‘The skies were empty, strange’

Some people can juggle two, four or maybe six balls in the air  — the Guinness World Record is 11.

Keith Brooks can handle more than 20, but he’s not tossing and catching balls. He spent nearly 30 years juggling airplanes enroute from one airport to another as an air traffic controller (ATC) at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center in Hilliard, FL.

One Tuesday morning, however, Brooks’ computer screen monitor was clear. He’d been instructed to ground all his planes.

The date was September 11, 2001.

Most Americans remember it as the day our Twin Towers fell. Brooks remembers it as the only time in U.S. history when the National Airspace System (NAS) was shut down.

When Brooks and his fellow ATCs first heard a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York, they suspected it was a small, private plane. Perhaps it had gotten off course somehow, they thought. Then word came that a second plane had struck the towers and they started to hear reports of a possible hijacking.

Brooks began instructing his pilots to lock their cockpit doors and not allow entrance for any reason. He explained what was going on in New York even though details were still very limited at the time.

“The pilots were very receptive. They didn’t ask a lot of questions,” Brooks recalls.

Then it happened.

Less than an hour after the 9/11 terror attacks that Tuesday morning, Brooks got the call. The air space was shut down.

“That meant you had to put them at the closest airport that was acceptable … anyone that had a runway adequate to land on,” Brooks says.

He was managing approximately 15 planes at the time, most of them commercial airliners.

Some planes headed to Orlando were brought down in Lake City, Brooks recalls.

The most interesting flight he was working at the time though was a British airliner out of Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, England on its way to Orlando, FL. Brooks routed him to a former Air Force Base in Myrtle Beach, SC instead, and the pilot asked about the runway length.

When Brooks told the British pilot the runway was 10,000 feet, the pilot’s response was formal and brief.

“He said ‘that’s sufficient’,” Brooks says, mimicking the pilot’s curt, British accent with a chuckle.

Brooks didn’t get much pushback from pilots who wanted to finish their flight. Most were probably wondering if there was a hijacker aboard their plane, too.

“They were ready to get on the ground, too, as quick as they could,” Brooks says.

Brooks was halfway through his career as a controller when 9/11 happened. The seasoned controller wasn’t shaken by the historic event, but the calm that followed was odd, he says.

The airspace was closed for two full days. Brooks and the other ATCs continued to work their shifts, but the control room was eerily quiet. Only military aircraft or medical emergency flights were cleared to fly.

“It was strange to be walking through there at noon time when it was supposed to be busy and nobody’s flying,” Brooks says.

The most challenging part of Brooks’ job was accounting for weather. He recalls the weather was beautifully clear that tragic September morning 19 years ago. Summertime thunderstorms had moved on through, and the Fall day didn’t present any weather complications.

“That’s your biggest complicator of all, weather. It throws a monkey wrench in everything … Everything was good that day,” Brooks says, shaking his head.

His favorite part of the job was the variety of it. No two days were the same when working air traffic control.

“It was a different scenario everyday. I’m sitting there and I’m talking to airplanes, but I’ve got different situations,” Brooks says. “That’s the part I liked about it. You were never bored.”

September 11, 2001, was one day that Brooks wishes had been business as usual. He’d much rather have been juggling 22 planes enroute within his sector  — accounting for spacing and separation between aircraft and other flight logistics  — than to sit staring at a blank computer screen with no air traffic, listening to the news out of New York.

Brooks began working at the Jacksonville Center in 1986 and retired in 2015 after 29 years working the high altitude air space (24,000 feet and above) over Pierce and its surrounding counties. He spent the last eight years of his career in air traffic management.

Following retirement, Brooks ran for and won the District One seat on Blackshear City Council. He recently qualified unopposed for a second term after serving six months as mayor pro tem prior to current Mayor Kevin Grissom’s election last year. Brooks and his wife, Pam, live near Lakeview Golf Club. The couple has two daughters and one son.