FARGO — A clear blue sky waited for Rick Gibney 18 years ago as he prepared for flight training at the Fargo Air National Guard Base.

Then he heard reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. A second impact into the twin towers confirmed the U.S. was under attack. Training was canceled, jets were scrambled, and Gibney got his own mission.

As the day turned to night, the North Dakota Air National Guard pilot would become the only plane in the sky — except for Air Force One — carrying an emergency response official in an F-16 to Albany, N.Y., in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“I just remember saying several times, ‘This is going to change everything,’” he said as he recalled his flight to New York state.

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Gibney, a retired colonel and former commander of the Fargo-based 119th Wing, talked Tuesday, Sept. 11, to a class of emergency management students at North Dakota State University about what he did on the day that changed national security, and life in general, across the U.S.

From 1990 into 2001, the mission for the 119th, also known as the Happy Hooligans, mostly involved counter-drug efforts in the U.S., though they still were on the lookout for military threats.

On Sept. 11, 2001, after the attacks, Gibney was sent to Bozeman, Mont., where emergency managers from across the U.S. were holding a conference. He was supposed to fly Joe Allbaugh, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Washington, D.C.

Col. Rick Gibney sits in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet June 17, 2003. Gibney, who is now retired, was one of the North Dakota Air National Guard pilots who responded on 9/11. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, North Dakota Air National Guard)
Col. Rick Gibney sits in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet June 17, 2003. Gibney, who is now retired, was one of the North Dakota Air National Guard pilots who responded on 9/11. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, North Dakota Air National Guard)

But the FEMA leader took a larger plane so he could meet with staff. Instead, Gibney was ordered to fly Ed Jacoby Jr., the New York state director of emergency management, to as close as he could to ground zero so Jacoby could help with recovery efforts. They ended up landing in Albany, about 150 miles north of New York City.

On the way, the two talked about the attacks, what it meant for the country and how life might change, Gibney said. At one point, Gibney mentioned the possibility that he may have to use the jet to surveil or even bring down a hijacked plane, he said.

It was believed that up to 21 flights had possibly been hijacked at the time, Gibney noted. Several pilots from his wing were scrambled to patrol the skies as all air traffic was ordered to land.

Gibney never received orders to shoot down any aircraft, and even if he had, his jet was not equipped to do so, he said.

Two F-16A jets of the 178th Fighter Squadron, North Dakota Air National Guard, fly during a Nov. 11, 2001, morning combat air patrol mission over Washington, D.C. The Pentagon, which terrorists attacked with American Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11, 2001, is seen below the jets. On Sept. 13, 2001, smoke continued to pour out of the World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis)
Two F-16A jets of the 178th Fighter Squadron, North Dakota Air National Guard, fly during a Nov. 11, 2001, morning combat air patrol mission over Washington, D.C. The Pentagon, which terrorists attacked with American Airlines Flight 77 on Sept. 11, 2001, is seen below the jets. On Sept. 13, 2001, smoke continued to pour out of the World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Greg L. Davis)

Radio chatter was “dead silent” as he flew to Albany, he said. He asked for permission to fly at lower altitudes to ease stress on Jacoby.

“I was told ... I was the only airplane between New York City and Seattle that was, in fact, flying pretty much in the country at that time,” he said, with the exception of Air Force One.

He returned to the sky after dropping Jacoby off in Albany. It was dark as he flew over New York City, hours after the twin towers had collapsed, but he could still see the smoke billowing into the air from lower Manhattan.

“There was a pungent odor of the smoke,” he said, noting how dim the city lights looked from the sky. “It just looked eerie."

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