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Ex-American Airlines Pilot Remembers

February 17, 2002

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ Like other American Airlines pilots, Seth Verbel carries memories of colleagues lost in the Sept. 11 terror attacks every time he takes to the air. Verbel even has their names written down _ on the missiles he carries on his Army attack helicopter.

Verbel, a chief warrant officer, flew for American until he took a special leave of absence to fly Apache helicopters for the military. He did not know the hijacked pilots well, but had passed and greeted many of them when taking over flights.

Writing the names of his colleagues ``isn’t about revenge,″ Verbel said Saturday. ``This will give me the kind of edge that any combat pilot wants to make the strike more personal and then more substantial.″

One missile bears the name of Capt. John A. Ogonowski, the pilot of American Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.

On the other missile, in white paint, are the names of Capt. Charles F. Burlingame III and first officer Dave Charlebois, the pilots of American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.

Verbel hasn’t fired a missile in combat since he arrived at the U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. But about a half-dozen attack helicopters stand ready should the order arrive.

Verbel, 48, of St. Charles, Ill., left American Airlines under an agreement allowing him to fly for the military for several years and return to his job flying 757s and 767s afterward. The army was looking for reservists to fly the Apaches, and Verbel was interested.

When the terror attacks occurred, Verbel had already been assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

``I don’t think it was a mistake that I was spared; I believe there was some divine intervention there,″ Verbel said.

He said it took him several days to learn the names of the pilots. When he finally did, ``I felt as if I were sinking,″ Verbel said.

``These fellows were made of the same stuff as we are,″ he said of his colleagues. ``I thought that if they were overcome by force, then we could be, too.″

Within two months of the terror attacks, Verbel and his aviation unit were ordered to Afghanistan. The deployment wasn’t easy for Verbel.

``I had mixed feelings about coming here,″ he said. ``It’s been tough on my family, and it made for a very solemn Christmas.″

Verbel had already been living away from home while on active duty, and he said he waited a day before breaking the news to his wife during his vacation at home in Illinois. He waited another day before telling his children.

``They wanted to know what I would be doing and how much danger I would be in _ all of them quite natural questions for the people who care about you,″ he said.

Troops from the 101st Airborne Division replaced Marines at the Kandahar airport last month. Total U.S. troop strength here is about 2,800.

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