Today, let’s hear from Carmen Villani, who retired from American Airlines in 2008 at age 54 after 24 years as a pilot.

In 2001, Villani often flew the Washington-Los Angeles-Washington round trip – out one day, back the next. That included Flight 77, the Dulles-LAX flight that on Sept. 11 was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. On Sept. 11, the captain was Chic Burlingame.

“I woke up on 9/11 with a call by a buddy of mine, saying, ‘Carmen, are you okay?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, why?’

“I woke up and turned on the TV. About that time the second airplane was flying into the World Trade Center. That day, I was getting a lot of calls from people saying, ‘Carmen, are you okay?’ Because they knew I flew that flight all the time. I said, ‘Yes, I was.’

“It was a tough day for me because by the grace of God, it wasn’t me. You go through that emotion and say, ‘Well, why wasn’t it me? Why was it Chic instead of me?’ It was kind of tough to deal with.

“I attended five memorial services after 9/11. I tell you, in that darkest hour, I saw some of American’s finest moments. We bounced back and we came back very strong right after 9/11.

“If I recall correctly, I was on the first flight, same flight, it went from 77 to I think 149. I was on that very first flight back as a passenger. I remember it was a little odd. I don’t know quite how to best describe it. You were aware of the fact that you were on this flight that just a few days went into the Pentagon. Not that I was afraid to fly. I wasn’t. But it was on your mind.

“I picked up Debbie Burlingame [the captain's sister] from the airport, took her to the hotel so she could attend the memorial service for Chic. Then I had the honor of a couple of weeks later to fly Brad, Chic’s brother, back to LA on that same flight, now 149. I was very much involved with Flight 77 and 9/11.”

Q. It was in that what had been ordinary was no longer ordinary?

A. “Yes. It raised my awareness. Flying domestically mostly, you don’t think so much about terrorists. After 9/11, it definitely readjusted my mindset.

“Now, I deliberately try to fly every 9/11 just to pay tribute to those who were taken from us that day and so we can tell the terrorists to go to hell.”

Q. Did you know the first officer as well?

A. “Yes, I did fly with David Charlebois. What was very difficult for me was the flight attendants Ken and Jennifer Lewis. They were just a wonderful, wonderful couple, and it was a thorough pleasure to fly with them.

“Also M.J. [Mary Jane] Boots, who was also a passenger on that flight. She worked in the admin office at Dulles. I used to see her every time when I went into work. I’d say hello. We’d exchange dog stories. She had a Lab, I had a golden retriever. We were big animal lovers.

“As a matter of fact, a few days before, I knew she was going on this trip and she had discussed where to take her Lab. I made a recommendation for her. And then I come to find out she was on that flight.”

Q. Before 9/11, did you take pleasure in being a pilot?

A. “Very much so.”

Q. After 9/11?

A. “It wasn’t so much the terrorist attack. It was just the dysfunctionality in the labor-management relationship and the environment there. I don’t necessarily attribute that to 9/11 attack. I just attribute it more to the dysfunctionality that I saw before 9/11 and after 9/11 which was so disheartening.

“You would think we would learn a lesson and and say we really need to starting doing things differently. We did for a little bit, but we got back in the same mold.

“Speeches and memorials are great, but I can’t think of a better way to memorialize these people and pay tribute to them than to see American Airlines stronger than it ever was, and an industry that was stronger and an airspace system that is more efficient than it’s ever been.”

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