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Aviation workers profiled, include (top left) Bernie Schettino, Tom Innace, Sue Baer. Front row, Terri Rizzuto, Toni Knisley and Debbie Roland, with author, Tom Murphy.

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Classic "Proudly I Fly" stories:

"My Uniform"
Aviation "Thank You"
Why Does Mary Fly?
Turning Loss into Action
Flying the Flag
Joy in Giving

Reclaiming the Sky Essay Competition

Commemorating Aviation Heroes
On the 20th Anniversary of 9/11
September, 2021

Read News Stories

  • AIRPORT WINNER Valerie Clause (Cleveland Airport)
    Susan M. Baer Award

Like many profiled in "Reclaiming the Sky," I, too, remember that late summer blue-sky day now etched in our collective memories as 9/11. I specifically remember thinking what a perfect day it was as I drove to work.

As I was driving, reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center cut in as "breaking news" on the radio. By the time I got to my office, the television was on and we all watched that horrifying day play out before our eyes. Despite what we witnessed, there was still disbelief. How could this be happening?

COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. more insidiously and, unlike 9/11, the U.S. was not the only nation under attack. At first, there was the disbelief. How could this be happening knowing what medicine can do in the 21st century? Or, it may be bad there (wherever "there" was at the time), but that won't happen in the U.S.

Like 9/11, COVID-19 caused us to change the way we live - to analyze our beliefs in freedom, question what we trust, adjust how we do our work, and influenced our relationships with families and friends. These changes will continue to impact our actions and memories of living through this attack on our way of life.

What I heard in all of the individuals featured in "Reclaiming the Sky" is that they found a way to resiliency with courage and a desire for purpose. The book tells their stories well, examining the strengths people like Sue Baer, as general manager of Newark International Airport, drew upon during a critical time and post-crisis to move forward.

These are the same strengths we can use to move past the challenges of COVID-19.

We need to slow down, get outside of ourselves and the busy-ness of our lives, and truly listen to others. Everyone has a story and by listening, we develop a better understanding of each other and also flex our empathy muscle. "Reclaiming they Sky" presents many examples of this, such as Steve Bolognese's reaction to seeing the gentleman crying after being denied the ability to board a closed flight and author Tom Murphy's conversation with his daughter in understanding the loss his family felt following his flight experience on 9/11 and how he was coping afterwards.

I also know to move forward through a tragedy like 9/11 or COVID-19, we need to have purpose, and I believe purpose is intrinsically bound to love. For those in "Reclaiming the Sky," it was clear they acted out of purpose and love for their jobs, coworkers and families, whether it's the joy of watching a plane take off, as Baer and Murphy discussed; or keeping the memories of co-workers in their hearts, such as the stories of the Kennifer bench, or the sorrow Kathryn Barbour felt at not saying goodbye to Captain "Chic" Burlingame, or Murphy's memories of Jesus Sanchez and the curly-haired Marianne MacFarlane.

Working in an airport, I see the many contributors it takes to make the magic of flight happen every day. COVID-19 slowed down that magic for a while, but it's coming back! Like the heroes in "Reclaiming the Sky," I've seen everyday heroism where I work. We are all learning lessons of finding our way through this challenge and moving forward.

The common theme of what we can take away from what I heard echoed in the voices of "Reclaiming the Sky," and the courageous and resilient people I know, is this - Resiliency Equals Acting with Love - or REAL.

Some have a real passion for aviation - and that is their love. Some are customer-service driven and take great joy in helping others - that is their love. Some are working because they need a job and are proud of their self-sufficiency or that they are able to take care of their families - that is their love. Purpose and love come in many forms, and if we listen to people's stories, we can learn more about what drives them - what makes them resilient through challenges like COVID-19.

So, be REAL (Resiliency Means Acting with Love) - like those voices in Murphy's book - and by doing so, we will "soldier on."


  • AIRLINE WINNER - Giovanna DiBernardo (Alaska Airlines, EWR)
    Ken and Jennifer Lewis Award

Reading "Reclaiming the Sky" brought back memories and events of my life today. My memories of 9/11 as a 12-year-old girl in New York City that day to the present have made me the person I am. I'm a caring, hardworking, compassionate, comforting, positive customer service agent with Alaska Airlines in Newark Liberty Airport, in the same terminal some of the terrorists left out of. I will never let fear, anger or sadness be my motivation.

The morning of September 11th I remember so clearly, "Bye Mom! Mac and cheese and chicken cutlets for dinner tonight?" I was the typical 12-year-old kid that would be asking my mother dinner questions in the morning as I was walking onto the school bus waving and saying "see you later."

My school bus was not going to a local neighborhood school, it was going into New York City. In years prior my mother found out I had a learning disability called Dyslexia, so she found The Stephen Gaynor School located in Manhattan. The first couple of years my mother would drive me into the city, then she transferred her job to one a few blocks away from my school to be closer. She used to drive us EVERY DAY, some days we would be late due to traffic. Things happen for a reason because in the summer of 2001, my mother recently remarried and gave me some exciting news. She was pregnant and would be transferring back to her old building and I would be taking the school bus. My mother had trust in Joe the bus driver to make sure I would get to school safely.

During my bus ride to school that morning, I slept the whole way until we came out of the Battery Tunnel entering NYC. I saw a "normal" day in the city. People were walking everywhere heading into work especially the Twin Towers, the doorman at the Marriott, the firefighters at the corners and cops directing traffic. I might have even witnessed people who were living the last hours of their lives, unaware of what was about to happen next. The hours after the attack I was stuck in the city overnight at a friend's house. Joe the bus driver was the ONLY one who was able to contact my mother to say "Giovanna is SAFE at school." I could not get in touch with my family until evening time and the next morning I reunited with my family. I just remember thinking "I'm going home." yet sadly realizing that some would never make it home.

Several days after 9/11 my mother sat me down and asked, "Do you want to continue going into the city for school?" At 12 years old I told my mother "YES, I will not break down nor give in to fear and that I would never let these terrorists ruin my last year." I was "soldiering on" similar to the individuals in the book, the courage was inside of me at a young age, I knew not to be defeated by fear and terror. It taught me many lessons about negative energy being such a powerful component that the terrorists used. I vowed never ever to break down to fear, to be a strong person, and to help others who don't understand.

Reading Reclaiming the Sky could not have come at a better time. The effects of Covid-19 have put many people on edge, bringing back the anxiety of the unknown; however Reclaiming the Sky reinforced the exact reason why I wanted to be a part of the aviation world. Don't allow fear to get the best of you, always be aware of what is happening around you and always focus on the positive things. My job as a customer service agent is to help others, think out of the box, listen and get them to their destination. Recently I noticed that most of the guests I'm helping have higher than normal anxiety levels, they are anxious, jumpy and often they speak over me when I'm helping them. I might as well be a therapist most of my days but if that's what it takes to help them gain a safe flight, I'll speak to every guest to do so. I always try to remember that I can't know what our guests experienced before they got to me. So, I help everyone the same way you would treat your grandma.

In the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 I feel I have defeated the act of being scared. I was the 12 year old girl stuck in NYC without my parents; now I am a customer service agent at NEWARK LIBERTY AIRPORT who will put safety and compassion before everything else, and never fear or hate because hate is a strong word to use. Good will always prevail over evil.


  • STUDENT WINNER - Christopher Matteo (Farmingdale State College)
    Marianne MacFarlane and Jesus Sanchez Award

After reading the stories of the courageous aviation workers and how they helped bring aviation back after the events of September 11, I believe the actions and story of Sue Baer have inspired me the most to "soldier on" and push through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic while helping other students along the way.

Similar to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic was a shock to everyone. The announcement that my college campus was going to be shutdown came on the same day the student chapter of the AAAE had a guest speaker presentation. As the president of the chapter, I remember standing up in front of the large crowd of people and telling the chapter members that school was going to be closed until further notice. I remember the uncertainty with many students and a feeling of anxiety deep within myself not being able to have all the answers for them nor know what was going to happen next. Most of the facts about the pandemic were unclear and many people did not realize the severity of the situation, as with the events of September 11.

I draw a lot of inspiration from Sue Baer's leadership. It is remarkable how she was able to take control of the situation within minutes of the first attack on the world trade center. She was able to act like a compass amidst the panic; guiding others through the storm and helping them stay the course. I aim to act as a compass for other aviation students in guiding them through the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic and helping them get started in a career in aviation while the industry has come to a standstill. With many internships being cancelled, the opportunities for career growth for young aviation enthusiasts are scarce. I have sent many opportunities for virtual events to students with the goal of providing them with a way to learn how aviation professionals are overcoming the challenges of the pandemic and to grow their careers.

One core belief that Sue Baer lived by throughout her story is how in order to overcome the events of September 11 we need to "soldier on." This is the first step to recovery after loss and is the same principle to help people move forward from the loss and hardships of the pandemic. I lost my grandmother and know friends who have lost family members to the Covid-19 virus. When the country went into lock down, I lost both internships I was scheduled to participate in and had a very hard time finding work. There were many times where I would feel depressed and hopeless, thinking that the world would never recover. However, the key to recovery that I learned is to soldier on.

I needed to keep searching for different opportunities to grow my career and create new ones. I have had the honor to host many different virtual guest speaker appearances with the AAAE student chapter, including members from the FAA and various airport professionals. Through a close connection I had with one of the speakers, I was able to obtain an airport management internship over the summer where I have expanded my career further than what I had originally imagined. Additionally, I am working with other student chapters to try and create a virtual student conference to help engage new members of the AAAE to become more involved with the organization. I hope that by creating this type of event it will inspire other students to "soldier on" and look to the future for recovery of the aviation industry.

The actions and leadership by Sue Baer are part of a story that many young aviation professionals should be inspired by. I use her core belief of "soldiering on" and helping others to overcome many of the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both the attacks that took place on September 11 and the pandemic are events that brought catastrophic loss and a halt to the aviation industry as a whole but we can overcome.


Honorable Mention
Betty Ong Award

  • Renner Rachel
    Port Authority, Newark Liberty Airport
  • Jorge Prieto
    Farmingdale State College
  • Phillip Quattrochi
    Shore Regional High School

Special Mention

American Courage and Resiliency - From 9/11 to COVID-19

By Andrew J. Graham
Lieutenant Colonel, US Marines

As a military pilot and combat veteran, I often reflect on the courage and resiliency shown by American civilians on September 11th, 2001. These virtues were particularly noteworthy in our civilian aviation employees. When confronted with sudden and enormous adversity, these "ordinary" Americans put others first, and refused to be paralyzed by circumstances they could not control. As our nation confronts the COVID-19 threat, we can find inspiration from the courage and resilience shown by these aviation employees after 9/11. Tom Murphy's Reclaiming the Sky documents the struggles that aviation employees faced on 9/11 and provides examples that can help guide us to overcome the challenges of COVID-19.

On 9/11, ordinary Americans faced a brutal attack and, amidst these awful circumstances, airport managers and flight crew responded courageously and decisively to help others. Without military training or preparation, the aviation employees profiled in Reclaiming the Sky faced a combat situation and responded with the courage of seasoned veterans, above and beyond ordinary civilians. By shutting down airports, grounding airplanes, and diverting and caring for passengers, these aviation employees acted with cool professionalism to calm travelers and ensure the viability of the commercial aviation system during and after the terrorist attack. In Reclaiming the Sky, Murphy uses Newark International Airport general manager Sue Baer's phrase "soldier on" as a theme. Murphy explains, "soldiering on means working even when our sadness is so deep no tears will come. But that's when we need to press ahead with the greatest resolve."1 As Reclaiming the Sky illustrates, finding a way to soldier on, to grieve, lead, and grow is the challenge of the survivors. Soldiering on is resiliency. Their commitment to aircraft and customer safety, to customer and employee care, and to rebuilding while grieving, is a commitment to more than just the aviation profession. This is a commitment to the kind of America we hope to give to our children, that represents the best efforts of a free people.

As a young lieutenant watching the 9/11 terrorist attacks on television, I impotently cleaned my rifle in my barracks room, wishing I could do something, anything to help. Later, flying missions in Iraq, I witnessed how devastating chaos and confusion can be, and how important it was for leaders to help their people soldier on. Now, as a senior officer and seasoned aviator, I did not expect my latest adversary to be a virus. When COVID exploded and shut down all military and commercial activity, we shifted our mission to protecting our Marines, employees, and families. Just like America's civilian aviation employees after 9/11, we rally together and soldier on through unprecedented and frightening times. Just as the aviation employees focused on safety, resiliency, and attention to detail to respond to terrorist attacks, I focus on safety, resiliency, and attention to detail to resist infection. These traits allow us to soldier on through the COVID landscape of terror and tedium. COVID-19 forces us to be resilient, to soldier on against an enemy of uncertain strength and unknown organization, fighting for unknown duration. Like our aviation employees on 9/11, we report to work and accomplish the mission with courage and professionalism.

Both 9/11 and COVID-19 were national tragedies. On 9/11, courage meant shutting down America's airspace to prevent further attacks. During COVID, courage meant shutting down the country and accepting political backlash to prevent infection spread. During both 9/11 and COVID-19, courage meant going to work every day in the face of danger and confusion, and providing enduring and humane care despite uncertainty. For all Americans, courage means soldiering on. Like the aviation employees profiled in Reclaiming the Sky, today's medical first responders, providers, planners, and researchers face the pandemic threat with a quiet courage and determination that inspires us all. Throughout the pandemic, they keep our country going through force of will. Our aviation employees showed us that you have to be brave to care for people. The same courage and professionalism shown by aviation employees to help others and maintain safety after 9/11 should guide our actions during COVID-19. Our nation owes these heroes a debt that cannot be repaid.

The author is a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, strategist, and historian. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or its Components.


Tom Murphy Tom Murphy
Tom Murphy
Director, Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University, and President, Service Institute
Contact Tom at: Tom@TomMurphy.org