A large crowd heard stories of heroism and patriotism on Thursday, Oct. 5, as Col. (Ret.) Mark Tillman, the nation’s 12th presidential pilot, delivered the program at the 13th Annual Farmers Bank and Trust Distinguished Speaker Series banquet at the Donald W. Reynolds Campus and Community Center at Southern Arkansas University.
According to the Press Release, Tillman was at the controls of Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001, protecting President George W. Bush by keeping him out of harm’s way and connecting the airborne Oval Office to the nation’s first responders. He served as pilot and commander of Air Force One from 2001-2009. His distinguished career spans 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. Tillman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2004 and promoted to Brigadier General by the President, the first military line officer to receive this honor.

He regaled his audience with the story of Sept. 11, as he experienced it from the cockpit of Air Force One.

“It’s 8:40 a.m. and I’m moving through the plane, inspecting each room,” Tillman said of that morning. “At 8:47, the time of the first attack, the PA system comes on and I’m told to pick up the white phone. The radio operator says, ‘You gotta see what’s going on.’ The first tower had been hit.”

At that moment, no one knew the nation had come under attack by hijackers. “There was no real concern about the first plane,” Tillman said. “There was not a terrorist threat.”

President Bush was at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., at the time of the second attack. “I was doing final inspection when I’m told to pick up the beige phone. That’s when I heard about the second tower and realized the nation was under attack. I told the staff that we were at war and that this was not an exercise.”

Then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed Bush of the attacks, “and we began making plans to relocate the President,” Tillman said. “The President was firm – he would not be relocated, he would be repositioned to Washington, D.C. Those were his orders.”

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