9/11 events change captain's life forever

  • Published
  • By Airman Ashley J. Woolridge
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"Had it happened a day earlier, I wouldn't be here."

Capt. Monika Johncour, 28th Operations Support Squadron chief of wing scheduling, utters these heart-stopping words about the terrorist attacks on 9/11 matter-of-factly. Casually perched on a stool in the 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs photography studio, her immaculate appearance and easygoing demeanor give no indication that she has ever had a near brush with death - which is exactly the case.

It's 1999. Johncour, then a college student at the University of Washington, decides to show up at a United Airlines mass interview with a friend in an effort to find some direction in her life. A native of Honolulu, she was also eager for a chance to see the world.

"I really didn't have anything better to do," Johncour explained. "I was in my senior year of college, and I was just throwing around some ideas. I literally fell into the job at United. I went to training in 2000 and became a reserve flight attendant."

As a flight attendant, Johncour flew a regular route from San Francisco, Calif., to Washington Dulles International Airport - the same route United Airlines Flight 93 was scheduled to travel until it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Sept. 10 was the last day I worked that week," Johncour said. "Had it been on 9/11, I would have been one of the people that died in that field out in Pennsylvania."

Johncour went on to describe her experience that morning, receiving a frantic call
informing her that one of the World Trade Center towers had been struck. "When my sister called, she was totally freaked out," Johncour remembers. "She knew that I had been on a lot of flying days. I was freaked out, too. You start asking yourself, `What if? What if this had happened yesterday?' It was crazy."

Johncour is fortunate not to have lost any friends or family members in the attacks, but remembers how different the atmosphere was after that day. As the dust around Ground Zero in New York City, the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania began to settle, the bustling skies over the U.S. also transformed into an eerie calm.

"Being based out of San Francisco, I literally lived a couple miles from the airport," Johncour said. "It's a huge airport, there were always planes in their take-off pattern or landing. After the attacks, it was really strange because there were no planes flying for several days. We didn't know what was going on.

"That was our whole world, that was our job, that was what we did - we flew," she added. "It was very surreal. We wondered if things were ever going to get back to normal again, or if we were going to continue to consider everyone a suspect."

Planes were eventually cleared to fly again, and Johncour was on one of the first flights.

"My first day back to work was the first day planes started flying again," Johncour recounted. "I was on a flight from San Francisco to Denver, on a big 767 that could hold about 200 people. It was strange, we had a crew of 12, and I think there was only a total of about 30 people on the plane. We served steak to the first and business class passengers, but we had to give them plastic spoons to eat it with. We weren't allowed to give them any forks or knives."

Johncour also has vivid memories of what preparations for flights were like in the uncertain days following the attacks. "It was very eerie and weird those first couple of days flying again," she said. "There were no security procedures yet, so everyone was freaking out wondering if the passengers were going to try and kill us. Prior to 9/11, the pilots would give a brief before a flight about whatever they felt was important. After 9/11, it was interesting to see how the tone changed. One of the pilots said, `If anything strange happens, we're going to pitch the nose down and hold on for dear life.'"

Although air travel began to crawl toward its new normal pace, a large portion of flight crews were put on furlough. Having already submitted a package to join the U.S. Air Force, Johncour moved back home to live with her parents and work toward a new dream - becoming a pilot.

"I was interested in becoming a pilot after I became a flight attendant because the first thing you do in flight attendant school is take a ride up front with the pilots," Johncour said. "It was way cool, getting to sit up front. I thought, `This is so much better than sitting in the back with the passengers.' I was hooked."

Johncour became a licensed private pilot, but with such fierce competition for pilot slots in the Air Force due to nationwide furloughs and lay-offs, she received an opportunity to complete technical training as a weapon systems officer instead.

"Before 9/11, I already knew that I wanted to fly for the Air Force," Johncour said. "After it happened, that pretty much sealed the deal. I felt threatened and I wanted to do something about it. I didn't want to continue to feel like a victim every time I flew. When I got the WSO spot, I thought `Why not?'"

The WSO slot presented another opportunity, as well. While in flight school, Johncour met her husband, Peter. The two were both assigned to bombers, Johncour with the B-52 and her husband with the B-1.

"We spent the better part of three years apart," Johncour said. "He was at Ellsworth, and I was down in Shreveport at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Then we got a joint spouse assignment at Randolph AFB, Texas, where we taught together."

Johncour said she and her husband were fortunate that she was able to cross-train to the B-1. Now on a joint spouse assignment at Ellsworth, the two fly with the 34th Bomb Squadron as WSOs, and have had the opportunity to embark on a new adventure together.

"We have a two-and-a-half-year-old son," Johncour said. "Now that I'm a mom, it's tough to be away from the little guy when we go on deployments. We have to have back-up plans to back-up plans to ensure that someone is always there with him, but we've been lucky to have a lot of help from our family."

Although logistics involving childcare and quality time with each other can be hectic, Johncour said she loves her job.

"Not everybody can say that they fly on a plane," Johncour said. "Downrange, you've got long, 12-hour sorties, but knowing that you're helping the folks on the ground who are in imminent danger is empowering. It is a lot of work and there's a lot of time and effort that goes into mission planning, but it's a cool job. When things start going bad on the ground, they call us and we roll in to help."

This time of year, Johncour joins the countless number of people around the world that think back to that tragic day.

"It is really weird to think back now and know that one day made a huge difference in my life," Johncour said, reflecting back. "I wouldn't be here if it had happened a day earlier. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to join the military, and do something about what was done to our country."