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“I was just doing my job,” Chris Tucker said. I asked him about 9/11.

Chris is a former New York City air traffic controller.

He spent the whole day trying to keep the passengers of two hijacked planes safe.

This episode is his story.

Show Notes:

  • Episode Preview – [0:00]
  • I welcome Chris Tucker on the show. The reason I had him on is because I heard him speak at an event. And it was riveting. Chris spoke about his personal experience trying to keep the passengers of two hijacked planes safe – [2:55]
  • I tell Chris my experience that morning. I was a hedge fund manager. It was one of the most beautiful days in New York City. I saw the plane. And my business partner thought it was the president. The plane flew over us. Everyone ducked. It was so loud. And so fast. And we watched the plane go right into the building – [4:06]
  • Chris says why he became an air traffic controller – [6:56]
  • Why New York City is too stressful to live in – [8:02]
  • How Chris’ solo sailboat trip gave him clarity. And helped him see what he wanted to do with his life. He said, “The nice thing about being in the middle of the ocean with no one else around you is that you can find some clarity that for some bizarre reason is not attainable when you’re in the normal world.” – [8:57]
  • I ask “How long does it take to get a pilot’s license?” He breaks down the process. – [9:54]
  • “Flying is, in general, very safe, but that having been said, airplanes can find ways to kill you that you can’t even dream of.” – [12:18]
  • Chris’ scariest moment in a plane. He says it was very similar to what happened to JFK Jr. – [12:32]
  • How Chris transitioned from pilot to air traffic controller – [16:37]
  • I ask Chris, “How close can two jets get before they start to affect each other?” – [19:33]
  • Chris gives an example of how two aircraft accidentally impacted each other. And caused turbulence. “That aircraft had to make an emergency landing. But that’s extremely rare,” he said. [22:13]
  • Chris Tucker’s training: he does 3 months and is in the top 40%. He moves to New York and starts apprenticing. It took 3 and a half years to become fully certified. “And the very first day was terrifying.” – [22:45]
  • Chris gives some background information. This helps set the setting for September 11. So we can understand what makes being an air traffic controller so stressful – [23:40]
  • How private jets and small planes impact regular planes – [26:33]
  • Why there’s a 0% chance I’ll get a pilot’s license… Chris tells a story about a time he almost crashed directly into another plane – [29:20]
  • In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers who had a union strike. I ask Chris, “Why did he think he could do that? And why did we survive that?” – [32:06]
  • Chris Tucker starts to tell us about his day on September 11, 2001 – [33:58]
  • Chris was working departures out of JFK airport. And he explains the structure he has to follow to make sure arrivals and departures don’t conflict with each other – [34:45]
  • “I had a lot of work to do,” Chris says as he explains the number of planes he has to vector before ever learning about the hijacked planes – [37:20]
  • The moment Chris finds out there’s a hijacked plane… – [39:13]
  • Everyone was experiencing denial. Chris explains why they didn’t believe there was a real hijack at first… and how that changed – [40:00]
  • The controllers in Boston could hear the hijackers making announcements to the passengers – [41:12]
  • Things change… the hijackers turn off their transponder. “Now we can’t see the altitude the aircraft is broadcasting.” – [43:01]
  • I ask if the military could have intervened in any way. – [45:03]
  • “One of the flight attendants on board called American Airlines and told them that the aircraft had been hijacked and that they had murdered the pilots.” – [46:23]
  • Chris says what they thought the hijackers were going to do… and why they didn’t think a crash was possible – [47:03]
  • Chris calls the military – [47:47]
  • “Every eye in the room is staring at this target…” But they still had other planes to watch. And they did. “It’s part of the job,” Chris said, “…this division of attention.” – [49:20]
  • “In the beginning, it’s like the fog of war. It’s unsettling. It’s disconcerting. Everybody’s not feeling right. And we weren’t trained to project what might happen in the future and what we can do about it. Air traffic controllers keep airplanes apart from one another. And apart from the ground. That’s our job.” – Chris Tucker – [49:49]
  • How Chris learned the North Tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. – [53:01]
  • Chris describes the tension in the room – [54:45]
  • The moment Chris started praying – [1:00:27]
  • How Chris stopped two planes that were 8 miles apart from colliding – [1:00:46]
  • The radar updates every 12 seconds. Chris and his colleagues watch the two hijacked planes on the screen. And debate whether they’re going to land… or if they’re going to crash – [1:07:50]
  • After the planes crashed… Chris screamed at the radar. They didn’t know what to do next. “But at the same time, I had work to do,” Chris said. Because there were other planes in the air that needed to land – [1:09:11]
  • Chris explains the devastating emotional effects crashes have on air traffic controllers – [1:10:30]
  • A few minutes after they watched the plane crash on the radar, Chris and his colleagues found out that it crashed into the World Trade Center. – [1:11:35]
  • We discuss the military’s involvement. And why there was nothing they could do – [1:13:31]
  • The horrifying alternative realities Chris has had to face… – [1:15:21]
  • Chris says how connecting with a particular passenger helped him avoid suffering PTSD – [1:18:53]
  • Chris decided to go see a psychiatrist. He said, “I wasn’t suffering too bad… But nobody in the country, let alone New Yorkers, could get those images out of their head that day, the next day, the next week, the next month.” – [1:20:30]
  • Chris gets an invite from the FFA to meet with the Critical Incidents Stress Management Team. – [1:22:12]
  • I ask Chris, “What are the odds that this can happen again?” [1:25:23]
  • How the airline industry has changed – [1:26:57]
  • What measures of airport security are effective vs. just reactive? – [1:30:39]
  • I thank Chris for everything he did on September 11. And we talk about what he’s up to now – [1:33:37]
  • Chris talks about some of the new technology air traffic controllers are using – [1:35:39]
  • We end on a light note. You’ll hear me ask two naive questions that get Chris laughing – [1:37:19]