Atlanta Secret Service agent recalls chilling order to shoot down hijacked plane on 9/11

ATLANTA — As we look back at 9/11 on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, one Atlanta man had a seat at the table, literally, as history unfolded.

Channel 2′s Tony Thomas talked to Dave Wilkinson, who was a supervisor on President George W. Bush’s security detail.

Wilkinson was the person who had to tell the President that he couldn’t go back to Washington.

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These days, Wilkinson runs the Atlanta Police Foundation, but he spent nine years protecting Presidents of the United States as a Secret Service Agent. He said nothing in his career cemented his belief in service to country like what went on behind the scenes on 9/11.

On that fateful Tuesday morning, Wilkinson’s day began at a Sarasota, Florida country club with a run with the President. Then they visited Booker Elementary School, where the President was scheduled to visit a classroom.

Wilkinson said he was first aware something was going on as the President’s entourage pulled up to the school.


“I got a call on the radio that there’s been an accident in New York,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson stood just off camera, to the left of the President, as the commander-in-chief read a book to school children. Wilkinson realized the President was the only one in the room, other than the children, who didn’t realize a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

The President’s chief of staff whispered the news to him.

“I unfortunately will be going back to Washington after my remarks,” President Bush said initially.

But Wilkinson and his agents didn’t know how many more hijacked planes were out there, or if the President was a target.

Wilkinson believed Air Force One, high in the sky, was the safest place. He just had to convince the President.

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“We began a very healthy, very robust, very loud argument with the President,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson and the President’s advisors won the argument and Air For Once readied for takeoff. Then, rumors began.

First, they heard that a man at the end of the runway had a large gun.

“We started getting reports that the threat was going to come from inside Air Force One,” Wilkinson said. “Then we received threats that there was an aircraft coming towards us.”

Fighter jets arrived, but no one knew at first if they were friend or foe.

As the chaos continued in New York and Washington, Air Force One went to a Louisiana Air Force base, then to a classified location in Nebraska.

“Probably the most significant moment that I remember until the day I die was when the order had to be made to shoot down the aircraft,” Wilkinson said.

That was Flight 93, which was taken over by terrorists and headed to D.C. Vice President Cheney, who was in a bunker under the White House, authorized the plane to be shot down.

“You can imagine the gravity of the moment,” Wilkinson said. “We were in a meeting, talking about shooting down an American aircraft with 100 brave souls on board. There was no other option.”

Ultimately, the plane’s passengers tried to retake control of the plane, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

“We all thought, there’s been a mix-up and the military shot them down,” Wilkinson said.

Cheney, upon learning of the crash, is reported to have said: “I think an act of heroism just took place on that plane.”

At some point, Wilkinson was able to tell the President that he had been cleared to go back to the White House.

“When we got back on the plane, he said to us, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been kind of hard on you all day,’” Wilkinson said. “Of course, we said, ‘No, I get it.’”

When they finally got back to Washington, Wilkinson walked off Marine One just ahead of the President.

“I would argue everyone did a tremendous job under the circumstances,” Wilkinson said.