By BECKY PENHAKER
Most people can give you the exact time and place of where they were when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. They can remember the immediate disbelief and confusion they felt in that moment. For Chuck Howard of Montvale, he can remember that feeling twice.
Howard, 63, worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1984 until his retirement in 2009 at the Teterboro Airport in Bergen County, N.J. He was their chief pilot, flying BO-105’s, Bell 222’s and Sikorsky S-76’s having served as a pilot during the Vietnam War.
Howard was there on Feb. 26, 1993 when the first attack on the towers occurred.
“We went to a parking lot a couple blocks away,” Howard said. “Landing in the parking lot was like landing on an ice hockey rink. The aircraft was sliding all over the place.”
Howard and his crew shuttled Scott-packs (portable breathing oxygen masks) back and forth during the evacuation of the towers. He can remember seeing the crater in the building left behind by the truck bomb.
A few years later, he would be responsible for shuttling one of the mastermind’s behind the attack, Ramzi Yousef, to his trial hearings in New York City.
During one exchange, an FBI agent pulled back the black hood that covered Yousef’s face to show him that the towers were still standing as they flew by-and Howard recalled Yousef’s chilling response; “We’ll do better next time.”
Howard, like many others, never thought the World Trade Center would be capable of collapse. Even on that beautiful Tuesday morning in September of 2001, Howard didn’t think that he would be witnessing one of America’s greatest tragedies.
That morning, Teterboro’s only aircraft was in pieces, undergoing a scheduled maintenance inspection.
Receiving the news that the North Tower had been struck, Howard originally thought it was an airliner’s mistake, similar to what happened in 1945 when an Army Pilot hit the Empire State Building. It wasn’t until the second commercial airplane hit that he realized the calamity of the situation.
Even with the hasty reassembling and completion of the inspection, Teterboro’s aircraft would not be available until 5 p.m. that evening.
Moments into the catastrophic event, Howard’s secretary relayed word that her husband, who was in charge of building maintenance at the WTC, had received a radio call from one of his workers who was atop tower one executing repairs.
The caller yelled: “I’m on tower one…get me out of here!” Howard believed the call came in before the rooftop had been completely covered by smoke. Only a three minute flight to the towers from the hangar at Teterboro Airport, Howard was overcome with helplessness and frustration that was bordering on rage. Howard had no idea then that the doors to the roof were locked, so even if he had an aircraft for rescue, that feeling of hopelessness would still be lingering.
But as a retired Vietnam pilot, Howard was familiar with acting in times of crisis and danger. He was used to going into the field of battle when everyone else was being directed out, serving as the army’s aircraft recovery pilot. However in this moment, he had no other choice than to stand by and wait like a standard civilian-something he hadn’t been since 1966.
Howard still resembles the disciplined Army pilot he was 42 years ago. Walking into Sonny and Tony’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant in Mahwah, it’s easy to take notice of his muscular build, pressed clothes, and confident strut. All his words seem to have a purpose in the conversation, his tone firm and demanding attention.
Fascinated with aviation since he was the age of 6, Howard loved building model airplanes and escaping outside his home in Jersey City to see the planes take off from Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports. Howard began taking flight lessons at 13. He obtained his pilot’s certificate at 17. And in 1966, at 18, Howard forfeited his college deferment to join the Army Aviation Flight Program.
“I thought ‘if I stay in college, I’ll miss the war!’” Howard said. “It wasn’t until I was actually going over there I realized ‘oh my god, what did I get myself into? There’s a war going on.’”
From April 1968 until April1969, Howard served in assault insertions, command and control, aircraft recovery, and worked as a test pilot and UH-1B gun ship pilot.
Howard’s young eyes endured a lot, and forced him to adapt fast.
“In Saigon you see bodies being loaded onto helicopters-it begins to hit you,” Howard said. “They say if you survive the first three months, you can survive the rest of the year. You’re scared to hell, but you need to get used to the environment, and the in and out combat.”
Being accustomed to the horror of war, the responsibility of making split second decisions that determine life and death, Howard has always held himself to a higher standard of service with the need to help and protect being engrained in him.
Left feeling hopeless and vulnerable after Sept. 11, Howard made it his mission to never have to feel like that again.
Howard dealt directly with former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey pushing for the acquisition of a second Port Authority S-76, to be outfitted specifically for high-tech communications, rescue and surveillance.
Howard stressed to McGreevy the importance of having at least one aircraft available at all times so scheduled and unscheduled maintenance checks would not interfere with their service.
Upon further consultation with New York’s Gov. Pataki, Howard’s proposal was approved and the purchase of the second helicopter was underway.
The miscommunication and mishandling of both the attacks [in 1993 and 2001] on the WTC have been highly publicized. And Howard, too, can attest to a lot of things going wrong those days. But Howard tries to focus on the ‘what now’ and not the ‘what-ifs.’
Even though he is left with conflicting feelings of those times in battle and working at the Port Authority, Howard has a deep gratitude for his life and concentrates on opportunities to make a difference. Now he spends his time working for the veterans taking on assignments that pay homage to the many sacrifices soldiers must endure.
Howard maintains that ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ mentality he learned training for Vietnam.
“You have to do things not in the manual-you survive, and you learn from it,” Howard said.