“The World Will Never Be The Same Again”

30 October, 2020

By Greer

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On the morning of 11 September 2001, I was meticulously doing my pre-flight checks in the simulator cockpit of a Beechcraft King Air B200 under the watchful eye of my instructor, who was overseeing this check-out flight after a week of intensive recurrency training at Flight Safety in Wichita Kansas. I had stopped over in Kansas after a visit to the National Transport Safety Board’s (NTSB) offices in Washington, where I had consulted with their CVR expert and left the cockpit voice recording (CVR) of the 1987 South African Airways B747 Helderberg crash off Mauritius. 

South African media had been widely circulating speculations on conspiratorial versions of transcripts purportedly of the Helderberg CVR and the then Transport Minister Dullah Omar had requested that I, as the Commissioner for Civil Aviation in South Africa, enlist the assistance of the US NTSB to re-examine the actual CVR tape. After examining the electromagnetic CVR tape, which despite being in remarkably good physical condition, the quality of the recording was abysmal as we deduced the overhead area cockpit microphone had made contact with the surrounding ceiling material and this transmitted all the airframe vibrations on to the tape recording. Very little of the actual conversations and cockpit sounds  were audible, much of which was reported in the official account of the Helderberg crash. The NTSB offered to consult further with their technical colleagues in Langley and would report back to me later on my return to Washington in little over a week.

My instructor, a grey beard ex-navy pilot, was maddeningly thorough in throwing every possible problem my way as I made my way through the detailed pre-flight routine. The King Air B200 is an iconic aircraft, which although by then was increasingly fitted with the elements of the modern “glass cockpit” and computers in the form of flight management systems, the aircraft remained something designed in the philosophy of bells and whistles of the 1950’s. The hydraulic and electrical systems followed the arcane logic of a previous era in aircraft design. Every switch I threw was met with yet another malfunction, requiring the necessary trouble shooting and rectification.

As I waded through this pre-flight maze, the simulator cockpit door opened, and a technician announced that “An aircraft has just crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York.” No details on the type of aircraft or circumstances of this crash. A look of disbelief passed between my instructor and myself. I vividly recalled the images of the iconic twin towers as on a number of previous occasions, I had flown an aircraft down the Hudson River, below the tops of the twin towers as I passed, en route to the Verrazano Bridge and onto JF Kennedy airport.  No more was said after the technician left. 

Some 16 minutes later, just as I was about to take off and have the instructor disengage the bridge to the simulator cockpit retracted, the door opened again and the technician announced, “A second plane has just crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York”.  I looked at my instructor in disbelief without even knowing what kind of aircraft these were nor what was going on. My instructor, with similar lack of knowledge as to what had actually transpired, made a startling comment with the confidence and certainty befitting his grey beard status, “ The world will never be the same”. 

As prescient as this statement now appears, no further discussion of the matter took place in the cockpit as we hurled down the virtual runway and I went through the flight check requirements for my instructor to sign me out at the conclusion of my recurrency training slot at Flight Safety, Wichita. After successfully completing this simulator check ride, the full impact of what was unfolding in the world hit us as we met up with the rest of the Centre’s staff and students  in the cafeteria, glued to the multiple TV screens depicting the horrific scenes of airliners slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and later Pentagon in Washington DC and a field in Pennsylvania.

There was a collective cloud of disbelief in what we were viewing on the television screens accompanied by equally disbelieving newscasters who understandably could not at that point in time make any sense of what they were broadcasting. Many of the students were from outside the USA and the team of US Navy pilots who had been part of our class had already been whisked away. How could my instructor have made such an insightful comment on the information we had at that time?  As we watched the sickening repetitive broadcast of the moments of impact and more shockingly the subsequent collapse of the twin towers and the scale of the loss of human lives, it certainly seemed as if there had been a shift of the globe on its axis, “ The world will never be the same”.  But had such a fundamental shift occurred in the world we knew?The immediate aftermath was chaos, confusion reigned and the way back to South Africa is a story for another time. But many would posit the changing of the world once the dust of the collapsing twin towers settled and the villain/s identified. Osama and Al Qaeda became the enemy of Western civilization and President Bush launched the War on Terror and decades later, the Middle East still reels from the repercussions of that fateful day in September 2001.

How did the world change and what indeed was the character of this change? It is indeed notable that it was commercial passenger aircraft which became the vehicle (excuse the pun) which effected the events of 9/11. Commercial aviation had been growing at a phenomenal rate and as many observers have noted, served as one of the primary conduits which cemented the growing globalization of the world economy. In this respect, there were some fundamental shifts in this industry once huge government bailouts nudged a deeply traumatized sector back to life and later vibrancy. There were fundamental shifts in the operational sphere inspired by the security concerns which emerged in the wake of the events of 9/11. Yet after some anguish we have adapted, as the modern forms of security screening of airline passengers have all but become routine and has limited impact on the operations and growth of the civilian aviation sector.

One are of change was a distinct intrusion of state monitoring of the civilian population though modern technology and the accompanying curtailment of civil liberties. Facial recognition technology, the collection and mining of meta data, where profiles of individuals are constructed on the basis of past spending patterns and movement tracking through real time location mapping, etc. have all mushroomed under the cover of the intelligence gathering which took off under the war on terrorism.
In the geopolitical sphere, 9/11 opened the door to unsurpassed US intervention in the middle East ostensibly under the banner of the “War on Terror”. The attack on Afghanistan by the US and later joined by some of its allies was rationalized in the targeting of Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. The expansion of this war to Iraq, replete with disregard of the multilateral UN International Atomic Energy Agency’s advice, patently false information peddled at the Security Council to obtain international approval, unmasked the US motives as less related to the 9/11 events but a charade to cover its ambitions to control and dictate to political and economic trajectories of this oil-rich part of the globe. The continued destruction, ongoing loss of human lives and suffering which flowed in the wake of the past almost two decades of US intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan since 9/11 most certainly meant that for this part of the world, life was no longer the same. These changes will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the history and future of this region of the world.
The US policies in the Middle East, however, brought phenomenal benefits to US corporations involved in manufacturing the instruments of war, prospecting oil after the invasion of Iraq and “reconstruction” projects after the invasion of Iraq.  Indeed,  the public costs these policies had reaped considerable benefits for some of the private corporations which were able to benefit from the “War on Terror”. At a geopolitical level, these hugely costly adventures also increasingly revealed the declining US hegemonic power in the Middle East as the political landscape remains unstable as other countries such as Russia, Turkey and Iran emerge as critical role players, and the US even enters into talks with erstwhile enemy, the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Had the world changed fundamentally in the wake of 9/11? The economic shock of 9/11 was overcome relatively quickly, and the world economy continued to expand until the economic shock of 2008, due to factors largely unconnected to the events of 9/11. Moreover, the impact of fallout of the consequences of 9/11 was largely limited geographically, leaving large parts of the globe relative spectators to and unscathed by the “War on Terror”. Asia, and particularly the rising dragon in China was relatively untouched by the event of 9/11 and US policy towards the Middle East.  The fundamental trajectories evident in the world at the point of the events of 9/11 appears unshaken. The US hegemony which has been in decline since the period of the Vietnam war was and continued to gather pace, the concomitant rise of China as an economic, political and military power is no less impressive, and the “ungovernable” (from a US perspective) behavior of other global players, Russia, Turkey, North Korea, Venezuela simply underscores the fact of the US’s declining hegemony. 

The more things change the more they remain the same. There clearly were major and momentous changes for some, but it is unlikely that the earth shifted on its axis in the wake of the 9/11 events. My instructor clearly had 20/20 vision but his comment on hearing about the second plane crashing into the World Trade Centre appears to have more a temporal impact, particularly on the aviation sector than the world itself. However, 2020 did bring about a major global shockwave, the extent and implications which still remains unknown, but which has elicited a range of commentaries suggesting  “the World will never be the same”. The shockwave is taking place in a very different world from that in which 9/11 took place. The COVID19 crisis has virtually enveloped the entire globe, shutting down whole countries and economic activity, disrupting supply chains, international travel, particularly commercial aviation, has already reeked unprecedented misery and death, overwhelmed medical capacity in some of the most developed societies and has highlighted fundamental schisms in various societies approach to social health, particularly the perils of untrammeled privatization of health care and underscored growing challenges of legitimacy of national political elites in the context of a globalized world economy and mega transnational corporations who command budgets larger than some countries.

Here again, the aviation sector has been hit extremely hard, on a global scale with projections for a return to pre-2020 levels only likely to happen in 2024 or later.  This is said as we do not know the likely trajectory of the COVID19 pandemic. As we enter October 2020, Autumn in the Northern hemisphere, we see a frightening resurgence of the pandemic in the North. Tourist and business travel is at an all time low and not likely to recover soon in the current environment. New ways of conducting meetings and business may well signal a more lasting impact on global aviation. Even more than 9/11, the world for commercial aviation may never be the same again for the foreseeable future.

Author: Trevor Abrahams, Managing Director – Working On Fire

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