ROBERT SMITH, host:
Finally today, all of us bring something personal to our memories of 9/11. Commentator Joe d'Eon is a commercial airline pilot. He looks back on the tragedy through a pilot's eyes.
Mr. JOE d'EON (Commentator; Pilot): What I saw was the human lives onboard that aircraft and in those buildings, and I closely identified with the pilots and crew of those planes. And one thought hit me right then. I knew for certain that the pilots were already dead, because there is no way one of my comrades would sit by while this happened. They would be dead already.
Now, in order to understand my way of thinking about this, you have to realize I was trained in the military. I went to the Air Force Academy. And we learn to think of our fellow pilots as comrades, as brothers and sisters in arms. We all knew that at sometime or another, we might lose a friend or a loved one in combat.
We didn't dwell on it. But at least once a year we would take time out to reflect on the sacrifices made by our fallen comrades. All the cadets would form up, squadron by squadron, on a large open square we called the terrazzo, and we would have what we called a missing man formation.
Forty squadrons of uniformed young men and women stood rigidly at attention in neat, square blocks, spread out across the large open area. And the one cadet in charge of us all would perform a roll call. He would stand in front of this formal gathering and call up the names of those who have once been in our squadrons but who had now passed away.
And while the normal response to roll call was supposed to be present or accounted for, sir, on these days, you would hear a cadet squadron commander call out across the vast terrazzo in a drawn out, drowning response: absent, sir. It would echo and fade out before another name was called. And it would go on like that, name after name within absent, sir, after each one.
And then, after the last name was called, we would sing the third verse of the Air Force song.
And most of you are familiar with the Air Force song, that rousing patriotic anthem that starts off: off we go into the wild, blue yonder. But you may not know about the third verse. It's a slow somber toast to those who have fallen before us, and we would sing it with reverence.
We were young men and women, trained to fly and fight. And don't forget it, sir. We were professionals. We were ready to take on the world and we were tough.
But on those days, not one of us escaped without a tear in at least one eye, without maybe just a little tightness in the throat.
One year after 9/11, I went to my 20-year class reunion at the academy and they had another missing man formation. I joined my classmates up on an overlook, above where the cadets stood. We were now men and women, older, wiser and for some, battle-hardened. We stood there as the young cadets below called out names and answered: absent, sir.
One of those absent was LeRoy Homer, Jr., Class of 1987, First Officer, United Flight 93.
And then, we sang the third verse of the Air Force Song.
(Soungbite of song, "The Air Force Song")
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Here's a toast to the host of those who love the vastness of the sky. To a friend, we send…
Mr. d'EON: I remember, I stood behind Bob Rank(ph) who showed up wearing the pressed, sharp uniform and shiny eagle insignia designating the rank of full-bird colonel. He sang low and weak like he was choking it out. Much like I was.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Then down they soared to score the rainbow's pot of gold. A toast to the host of men we boast, the U.S. Air Force.
Mr. d'EON: And when the music was over, then came the jets - four sleek howling fighter jets came overhead, rattling the windows and deafening the crowd. Just as they came overhead, dead center over this terrazzo, one jet pulled sharply upward and shot straight up, continuing up until it was out of sight - the missing man.
As the sound of the fighters died out, a hush fell over us. We began to disperse and Bob Rank - Colonel Bob Rank - turned to face me. His eyes were priming with tears. He said to me, if that doesn't get you right here, and he pointed to his heart, and his voice cracked and trailed off.
I will always remember those who died on September 11, 2001 as our missing men and women. And it still gets to me.
SMITH: Joe d'Eon is a commercial airline pilot and Podcaster. You can hear more of his thoughts at his Web site, flywithjoe.com.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Robert Smith.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.