Aboard Flight 93: GA’s man on 9/11

I have the feeling that few GA pilots know “one of ours” was up there on United Flight 93, capable of bringing that 757 back had passengers overcome cockpit hijackers. He was a college classmate of mine. Donald Freeman Greene was the name. I only bumped into him briefly freshman year in the dorm. He was an engineering student and an athlete. I was far from either.

Unknown to me until much later: He was the son of Leonard Greene. Don’t know that name? Founder of Safe Flight Instrument Corporation, Leonard Greene pioneered the stall warning system in 1946 after seeing a plane stall and crash. His prototype was described as “threaded bolts, a bicycle horn and flashlight batteries.” A patent was granted in 1949 and soon, most GA airplanes had a stall warning system — over 600,000 now to date.

Of course, Leonard Greene didn’t stop there. He held more than 100 patents as his company went on to angle-of-attack systems, wind shear warning systems, power line warnings for helicopters, and so much more. “Donnie” was executive VP and company CEO for a father who held onto the reins for decades.

I got both barrels of Leonard Greene in the 1980s when a Beech Aircraft press release of mine hinted that one issue delaying Starship certification was the Safe Flight system onboard. Beech president Max Bleck took the phone call (and Leonard Greene’s heat) on that one. I sure heard the fallout after making public one of many battles between Beech’s engineers and its partners on Starship.

In the years after 9/11, autumn General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) board meetings would offer a chance to say something to Randy Greene, who has led Safe Flight since. The family, it seemed, never trumpeted Don’s loss or any hero role he could have played. The first year, my condolences to Randy were brief. The next year it was just a “chuck on the shoulder” to express what was better left unsaid.

That’s why I was so surprised this past “9/11 Tenth Anniversary” weekend when NBC TV aired so much about Don. First, a mention – just 10 seconds in a larger story. Next, Don’s name was selected for a clip of Flight 93 names read in Shanksville, Penna. Then on Saturday and Sunday, it was a full feature story. Why? Turns out Don’s son Charlie was an intern this summer at NBC News. Learning Charlie was a “9/11 Kid,” Brian Williams did a wonderful interview with this sharp young man.

During the NBC interview, both Don’s widow and Charlie were confident that this very experienced GA pilot could have brought UA 93 back in one piece. I’ve always thought his athleticism meant he was one who rushed the cockpit. But he could have done more. Forget those hangar discussions and magazine stories debating “Could you land an airliner?” Don had the knowledge and advanced flight experience of an industry professional.

He was one of six Brown University grads to die on 9/11, most at desks in some financial firm. Senselessly, Don died heading to a short hiking vacation in Tahoe, where he would join his brothers. He could have saved that planeload of people. But we can thank all those Greenes for everything they’ve done to save our bacon every time we fly.

Next time your stall warning chirps, give a thought to Don, to Leonard Greene, to Randy and all the Greenes whose cause was, and is, Safe Flight.

© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.


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