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9/11: When flying — and the Bozeman airport — changed

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It was a mistake.

That was what Bozeman Airport Director Brian Sprenger thought 20 years ago when, while getting ready for work with the news on TV, he saw American Airlines Flight 11 collide with one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sprenger knew of an instance in the 1940s where a military plane, flying into New York City through a thick fog, collided with the Empire State Building when pilots brought the plane lower in an attempt to see through the fog. That’s what he thought this was, at least at first — a tragic accident.

But when he saw United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower fewer than 20 minutes later, Sprenger knew.

“By the time the second one hit, it was obvious, though, that this was absolutely intentional,” he said.

At the time, Sprenger was the assistant director of the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport. He had already been in contact with the airport in the time between the first and second collisions. After Flight 175 hit the tower, airport employees “immediately” began securing the aircrafts on the field, he said.

At 9:42 a.m. Eastern time, the Federal Aviation Administration released a directive: no planes in the United States were to take off. Planes in the air were to be diverted to the nearest available airport to land.

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An emergency transmission from the Federal Aviation Administration on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bozeman airport at Gallatin Field was much less busy than it is today, and the first arrivals during the early aughts weren’t scheduled to land until about noon.

That scheduled plane didn’t touch down on the tarmac at the airport that day, but military planes did.

That day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in the midst of a six-day emergency management convention at Big Sky Resort. Many state and national FEMA responders, including the agency director and the emergency coordinator for New York state, were here in Montana when 9/11 happened.

The responders needed to get back to the city, and Bozeman was the nearest airport.

“For a brief moment there on Sept. 11, later that day, we were probably one of the busiest airports in the nation,” Sprenger said. “We had military aircrafts that were falling into Bozeman to pick up many of these individuals.”

About 200 people were attending the conference, including emergency coordinators from 38 states, according to a Chronicle story from the next day. The resort went on lockdown, Gallatin County Commissioners declared a state of emergency and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office blockaded roads in and out of the resort because of the FEMA presence in the area.

Several hours after the towers were hit, key disaster officials, like New York’s Emergency Coordinator Ed Jacobi and National Director Joe M. Allbaugh, were picked up by federal aircraft. While Gallatin Field saw two large military transport planes, a federal propeller plane and an Air Force fighter jet touch down and take off during the day, FEMA staffers didn’t confirm that those officials had departed from Big Sky until that evening. Following the air departures, about 55 additional FEMA employees left Big Sky on a bus for another military flight out of Montana.

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State and federal emergency management officials make their way to a waiting Air Force jet Sept. 12, 2001, at Gallatin Field.

As an airport director, Sprenger has a good grasp on the ins and outs of airports, especially the one he’s worked at for decades. In some ways, airport security and flying in general hasn’t changed a ton since 9/11.

In other ways, there are major differences.

Pre-9/11, passengers still had to go through metal detectors and have their baggage scanned by X-ray before getting on a flight. But the TSA didn’t exist then, and all that security was overseen by the airlines, which were in turn overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Probably the thing that was more of a change was that checked baggage began to be screened more,” Sprenger said. “It wasn’t uncommon (prior to 9/11) for international fights to have international bags screened but, domestically, it was not required at that time.”

airport security

Stephen Allen, left, and Elisha Skorupa shuffle checked luggage headed for commercial airplanes under the terminal at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

The screening was also much more lax than it is now, which is how the terrorists who hijacked the planes used on 9/11 were able to bring the box cutters used to hijack the planes on board on their person or in a carry-on or personal bag.

“A pocket knife with a blade less than 3 inches long could be taken onto the aircraft, and that ultimately was one of the loopholes that the terrorists took advantage of when they used the box cutters,” Sprenger said. “It was very, very much an acceptable item, at that point, to take onto the aircraft.”

Now, any knives that are not round-bladed butter knives have to be in checked bags.

Non-passengers were also allowed into the screening and gate area at airports prior to the 9/11 attacks, but Bozeman was a little different in that aspect. Simply because of space — the gate area was very small at the time, Sprenger said — only a limited number of non-passengers were allowed into the secure area at the Bozeman airport.

airport security

Sarah Klenk, from Boston, pushes her bags towards the security screening machine before flying home from Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

The rules prior to 9/11 were aimed at preventing hijacking, but the idea had never really been that the hijacking would involve killing, at least on a mass scale. Instead, the security in place pre-9/11 was intended to stop hijackers who, historically, would direct pilots to fly and land a plane somewhere they weren’t supposed to go, often Cuba, to “make a statement”, Sprenger said.

“There was a lot of evolution in what the threats were,” he said. “We don’t know what we don’t know, but when we do know, it changes everything.”

With that evolution of the threat came an evolution of understanding how to prevent it, or at least how to try. At first, the rules were much more strict than they are today.

For instance, for a stretch of time after the attacks, knitting needles weren’t allowed in carry-on luggage. They were later approved as safe, as the threat evolved from something that could potentially be used to hijack a plane in the wrong hands to items that pose a larger threat to airborne aircraft, like explosives or firearms.

The local airport was one of the only American airports to have airline activity on the day of 9/11, bringing the FEMA officials back to where they needed to be to manage the response to the attack. But it was also one of the first to open after the fact.

“There were several days where there was basically no air traffic at all,” he said. “We responded very quickly with several things to incorporate higher levels of security at the airport. Every airport in the nation got a specific security inspection, and we were one of the early inspections and also one of the first to be authorized to reopen.”

Even after airplanes began to take off again, people were hesitant to fly. A former flight attendant told the Chronicle that, on a plane with enough seating for more than 150 people bound from San Francisco to New York City after the attacks, only 37 passengers were on board.

But, as is often the case, more rural airports like the Bozeman airport were a little bit different. Now Bozeman’s airport is often considered the busiest in the state, setting records for 10 years in a row before the pandemic.

“We started to see traffic turn around quicker in our market than a lot of the nation because, at the end of the day, Montana is still remote,” Sprenger said. “Much like COVID, people that were still willing to travel looked for safe havens to travel to, and Montana becomes that.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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