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Veteran Wichita airport workers and former mayor reflect on September 11

Published: Sep. 11, 2021 at 7:53 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Now known as Eisenhower National Airport, Wichita’s main hub for flying in and out had a different name 20 years ago when air travel and life as Americans knew it changed. Twenty years ago, Wichita’s airport was Mid Continent Airport.

Although the name has changed, the call letters remain the same. And for hundreds of passengers, the ICT is part of their stories from Sept. 11, 2001. Eyewitness News spoke with a group who was working at Wichita’s airport on that day.

Combined, Vern Oakes, Roger Xanders, and Valerie Wise have worked at Wichita’s airport for nearly 100 years. On Sept. 11, 2001, Oakes was the station manager for Continental Airlines.

“What was told to me by dispatch in Houston is they were told by the FAA that every airplane had to be on the ground within, at that time, it was a 15-minute window, or it would be shot down,” Oakes said. “We had fighters up there.”

Now the police and fire chief for Eisenhower National Airport, Xanders, had just clocked out when he got the emergency call to return to Mid Continent.

“When I came on (Interstate) 235 from West Street, I looked up in the sky from the north, and it was just a stairstep of aircraft, right and left, landing on both runways,” he said. “Right then is when it hit me, we got something serious going on.”

About 40 passengers and seven cargo aircraft carrying more than 1,300 passengers unexpectedly landed in Wichita. This included a plane full of Israelis stranded in the middle of America.

“They were so afraid,” said Wise, serving as Wichita Airport Authority marketing manager. “I remember (passengers) coming into the terminal building. There was this elderly lady, all in tears.”

Oakes found a translator on the phone and started helping them. They sent a citywide “thank you,” published in the newspaper.

“We showed people who we are and what we are, other than the flyover and drive-thru,” he said of how the airport crew represented Wichita to the temporarily stranded passengers.

While working around the clock to help all of those passengers, it was only after the job was done that the images of 9-11 finally hit home for the airport workers.

“The damage, it still bothers me today,” Oakes said.

As the Air Capital workers reflect on their roles 20 years ago, they choose to remember camaraderie and unity after September 11.

“Although we don’t want any disaster or any incident to occur, we’ll step up,” Xanders said. “We’ll step up as Americans and do what we need to do to get through this and move forward and hope that this never happens again.”

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