Long before Jason Dahl became known as the heroic pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a rural Pennsylvania field on 9/11, he was launching his career in Fresno.
Dahl moved here for his first job, got married, had his first child and bought his first home.
His first boss and a friend from his north Fresno neighborhood talk today about his love of flying, quick wit and how he was living his dream as a United pilot.
“You would like to have him as a son,” says Ron Nelson, Dahl’s employer here. “I don’t think you could ever replace Jason.”
The heroism shown by Dahl and others on Flight 93 – including former Fresno State student Todd Beamer, whose call to action, “Let’s roll,” became a rallying cry for Americans – has been the subject of at least five movies.
Starting a career
In 1979, Dahl was 22, fresh out of San Jose State with a commercial pilot’s license in hand and knocking on the door at Nelson’s construction company, which Nelson later shut down.
Dahl’s résumé was impressive. He flew solo at 16 and earned his pilot’s license before he could drive, friends said.
In Dahl’s job interview, Nelson quickly realized he was in the presence of an aeronautical prodigy.
“He was probably born with a plane manual in his hands,” Nelson says. “He could not only fly, he knew everything about aeronautics. He could have been an aeronautical engineer.”
Nelson hired Dahl to fly the company jet to appointments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Dahl helped expand Nelson’s business by taking passengers, equipment, freight and parcels across the western U.S.
Nelson says that Dahl’s outgoing personality attracted clients.
But Dahl’s real ambition was to fly large passenger planes.
“His dream was to build up enough hours and go to work for United Airlines,” Nelson says.
Nelson says he believes Dahl would not have given up his plane to hijackers. He attended Dahl’s funeral in Colorado and heard many people share the same sentiments about him.
“Anybody who knew Jason would attest to his talent,” Nelson says. “He was one of a kind … absolutely extraordinary.”
In Fresno, Dahl began to experience the rites of young adulthood. He married his first wife, Gail, in 1981. He bought his first house in 1984 in a Woodward Park neighborhood.
His son, Jason Matthew Dahl Jr., was born here in 1986. Today, he has a degree in physics from the University of Denver, and is in Pennsylvania this weekend for a memorial at the Flight 93 crash site.
Jim Lowe, executive vice president at the advertising firm Jeffrey Scott Agency, was about the same age as Dahl and living in the same neighborhood. The two quickly became friends.
Lowe recalls that Dahl worked hard to become handy around his house and “figure things out on his own.”
They worked on making their homes nicer. Lowe recalls a landscaping project when they were helping each other dig trenches in their backyards. Lowe let Dahl maneuver the trencher onto his pickup so it could be moved to Dahl’s house a couple doors away.
“I figured he was a pilot and he could handle it,” Lowe says.
Dahl lost control and dented the truck. They laughed it off – but Lowe says he continued to rib Dahl about it.
Lowe says he remembers sharing great times with Dahl. They went to Fresno State football games with friends, testing Dahl’s loyalty to his alma mater and conference rival San Jose State.
“If you were looking for someone to be your neighbor, this is who you would pick,” Lowe says.
By 9/11, they hadn’t seen each other in years – both had left the old neighborhood more than a decade earlier.
Lowe says that by the next day, he realized that his former neighbor had died in the crash of Flight 93.
“It was kind of a punch in the gut,” Lowe says. “He was a good friend … it was way too close to home.”
The next step
Nelson says that it was early 1986, right about the time of Jason Jr.’s birth, that Dahl got the call from United Airlines. Dahl cried when he called Nelson with the news, saying he had to leave for Denver (a United hub) that night.
It didn’t take long for Dahl to climb up the ranks at United and become a flight trainer.
His brother-in-law, Bill Heiderich, a former adjunct professor at Fresno City College, says Dahl taught at United’s flight center and trained people for hostage and hijacking situations.
Dahl saw changes in his family life, too. He divorced Gail, who still lives in the Denver area, and married Sandy Guy in 1996.
Dahl had rearranged his schedule to fly Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, so that he could be home later in the week to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary, according to reports.
There is no clear account of what happened in the moments before Flight 93 crashed. Cockpit tape recordings suggest that passengers rushed the hijackers. The plane, which the hijackers had intended to fly into either the Capitol or the White House, instead crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
In a 2006 interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Sandy Dahl – who, along with other family members, had listened to the tapes soon after the crash – said that her husband was stabbed and that he pulled the autopilot shortly before losing consciousness.
The autopilot could have placed the plane on a course that the hijackers did not want to go.
She also said it sounded like he squawked the emergency frequency so that when hijackers announced there was a bomb on board and everyone should stay seated, the message got to air traffic control towers instead of passengers.
Dahl or his co-pilot, LeRoy Homer, can be heard on the tape shouting “Mayday! Mayday!” and “Get out of here!” as the hijackers burst into the cockpit.
Dahl is memorialized in many ways: The elementary school he attended in San Jose was renamed in his memory in 2002. A flight simulation laboratory at San Jose State was named for him, as well as a science lecture hall at Andrew Hill High School. It’s known as Dahl Hall, Heiderich says with a slight chuckle because Dahl would have appreciated it.
Heiderich last saw Dahl when he came home the weekend before 9/11. It was no special occasion, and Bill and Carol Heiderich considered not going.
“About every three weeks, Jason would fly out to San Jose and see his mom,” Heiderich says. “If we hadn’t seen him that time, we would would have regretted it every day since.”