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Twist of fate spared pilot from 9/11 Pentagon attack: 'I could hear it from the phone'

Charles 'Chic' Burlingame (left) and Dan Elwell (right) flying an American Airlines aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Dan Elwell)
Charles 'Chic' Burlingame (left) and Dan Elwell (right) flying an American Airlines aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Dan Elwell)
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WASHINGTON (WJLA) — In 2001, Dan Elwell was a pilot in the small, tight-knit, Washington-based crew for American Airlines. Nearly every month, he flew the right seat of the Boeing 757 on American Airlines Flight 77.

“[Flight] 77, there’s a lot of personal connection to it,” Elwell told 7News.

It was a favorite trip of his. But something stopped him from flying on September 11, 2001.

“I didn’t bid 77 because I had a promotion ceremony scheduled in the Pentagon on 9/11," he said. "I was in the Airforce Reserve.”

COMPLETE COVERAGE | 9/11: 20 Years Later

His family flew into town for the ceremony on September 11, 2001, but that morning everything changed when he turned on his television and saw the World Trade Center on fire. In an absence of answers, Elwell picked up the phone.

“I called the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m," said Elwell. "I just happened to call them at that time to ask my office with all this going on are we still having the ceremony. And he answered that as far as he knew it hadn't been canceled. It was still on the general schedule.”

And then, another explosion happened.

”I could hear it from the phone," said Elwell, who let out a scream and basically dropped the phone. "I went downstairs and told my wife and parents, I said I think another [plane] hit the Pentagon. And five minutes later, the news cameras were on the Pentagon.”

After a wave of concern, another gut punch as he realized it was his plane - Flight 77 - that hit the Pentagon.

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“I knew everybody on the crew,” he said. "That’s sort of tough to think about that - how close you came to being on that trip.”

Elwell described his Washington-based crew as a "family." The pilot was a friend of his. They often flew together. The pilot's name was Captain Charles 'Chic' Burlingame, a Navy reservist.

“In my mind, Chic was gone long before the plane hit the building because he never would’ve let that happened and I think that’s true of all the crews.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed flying with Chic," added Elwell. "We always enjoyed flying together. He was very opinionated. We would fly cross country from D.C. and the vast majority of that flight was in cruise and we’d talk about the issues of the day, sometimes politics, sometimes music, sometimes religion. All those kinds of things. We’d get in furious debates and then we would land go off and get dinner somewhere. He was a great guy. He was a button-down Naval officer.”

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Elwell remembers flying not being the same.

"I didn’t have the same feeling when I came into an aircraft than I did when I got into the business," he said. "The hardened doors and the air marshals. It made flying so different. So different in fact when an opportunity arose several years after to get into the policy side of aviation and the safety side, I elected to leave American Airlines and go work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)."

Elwell eventually held the top job at the FAA.

READ MORE | A new way of looking at the Pentagon: How the building itself saved lives on 9/11

"Ultimately 9/11 changed the trajectory of my career and my life," he said.

As a pilot with inside knowledge on how the FAA works, Elwell explained to 7News how air travel changed after the attacks on 9/11.

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“FAA used to be purely all about safety," said Elwell. "Now the FAA integrates safety thinking with security thinking. Safety and security are now viewed as symbiotic and they have to be. There are many things that go on behind the scenes with our security agencies that our government responds to and deals with that the traveling public may not know, but what they need to know is they're being kept safe and secure by a tremendous group of dedicated folks. Commercial flying is safer than it has ever been and is much more secure. Those are the big changes."

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