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.”
WITHIN TWO HOURS, THE ENTIRE U.S. AIRSPACE WAS EMPTY EXCEPT FOR MILITARY PLANES.