John Ogonowski – Vietnam veteran, pilot, farmer, preservationist, and one of the first casualties of the war on terror

John Ogonowski ’70 (UMass Lowell) was a Vietnam veteran, third generation farmer, and an airline pilot. Tragically, he lost his life piloting American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Though he flew 30 to 40 thousand feet above the ground, he really soared on the ground, working the soil as a farmer.

Air Force and Vietnam Veteran

Graduating in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force to fly. He served as a pilot in the US Air Force from 1972 to 1978. 

During the Vietnam War, he ferried supplies and equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia in a C-141 Starlifter transport plane. At times, he had the somber duty of returning the bodies of fallen American soldiers home. 

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, and became a commercial pilot with American Airlines in 1978. His instructor at Charleston Air Force base, John Panarelli called him, “the consummate aviator. He was one of the greatest pilots.”

Champion of farm preservation

In the Pilam tradition, John was a willing fighter for the issues in which he believed. 

He was part of a three-generation farming family who owned a 150-acre farm in Dracut, Massachusetts, and his true passion was getting his hands dirty. 

He loved farming. This naturally lent itself to his desire to preserve farm land and maintain the farming tradition in New England. Some friends and family jokingly called him, “John Deere Johnny.”

When he returned home from Air Force service in 1978, he was concerned about local farms being lost to development. He said, “when you plant a building on a field, it’s the last crop that will ever grow there.” 

He became a vocal advocate of farm land preservation and led the fight to protect farms in his hometown, which resulted in the Dracut Land Trust, a measure preventing development and encouraging farming incentives.

Offering farming opportunities to immigrants 

The Ogonowski family emigrated from Poland to make their home in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. When they moved to Dracut, the family received invaluable assistance from local Yankee farmers, who were well acclimated to the growing conditions in the harsh New England climate.

His uncle Albert said, “when John’s grandmother quit her job in the mills to move to Dracut, we got a lot of help from the local farmers here. They gave us advice and loaned us equipment. Oft times when we tried to give it back they told us to keep it. Now is our turn to help out. That’s our tradition here and John is a big part of that.”

Ogonowski’s time in Southeast Asia helped him form a bond with the Cambodian people. As a gesture of thanks for the help his own family received, John offered a portion of his family’s land to Cambodian and other Southeast Asian immigrants to farm. Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.”

With guidance and support, Cambodian farmers on the farm learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. Their success spawned a second project, the Asian Farmers’ Market in Lowell, where the farmers sell their vegetables to the community and local restaurants. 

9/11 hero and casualty

John began flying for American Airlines in 1978. He met his wife Peggy, a flight attendant, and they married in 1983. He became an airline captain in 1989.

Twelve days a month Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform to fly jumbo jets out of Logan Airport. One of those days was September 11, 2001. On that fateful day, he was the Senior Captain of American Airlines flight 11.

About 15 minutes into flight 11 out of Boston, a flight attendant alerted ground personnel that their plane was being highjacked. In minutes, hijackers injured two people, killed one, and breached the cockpit. The armed assailants overpowered both Ogonowski and the first officer, and the hijackers took over the controls. 

Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM by the terrorists. Tragically, Ogonowski survived one war only to be among the first casualties of the war on terror.

The legacy of John Ogonowski

Ogonowski has been celebrated with numerous memorials in his home town and in New York. His life and accomplishments have been honored through aviation groups, farm aid programs, and farming recognition awards.

John was instrumental in establishing the USDA’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NEFSP). And his family vowed to continue the family tradition of farming in Dracut, Massachusetts, which is protected under the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program.

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