CADILLAC — As the owner of Northwoods Aviation in Cadillac, flying was Don DeRuiter’s life.
Northwood Aviation specializes in seaplane training and contractual work with the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service for fire detections or law enforcement, especially during deer hunting season. It also has flown biologists around to perform bird surveys around the Great Lakes in particular colonial nesting birds such as seagulls and cormorants.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, however, DeRuiter was preparing to do something different. He prepared to make a flight performing an aerial pipeline patrol. By September, DeRuiter said a majority of the work he did was flying pipeline patrols for either natural gas lines belonging to DTE Energy or oil lines belonging to various oil companies.
He was airborne by 7 a.m. that morning.
When performing those aerial patrols, DeRuiter said he flies maybe 500 feet above the ground so he can see the pipeline and make sure there are no issues. Flying that low also means he is not detectable by air traffic control. As a result of that, he had no radio contact.
He also had no idea what was happening in New York City.
By the time he landed, which he remembered being around 10 a.m., he found out what was happening. Both the North and South towers of the World Trade Center had been struck, as well as the Pentagon. The United States also shut down its airspace as a result of the attacks. If his memory is correct and he was back in Cadillac and landed around 10 a.m., the South Tower also had collapsed.
He said when he returned, Ray Hill, who is the current president of the Wexford County Airport Authority, told him about the attacks. When learning about the attack, DeRuiter said he remembers what his initial reaction was.
“It seems to me that I said, ‘Someone is going to pay for this,’‘ he said.
With all air traffic grounded after the attacks and U.S. airspace not reopened until Sept. 14, DeRuiter remembered it was initially not known if he would be able to continue his pipeline patrols. He got his answer soon enough.
He said since the patrols were considered a part of National Security he was able to continue them. The federal governmental set up a procedure he had to follow and he never missed a patrol flight. Although he was able to do the patrols, DeRuiter said all other activities and jobs were grounded.
“We had to file a flight plan and get clearance over the phone before we took off,‘ he said. “I had to give an itinerary and they (the federal government) were watching with AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) planes.‘
The AWACS planes are a mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control center for air defense and DeRuiter said he can remember on one patrol flight he could hear the conversation between air traffic control and the surveillance plane.
“I don’t know where the plane was but they were obviously watching,‘ he said with a smile. “It was expected. Everything was pretty odd for a little while after (the attacks).‘