Smoke on the horizon: Marine aviator recalls 9/11

Photo credit Library of Congress

When retired Marine aviator Charlie Miles recalls the events of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the first things he remembers is the beauty of a day that would soon turn incredibly ugly.

“That day was a beautiful fall day in Upstate New York,” he recalled. “It was a crisp morning. I remember a bright, blue beautiful day.”

Sept. 11 began like any other for Miles, who was stationed near Manhattan. That is until one of his Marines burst into his office and urged him to come to the ready room to watch a breaking news report about a plane striking the World Trade Center, just miles from where they were.

“We were speculating about what type of airplane had hit it,” Miles said of the conversations in the room.”The damage seemed so extensive, it had to have been an airliner.

“We were having a hard time comprehending what was going on. We didn't know what to think.”

Wounded in the aftermath of 9/11, vet on a mission to help others heal

As they were watching, Miles received a phone call from his mother, asking if he had seen the news. He stepped outside the ready room to continue the conversation.  


“Then, I think it was somebody on my side of the conversation or maybe she saw it on the news, we found out that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon,” he said. “At that point, I told my mom, `I gotta go. We’re under attack.’”

Miles’ unit was quickly notified to cease all flight operations and to prepare to provide aerial refueling support for combat air patrols over New York City.

“We were getting ready to provide support to combat air patrols as necessary to prevent further airplanes from being used as weapons,” he explained.

Smoke billowing from the burning World Trade Center Towers could be seen on the horizon, Miles continued.

‘It was the only thing in the sky,” he said of the smoke.

About a month after the attacks while on a local training flight, Miles had the opportunity to fly about 1,500 feet above Ground Zero.

“It was really down below us,” he said. “We could really see down into Ground Zero.”

Inside the Pentagon daycare on 9/11, she’s now an Air Force cadet

During the flyover, Miles wondered what New Yorkers thought when they saw the aircraft flying so low -- like the airliners had done on 9/11.

“I was hoping New Yorkers would look up and see a U.S. military aircraft and feel reassured that we were there to protect them,” he said. 

When Ground Zero was reopened to the public, Miles visited the site with several members of his squadron.

“At the time, you could still smell the smoke of the wreckage,” he said. “They had lots of pictures of the victims and makeshift memorials around the site.” 

When 9/11 happened, Miles’ contract with the Corps was coming to an end. He was leaning towards getting out, but that day also changed the trajectory of his life. He stayed in the Corps and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, he flew 45 combat missions during his military career. 

Today, he is senior talent acquisition leader and head of PenFed’s military employment program,

Nearly two decades after 9/11, the day continues to hold a special meaning for Miles.

“For me, it is about remembrance and paying tribute to those who in the aftermath of 9/11 were called to serve and protect the country and lost their lives or who carry the wounds of battle and had their lives changed forever,” he said.  

PenFed will hold its annual ceremony marking Sept. 11 on Friday at its headquarters in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Reach Julia LeDoux at
Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.