SUWANEE -- On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was at Emma E. Booker Elementary in Sarasota, Fla., reading a book called "The Pet Goat" with a group of youngsters.

Mid-story, he got word that America was under attack, then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispering the world-changing news in his ear.

As Bush boarded Air Force One, Senior Master Sgt. Wanda Joell was among those waiting for him.

"It was very tense, to say the least," Joell said recently, in the weeks preceding the 10th anniversary of that day. "It wasn't an ordinary day."

Joell, now a Suwanee resident, became the first African-American woman to work aboard Air Force One when she was appointed to the plane as a flight attendant under George H.W. Bush. For 22 years, she spent her time traveling in the most famous plane in the world with the most powerful man on the planet, a career spanning the presidencies of both Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The home Joell moved into upon retirement at the end of 2010 is decked out with photos of presidents and first ladies, model planes, awards and medals from her military career. In her sitting room hangs a plain-enough looking piece of paper, one in recognition of her "distinguished service on September 11, 2001."

It was well-earned that day, as a normal trip turned into one taking the president along the Gulf Coast and to Air Force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, where he would address a nation in turmoil. There was at least one "threat" deemed credible during Air Force One's unplanned movements as it soared in otherwise empty airspace, fighter jets flanking it on both sides.

Joell is tight-lipped when it comes to specifics of 9/11, as she is with most of her storied career. She will say, though, that she was one of few Americans who felt genuinely safe.

"We had to remain calm for our passengers as flight attendants, but at the same time, you're still worried about the country," she said. "I felt safe. I felt Air Force One was safe, but you're still worried in general about what's going on back home."

On that flight, Joell heard and saw things most will never know.

"Sometimes things you hear you can't repeat," she said. "Some things I just 'didn't hear.'"


Born on the tiny island of Bermuda, Joell was raised a preacher's daughter in Schenectady, N.Y., where she graduated high school in 1981. She had always wanted to be a flight attendant, but was rebuffed by several airlines after graduation.

Then the Air Force came calling.

After basic training, Joell wound up in the Air Force's Traffic Management Office, spending time in England and Indiana helping coordinate the movements of military families abroad and at home.

When she heard of the Air Force One program, she applied for cross training and submitted "a lot" of recommendations, then awaited an understandably thorough background check. Some six months later, she was accepted, cleared and began flying on Air Force Two with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

When "Bush Sr." moved up to Air Force One after being elected president, so did Joell.

"Oh my goodness. I was ecstatic, I had to pinch myself," she said. "It was just an honor and a privilege. I was very humbled to even be selected."

First day on the job jitters are common. But when you're still in your early 20s and working for the president ...

"You just don't want to spill any coffee or anything," Joell said with a laugh.

Over the next 22 years, Joell estimates she accompanied active presidents on about 80 percent of their travels. She visited every state, all of Europe, all of Asia and "pretty much" every other country in the world. Her roughly 5,000 flying hours would equal about 208 days -- or seven months -- of straight airtime.

When Jordan's King Hussein died in 1999, Joell and nine fellow flight attendants played host to four presidents aboard Air Force One: Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Her travels enabled her to walk the Great Wall of China, and to join Clinton on his trip to Vietnam to recover the remains of MIA soldiers.

In addition to countless dignitaries and international rulers, she was onboard with celebrities like Lance Armstrong, Cal Ripken Jr., Quincy Jones and Cicely Tyson.

"When I was little I used to brag about it all the time," Joell's 16-year-old son, Darius, said.

Since retiring, Joell has moved permanently to Suwanee, near the Lawrenceville home her parents settled in after trying to find somewhere to retire to "out of that New York snow." Her son, who lived mostly with his grandparents during her career and has been in Gwinnett for several years now, moved in with her.

"I like it a lot," Darius, a junior at Central Gwinnett, said. "I was starting to miss her a lot when she would come home to visit and then leave again. Now she can help me out with school a lot more."

Joell said she's been offered a part-time position flying corporately "with a big CEO," but was unsure if she was going to do so. In the meantime, she's found chances to mentor young African-American girls and is attempting to get involved with local Junior ROTC programs.

Her retirement came after earning associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees, and just one rank shy of the highest she could have achieved.

"I've got special memories that I can keep forever," Joell said. "It's still a special place in my heart."---

Joell's memories will, undoubtedly, forever include the happenings of Sept. 11, 2001, the flights around the country in the fog of war and the stillness of uncertainty.

President Bush has since called those first few hours aboard Air Force One "frustrating," originally asking to be taken back to Washington. The flight path was unknown to almost anyone who wasn't on board -- Karen Hughes, the president's closest adviser back in the nation's capital, couldn't even reach him. Rumors of Camp David being hit and Bush's Texas ranch being targeted floated throughout the cabin.

Bush ordered combat aircraft to shoot down any hijacked civilian planes.

Even with all that going on, Joell said the day's flights were far from the madhouse one might expect.

"Everyone was doing their thing," she said. "It wasn't chaotic. Everyone had a plan. We knew what we were supposed to do."

Every of-age American remembers where they were that day -- at work, at school, in the car, eating breakfast. Those in the east were just beginning their days, most in the west still waiting for their alarm clocks to sound. Wanda Joell was in Sarasota, Fla., awaiting the president's return from a visit with a group of second-graders.

Each and every one of their lives was forever changed.

"It was something you would never forget," Joell said.

The day, personal experiences aside, is one no American will.

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