A Publication of Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport

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Special Issue

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Impact in Wichita

The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, affected every community across the country. While America watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers fell, airports throughout the U.S. dealt with thousands of diverted flights that were forced to land at once. Here is our story, told by the people who lived it.

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Land Immediately

"Bring all the planes down"

Wichita Eagle 9/11 cover

stranded traveler praying at airport A stranded traveler prays at the airport. Photos courtesy of Wichita Eagle

Shortly after the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta issued an order never given outside of military exercises: “Bring all the planes down.” Soon after, planes started landing at Mid-Continent Airport.

As many as 40 unscheduled airliners and 7 cargo planes were landing one right after another, many much larger than what ICT usually handled. Pat Pelkowski came in early to help the Air Traffic Control tower. “It was an eerie sight,” he said. “Within two hours, the entire U.S. airspace was empty except for military planes.”

As quickly as aircraft touched down on the 19-R, the west runway, they were taxied away to keep it open for another landing. “I was at Gate 3 and heard thrusters from planes landing constantly,” former Continental Airlines Station Manager Vern Oakes said. “Every airline helped each other. As airlines came in, they were unloaded and parked on a taxiway.”

Airlines were parked up and down the crosswind runway and taxiway, both of which are 6,000 ft. Airlines also parked on the east runway and airfield ramps.

Chief of Airport Police and Fire Roger Xanders saw the unique sight as he returned to work after getting off at 7 that morning. “I looked up in the sky to the north – it was a stairstep of airlines coming in, landing on both runways.” The number of planes quickly exceeded Mid-Continent’s gate capacity, which meant planes had to drop passengers off and then get moved to an alternate taxiway.

Cross-country flights found that their destination was now ICT. No fewer than 10 America West flights landed at Wichita. But despite the chaos, confusion and minimal information, the entire grounding operation took less than 30 minutes. The final plane to land was a JetBlue airliner. “Thirty-plus aircraft from all different walks of life landed here,” said Bruce Despommier, who worked the ATC tower that day. “We were able to do our job in a timely manner… It seemed like 5 hours, but it was about 25 minutes.”


airline employees and passengers at wichita airport on 911

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Wichita: A Special Place

"I Saw America Come Together"

displaced passengers More than 1,300 passengers were displaced from diverted planes. Courtesy of Wichita Eagle.

The terminal teemed with more than 1,300 passengers. Airport and airline personnel worked immediately to assist them, unloading baggage and finding hotel space for stranded travelers. Calls flooded in from Wichita residents offering their homes to these strangers.

The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Sedgwick County Emergency Management and City of Wichita personnel arrived at the airport. Food arrived from local businesses including Papa John’s and Lamar’s Donuts.

In responding to the horrific events, Environmental Manager Mike Boes was struck by the generosity of Wichita and its people. “Seeing aircraft of all design landing at our airport and the numerous and seemingly flawless actions it took to land, taxi, and park aircraft, plus deplaning, and providing food and shelter for the passengers was amazing,” he said. “At the time it was a blur with all of us helping where needed in a flurry of pizza boxes and bottled water. The outpouring of help from Wichita businesses and manpower was a proud moment. Wichita is truly a special place in time of need.”

In the pre-smartphone era, communications was another challenge to overcome. Jorge Munevar, the IT manager, found ways for stranded passengers to contact family and friends, placing more phones at Gate 9. He contacted Cox Communication to get a cable modem and provide internet service to the entire airport. He borrowed computers from the City to allow passengers to check e-mails, make reservations and stay connected. “Working with Cox,” he said, “we were able to provide this service in less than five hours after all aircraft were grounded.”

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Safety officers worked 50-80 hours extra that week, as did other airport employees, and those of FBOs and the government. “I saw America come together,” Xanders said. “We gave our all. I can see how thankful people were. To see everybody come together does make you feel good.”

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    The individuals coming off that airplane were just terrified. Not only not speaking English but not knowing what was going on.”

    — Xanders on EL AL passengers

  • Roger Xanders, Airport Police Chief

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    I went up the steps to the airplane, knocked on the cockpit, and said ‘I’m with Continental Airlines; could I help?’ ”

    — Vern Oakes, Continental Airlines Station Manager

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    Working with Cox, we were able to provide this service in less than five hours after all aircraft were grounded.”

    — Jorge Munevar, IT Manager

  • Bruce Despommier, Air Traffic Control

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    Our guests said they were ‘lucky to land in Wichita,’ a city with many friendly people.”

    — Valerie Wise, Air Service Manager

el al flight 005 passengers

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El Al Flight 005

"You Opened Your Hearts and Lives to Us"

One plane that landed that morning was unique. EL AL Flight 005 was en route to LAX from Tel Aviv, Israel, after stopping at JFK. The first international flight to land at Mid-Continent carried 134 people, mostly Israelis. Wichita was their introduction to the United States for most of them.

Without EL AL representatives to handle the passengers at ICT, the city itself adopted them. Mayor Bob Knight and City Manager Chris Cherches came up to the plane, Oakes recalled. They worked on accommodations and asked how they could help this group. The Israelis were frightened. Oakes connected the EL AL pilot with his friend in Tel Aviv through a special telephone patch in New York. “You are a gift from God!” the pilot told Oakes. His friend was able to speak to the passengers and explain what was happening. They were in tears as they finally exited the plane.

Airline employees unloaded their bags and since they were on an extended stay in the U.S., they had a lot of bags.

The elderly lady who was frightened and in tears was all smiles and waving the American flag.

wichita community responding to grounded travelers The community responds to grounded travelers. Courtesy of Wichita Eagle

Valerie Wise, Air Service Manager recalled, “I can remember one elderly Israeli lady who was frightened and in tears. She could not speak English and I felt badly for her. The rabbi from the local Jewish Federation had been contacted and came to the airport to interpret and provide assistance. Members of the Jewish Federation brought kosher food for them.”

The EL AL passengers found a temporary home at Camp Hiawatha, a Salvation Army facility, where Yia Yia’s delivered food. Wichita and Sedgwick County rolled out the red carpet for them. City buses took them to Exploration Place, Cowtown Museum, Botanica, Cabaret at Old Town and the Sedgwick County Zoo, with all admissions waived.

wichita eagle article about el al travelers

On Thursday, two days after the attacks, most of the diverted airplanes were able to depart, including the EL AL flight. “The elderly lady who was frightened and in tears was all smiles and waving the American flag,” Wise said. Members of the flight wrote a letter to The Wichita Eagle thanking the region: “We truly appreciate all your support and kindness, as you opened your hearts and lives to us at a time when you yourselves are grieving.” Download article "The Week the Israelis Came to Wichita"

“ICT was one of the first airports open for aircraft other than military,” Pelkowski said. That happened because of the rapid change to temporarily enhance security measures taken by airport personnel. Permanent measures were put in place after 9/11, including increased staffing by 50% to meet new requirements. The opening of the new terminal at Eisenhower National Airport in 2015 added more security for travelers.

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Always Remember

We will always remember the nearly 3,000 people who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the fields of Pennsylvania from United Flight 93. We also remember the sacrifices made by first responders and military members and their families. We are truly grateful for the entire Wichita Airport team and community members who stepped up to help during this crisis and the years that followed:

  • Salvation Army, Camp Hiawatha and their entire staff
  • Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation
  • Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Aloof
  • Congregation Emanuel and Rabbi Davis
  • Sedgwick County Emergency Management
  • American Red Cross
  • Cox Communications
  • Comm Link
  • HMS/Host Food Services
  • Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • Wichita Festivals, Inc.
  • Exploration Place
  • Sedgwick County Zoo
  • Botanica
  • Yia Yia’s
  • Timberline Steakhouse
  • Papa John’s
  • Old Chicago
  • Lamar Donuts
  • Sam’s Club
  • City Departments:
    • Airport
    • Transit
    • Police
    • Fire
    • City Manager’s Office
    • And numerous others including churches, individuals, and businesses, many of whom showed up on their own to provide food, assistance, cell phones and lodging.