"We were the only ones in the air, the only ones traffic control was talking to. It was so bizarre. We didn't know if someone was going to blow us out of the sky, or what."
John Howard is talking about Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a captain in the U.S. Air Force. The entire country had been grounded after the four airplane hijackings by al-Qaeda that ultimately killed more than 3,000 people.
Howard was based in Nashville, Tenn., when his squadron got the call. One baby was dying in Nashville, another baby in Houston could be saved with a liver transplant.
The story of what transpired next will be the centerpiece of Howard's speech on Sept. 20 at the 12th annual Honoring Those Who Served Luncheon sponsored by U.S.VETS — Long Beach. The event at the Hyatt Regency supports the services provided to more than 800 military veterans in the Long Beach area.
Howard now owns the first free-standing Chick-fil-A franchise in Los Angeles County, opened in 2006 at the Long Beach Town Center. He says he decided to go the business owner route instead of becoming a commercial pilot because he could have a direct impact on more people at the restaurant then in a 737 cockpit.
Having an impact is exactly the motivation behind what has become a famous flight on an infamous day.
Howard's path began in Compton, with a move to Long Beach at age 13. He earned a ROTC scholarship to college, and used it to go to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, earning a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science — and a commission in the United States Air Force. After flight training and more, Howard settled into a C-130 squadron.
"We flew missions all around," Howard said. "The C-130 is a cargo plane, so we transported equipment, troops, whatever. One of our assignments was to deliver the presidential limousines and Secret Service agents when the President, that was Bush, would travel."
Howard's squadron completed a mission on Sept. 10, 2001, landing in Nashville around 9 p.m. He wasn't supposed to fly the next day.
"We woke up like normal," Howard said. "Then we saw what was unfolding on television.
"Then the Tennessee Donor Services called and said they had a baby's liver that needed to get to Houston. They had planned to use a business jet, but all traffic had been grounded. So they asked us to fly."
As copilot, Howard was tasked with filing the flight plan. Then the crew taxied onto the runway.
"The flight wasn't approved until we were on the runway," Howard said. "We sat there waiting for that approval, with nothing but that baby's liver onboard."
At noon Central time, the okay came for the flight. Load master Tracey Hobbs took custody of the styrofoam container, and the C-130 took off.
The two-hour flight to Houston was uneventful, if tense, Howard said. The plane was allowed to return to Nashville once the delivery was made. Howard said he waited to call his family until after he was safely on the ground back in Houston.
The liver recipient is alive and well, and some of the people involved in that humanitarian mission are expected to be at the luncheon Sept. 20.
"It's guaranteed to be a meaningful afternoon," said Mike Murray, chair of the U.S.VETS — Long Beach advisory board. "Amazing story, amazing people. You couldn't ask for more."
The event begins at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at the Hyatt Regency, 200 S. Pine Ave. Individual tickets, $135, and table sponsorships, $1,250, still are available. To order, go to bit.ly/usvets.luncheon.
For more information, call 562-200-7309.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at email@example.com.