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Air Force One pilot remembers 9/11 flight

Col. Mark Tillman, the man who flew Air Force One carrying President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, speaks Thursday at the Fargo Air Museum. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, pilot Mark Tillman was on Air Force One in Sarasota Fla., preparing to fly President George W. Bush out of what was a routine school visit.

While Bush was in a classroom full of grade school children, Tillman was learning about the acts of terrorism that morning the same way most of America was: He watched them unfold on TV.

But unlike most Americans, the Air Force colonel and pilot of Air Force One would soon be charged with the mission of flying the president to safety and protecting the potential target of terrorism.

"Everything was running through my mind," Tillman said. "We were considered to be the next target. We took a lot of different precautions (that day)."

Tillman was responsible for orchestrating a secret flight plan that would keep the president safe in the wake of the first major act of terrorism on American soil.

He flew the president from Sarasota to Louisiana and then Nebraska and finally back to Washington, D.C., which is where Tillman said he had his first glimpse of the smoking Pentagon building after one of the four planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the government building.

Tillman said the president behaved on the flight as he always did: with focus and determination.

"The rumors that he was running scared are not true," Tillman said.

The now retired Tillman was at the Fargo Air Museum Thursday to speak of his role in the events of the 9/11 aftermath at the annual meeting for the Heartland Study Club.

Heartland Study Club Director Dr. Michael Noffze said that more than 40 multi-specialty dental practioners in North Dakota and Minnesota are part of the club. The club meets about once per month throughout the traditional school year for continuing education and to increase communication within the dental practice.

Thursday's meeting was a kick-off event for the upcoming year. Noffze said the club had been looking for a way to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary, and what better way to do so than by hearing Tillman's story and discussion of the teamwork it took to keep the president safe that day?

Tillman said the efforts made by the U.S. military were especially impressive on 9/11.

"Their stories are just as great as my little tidbit," he said.

Tillman served in the U.S. Air Force and began as a presidential pilot for Air Force One in 2001.

Tillman's last flight as a member of the Air Force was President Barack Obama's inauguration day in 2009. He flew Bush home to his ranch near Waco, Texas.

Tillman said he will be in New York City for the 9/11 ceremony on Sunday.

"It's going to be a great remembrance," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530