WDAY: The News Leader

Published September 08, 2011, 10:17 PM

Air Force One Pilot recalls fateful day in September

Fargo, ND (WDAY TV) - It's a day we will never forget, but for one man, September 11th, 2001 is a day no one else can remember so vividly.

By: Travis Skonseng, WDAY

It's a day we will never forget, but for one man, September 11th, 2001 is a day no one else can remember so vividly. Colonel Mark Tillman had the sole responsibility of protecting the president that fateful day. He flew Air Force One. Colonel Tillman flew flights for Presidents Clinton and Bush. Now, retired, he travels the country monthly. Tillman tells visitors about his harrowing experience flying on 9/11. Tonight, people in Fargo had that rare chance to hear his firsthand account.

Colonel Mark Tillman – (R) Air Force One Pilot: “Everything was running through my mind. My job was to protect the president.”

Looking back on 9/11, no one else can say they had the enormous responsibility of Colonel Mark Tillman.

Colonel Tillman: “Didn't have a chance to be scared.”

He was at the helm of Air Force One that tragic day.

Colonel Tillman: “Butterflies in the stomach of course because you got to make sure you make the right decision because you're protecting the president.”

Tillman vividly revisits it like it was yesterday. He and the rest of the crew watched and heard of the attacks on America quickly unfold on the plane.

Colonel Tillman: “At that point, everything came alive and we came into action.”

Slowly, as they radioed for information, security increased. Air Force One double checked. Guards put at the cockpit. People and property swept for bombs.

Colonel Tillman: “There were concerns that Air Force One may be a target.”

Tillman, the pilot behind the unprecedented plan to take then President Bush back to Washington.

Colonel Tillman: “Rumors that he was running scared on Air Force One isn't true. In fact, you never tell a Texan that he's running scared. He was not running scared.”

That plan abruptly and secretly changed to fly west.

Colonel Tillman: “We were making it up as we went along. The goal being to keep him out of Washington, keep him airborne. It's tough to attack a plane when you don't know where it is.”

Tillman says his mindset never changed. His concern wasn't the air; there were fighter jets in the skies within an hour. It was Washington.

Colonel Tillman: “Was there a terrorist plan to wait for us to come back in. It doesn't take much to sit in your backyard and shoot a missile at an airplane.”

Once the all clear was given Tillman flew back into the country's capital over the smoldering Pentagon, seeing firsthand what terrorists had done.

Colonel Tillman: “We allow people across our borders. We great them with open arms to give them the American dream and these folks we did the same thing to and they kind of beat us, you know. They beat us at our own game. We went ahead, we trained them, and they went ahead and attacked us from within. They caught us with our pants down. They caught us.”

Looking back, he's humble, but proud of his historic day on the job.

Colonel Tillman: “I made a small part for history by taking care of the president but a lot of the injured, a lot of the wounded warriors, all of them have given their lives, as well as their daily lives to support every one of us and their stories are just as great as my little tidbit on September 11th.”

Tillman was the nation's 12th presidential pilot, serving from 2001 to 2009. His last day was President Obama's inauguration day. He flew Mr. Bush back home to Texas.