl as, “very well-respected amongst pilots as an instructor and evaluator. In essence he was a great aviator.”
Jason Dahl is a San Jose State alumnus who, as Bush puts it, “always did things in a big way…never did things half-assed.” Dahl loved golf so he installed a putting green in his yard. His wife Sandy thought a fountain would be a nice addition to the garden. In typical fashion for Dahl, he took the idea over the top, installing a pond and a fountain where Sandy could sit and just enjoy the peaceful sounds. According to Sandy, “I just asked for a little fountain and got ‘Lake Sandy.’”
Dahl found great pleasure in doing caring things for others and had a special soft spot for his wife, preferring to indulge Sandy whenever possible. He had planned to surprise her with a piano on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary the following Friday. The piano was delivered on schedule, but Dahl was not there to share the moment. Had things gone as Dahl planned, the couple would have been flying to London on September 14 to celebrate their anniversary.
Perhaps one of the most touching stories about Dahl’s devotion to his wife involves a surprise gift that presented itself months after Dahl’s untimely death. Unbeknownst to her, Dahl secretly planted daffodil bulbs hoping to surprise Sandy when they bloomed in the spring.
Dahl’s now 25-year old son, Jason Matthew Dahl, Jr., earned a degree in astrophysics and remembers his father as the man everyone seemed to like.
The day a private memorial was planned at Dahl’s Littleton, Colorado home, Bush was asked to help transport guests in Dahl’s truck. Bush was the first to sit in the vehicle since it was delivered to the house from the airport. The moment Bush climbed into the cab, he realized he was sitting in a hallowed space. There in front of him on the seat were Dahl’s notes from the training center. Included were Dahl’s notes to himself about whom he needed to call and details of his upcoming schedule. It was a moment Bush will never forget.
Bush recalls discussing the events of 9/11 with a fellow pilot, years later. This particular pilot was instructed to pull back to the gate at Dulles International after he had taxied to the runway. He was told the system had been shut down, which prevented him from taking to the sky. The pilot later realized how lucky everyone on his plane was that day.
It appears his flight may have been one of the 757-767s targeted by the terrorists. Reportedly, five Muslim-appearing men were observed nervously switching seats and sending text messages in the back of the cabin. The men were noted as acting suspiciously. When the doors of the airliner opened, the men scrambled out of the plane before other passengers could disembark. The men had no luggage and were not seen again. It will never be known how many other disasters may have been averted the day the FAA brought air traffic to a grinding halt.
Bush has returned to Shanksville several times. In 2008, he met with Wally, the town coroner, and heard him recount events from 9/11. Wally was sitting with the police chief and fire chief as they watched events unfolding in New York City on 9/11 when one of the men commented, “Can you imagine that happening here?” Within moments the ground shook violently as United Flight 93 crashed nose-first into a nearby field. The moment was surreal.
Instantly, the Shanksville coroner was thrust into the limelight as he directed personnel in the biggest emergency operation anyone could have imagined anywhere. This was his jurisdiction and the enormity of the situation took on a life of its own. Body parts and burning fragments from the airliner hung from trees and littered the area for up to a half mile as FBI agents and other security agencies arrived and cordoned the area off as a crime scene.
Today, three hybrid tea rose bushes grow in the San Jose elementary school garden where Dahl went to school, each planted in his honor. Hillsdale Elementary School, as it was known when Dahl attended, has been renamed Jason M. Dahl Elementary School. The San Jose Mercury News reports that Dahl’s kindergarten teacher wrote on his report card, “Jason does everything with zest.”
A permanent memorial to Dahl stands as a tribute to his character and heroism at the entrance to the gated community where Dahl had lived.
NASCAR Account Executive Rob Quillen’s chance meeting with Dahl on a September 10, 2001, Denver to Newark flight inspired him to write a book based on Jason’s outlook on life, “I never met a stranger.” The book, Why Wait? Fulfilling Dreams from Tragedy, is scheduled to be released soon. All proceeds from the book’s sale will be donated to charity.
Every year United Triple7 Captain David Dosch, a close friend of Dahl returns to Shanksville on the anniversary of 9/11. Today, he is the president of the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund, started by Dahl’s wife Sandy and close friends Dan Hatelstadt, Tom Wellborn and Kevin Larson. The all-volunteer Board awards annual scholarships.
Fellow Board member Bush says, “9/11 and being a friend, neighbor and co-worker with Jason, inspired me to join and dedicate myself to the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund. Jason made friends with everyone he met.”
The United Airline Pilots Association gave an additional $10K—$2,500 each—to charities of the four pilots that were killed and United Airlines instituted an employee giving program, “Just a Buck.” Individual charities have been established in the names of: Captain Jason Dahl First and Officer LeRoy Homer (Flight 93), Captain Vic Saracini and First Officer Michael Horrocks (Flight 175).
About that gift, which presented itself following Dahl’s passing, a plethora of beautiful daffodils came up from the ground at the Dahl home in the spring of 2002. A very surprised and delighted Sandy Dahl knew then, her beloved husband could continue to find ways to make others happy, even in death. Jason Dahl left a legacy in so many ways and his memory, along with those of over 3,000 others will never be forgotten.
For information on the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund or information on aviation scholarships, visit: www.dahlfund.org. For information on Rob Quillen’s Why Wait, visit: www.headlinebooks.com.