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Astronaut Remembers American Flight 77 Pilot

By R. Stewart Fisher and Perry Martini

CBN.comAstronaut Capt. Frank Culbertson pays tribute to fellow Naval Academy classmate and friend Charles ‘Chic’ Burlingame, who was the pilot on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that hit the Pentagon on September 11.

Two lives merged following a 30-year separation on that fateful September morning in 2001. They were not only fellow Naval Academy graduates from the Class of 1971, but also played as fellow musicians in the Naval Academy Drum and Bugle Corps. Charles “Chic” Burlingame, a retired Navy captain, was the chief pilot of American Flight 77 on September 11, 2001. Departing from Washington Dulles Airport for an eventual destination of Los Angeles, a monstrous act of terror caused the flight to be terminated on the south side of the Pentagon in an horrific ball of flame. Ironically, while mayhem struck our nation, his fellow classmate and friend, Captain Frank Culbertson, USN, was the pilot in command of the Space Station, orbiting high above the Earth.

Frank Culbertson was in a unique position in history. Not only did he have a bird’s eye view of America being attacked in Pennsylvania, New York City, and Washington, D.C., he was the only American not on the planet that fateful day. Aboard the international space station, he wrote a poignant, personal letter to his Naval Academy class on September 11th and 12th, sharing his thoughts about what had transpired before his very eyes.

“As the news of occurring events were being passed to me from Houston, we were literally on the other side of the world. The news seemed surreal. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. I glanced at the world map on the computer and knew we would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped across the station until I found a window that would give me a view of New York City and Washington, D.C., and grabbed the nearest camera. As I looked down, we witnessed the collapse of the second Twin Tower. The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column. I turned my gaze toward Washington. There was a haze of smoke, but no specific source could be seen. It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles above the Earth. I couldn’t even imagine the tragic scenes on the ground.”

He continued, “In addition to the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens being killed, I was overcome by the utter isolation. We were flying in an area of limited communication and as the only American without access to news, I was distraught. I knew so many people in Washington, so many who travel to D.C. and New York City, so many pilot friends, that I felt certain more bad news was to follow. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was informed that the captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate and good friend. I couldn’t imagine what he must have gone through. And now, only hours later, I am told that he rose far beyond the call of duty as a true hero in possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. Many have said that we astronauts are the patriotic heroes of our land, but I beg to differ. Chic epitomizes what it means to be selfless and, if necessary, give your life in defense of our freedom. He, like many others who gave their lives earlier today, represent what patriotism means in the United States of America.”

He concluded, “It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting. I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done.”

Chic Burlingame was laid to rest on a dreary fall day in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery. He was given full military honors and buried near his father who had also faithfully served his country. Rear Admiral Christopher Weaver, USN, Commandant of the Washington Naval District, and a classmate from the Naval Academy Class of 1971, represented the United States Navy as the Officer in Charge of the Honor Guard and presented the American Flag to his widow following the 21-gun salute. Vice Admiral Tim Keating, USN, Commander Fifth Fleet, and a classmate from the Naval Academy Class of 1971, delivered a stirring eulogy applauding Chic’s life as a true friend, classmate, and patriot. Captain Frank Culbertson sat in the international space station, and became the first spaceman to play taps in space. He played it in honor of Chic, his friend and fellow trumpet player from his Naval Academy days. Later he wrote, “Playing taps gave me a sense of connection with Chic. It was a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic fought bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space.”

Excerpted from Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter. Copyright © 2005 by R. Stewart Fisher and Perry Martini. Published by Academy Leadership Publishing. Used by permission.

R. Stewart Fisher retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1998 after 31 years of service spanning the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. He attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., and served in the Secretary of the Navy's Total Quality Leadership Office. Fisher led a helicopter combat search and rescue/special operations squadron in Desert Storm working with Navy SEAL teams and later commanded 2,000 men and women at Naval Air Stations Pt. Mugu, Lemoore, and China Lake, California. He has received numerous awards including the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, and Air Medal.

Perry J. Martini retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1998 after 31 years of service spanning the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. During his military career, he commanded a U.S. Navy P-3 squadron and worked directly for the Chairman, JCS and the CNO, and was awarded the Legion of Merit, Defense Distinguished Service Medal, and the Meritorious Service Medal.  He also earned three master's degrees in International Affairs, Business Finance, and Education. Following retirement, he was awarded a doctoral degree with distinction in Education from The George Washington University. He is currently the Director, Executive Leadership Programs with Academy Leadership, and an adjunct professor in Organizational Leadership Management and Ethics at Regent University. 


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