Hijack pilots showed average skills, say their instructors

 - October 3, 2007, 10:08 AM
“To be honest, I had a problem with Atta the first time I talked to him. I didn’t like his personality,” Rudy Dekkers, president and owner of Venice, Fla.-based Huffman Aviation International, said of suspected World Trade Center terrorist Mohamed Atta. “But what are you going to do? I’m going to deny someone flight training because I don’t personally like him?”

But Dekkers’ first impression proved to be prophetic because during the first four weeks of training, Atta’s flight instructor was complaining to the chief instructor that Atta had a continuous attitude problem. “Our chief instructor told Atta he would terminate his instruction if he didn’t change his behavior, and just like that he changed. There were no more attitude problems,” Dekkers told AIN.

Dekkers said that other than the attitude problem early on, there were no “red flags” for either Atta or fellow student Marwan Al-Shehhi. “Technically, we’re not required to ask for identification from our students to give them instruction, but it has been a policy of the school to do so for at least 10 years,” he said. “We ask foreign students for passports and photocopy them for our records. We do it mostly so we have the proper information in case of an emergency, but in the process we’ve always checked INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] status. Both Atta and Al-Shehhi checked out.”

The fact that the pair took flight training at a Florida flight school shouldn’t be a surprise. Florida is the focal point of the billion-dollar flight-school industry in the U.S., training as many as a sixth of all pilots in the country. Florida flight schools have garnered an international reputation for being the most affordable in the world. There are estimated to be 200 Part 141 and Part 61 flight schools in Florida.

Ironically, the growth of the flight-school industry can be traced to an increasing worldwide demand for pilots that occurred simultaneously with the post-Vietnam decrease in the supply of ex-military pilots. When the training boom eased off in the early 1990s many flight schools began to recruit foreign students in an attempt to keep their businesses viable. It turned out to be a bigger bonanza than many anticipated.

Regulations governing the training of foreign pilots are almost nonexistent aside from the basic FAA requirements that apply to all applicants. Any non-resident with a valid visa from the INS is acceptable. It is important to note that neither the FAA nor the flight schools were intended to be screeners of potential terrorists. The FARs were never intended to address that potentiality. Instead, the emphasis has been on screening out applicants with alcohol and drug problems.

Just ‘Average’ Students
Atta arrived at Huffman with a private pilot certificate as prerequisites for the commercial single- and multi-engine courses. Al-Shehhi had no previous training and enrolled in the ab initio program. Dekkers said both students were hard and serious workers, arriving for instruction on July 3 last year and for the most part continuously training until that December 21.

“They both left just after New Years this year,” he said. “As students go, they were both average in their exams and flying. Nothing particularly wrong, but not excellent either. Even today, knowing what I know now, I look back and can’t identify any red flags. They looked and acted the part, wearing jeans, sneakers and t-shirts. There just wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about either of them.”

Thirty-three-year-old Atta used his own name to book a ticket for September 11, unlike some of the hijackers who used stolen identities to confuse authorities and cause grief for schools that in fact had no relationship to any of the 19 terrorists. Atta is thought to have flown American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and Al-Shehhi United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.
The pair has been linked to suspected hijackers on the two other aircraft involved in the attacks.

Atta was a German-educated architect and the son of a successful lawyer. He simply did not fit the mold of the young Muslim suicide bomber. Typically, suicide bombers were raised in the politicized atmosphere of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, areas with a long-standing hatred of Americans and Israelis.

Atta, Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah were fellow students in Hamburg, Germany, during the 1990s. Jarrah is believed to have been on United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in a field in southwestern Pennsylvania. Dekkers’ lack of red flags was not a lack of insight on his part. Little did he know that Atta and Al-Shehhi were likely following a terrorist handbook on how to live unnoticed.

Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants is a 180-page, 18-chapter document written in Arabic that was discovered by the FBI and translated into English. The government used it at the trial of four members of the network accused of orchestrating the 1998 terrorist attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In that manual the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda tells the reader that breaking Islamic rules is acceptable because it is in service of the jihad (holy war). It taught them how to blend seamlessly into society (see sidebar).

Similar Impression
Henry George, owner of Miami-based SimCenter/Avia LLC, had the same impression of Atta and Al-Shehhi. George, a 21-year Eastern Airlines pilot, spent his last seven years with the airline in its training department. After Eastern he worked for FlightSafety for five years in its heavy transport flight-training program before starting his own flight school.

It was last December when Atta and Al-Shehhi took six hours of Boeing 727 simulator training from George. “We advertise our jet introduction course in various flight-training magazines, so there wasn’t anything noteworthy when they inquired about it,” he said. The company offers 30 hr of ground school on the Embraer 145 and 12 hr of instruction in a Boeing 727 full-motion simulator. George said the classroom portion exposes students to the glass cockpit and the simulator to flying high-performance aircraft.

“They said they were cousins and were interested in taking the course together because they intended to apply to an unspecified Egyptian airline and needed some jet aircraft training,” George explained. “That’s common. We’ve had many students from Spain, for instance, who have done the same thing, so it wasn’t a surprise that they just wanted four hours of simulator time but no ground school.” George said the two used a credit card to reserve a training slot.

They showed up as planned on December 29 last year and worked in the simulator for two days, opting at the last minute to take six hours of training. “We did three hours a day split equally between the two, with one observing in the right seat while the other flew in the left,” George said. “They both had commercial pilot certificates with instrument and multi-engine ratings and approximately 350 hours of flight time. Looking back, they were average pilots for their experience level. Nothing particularly bad about their flying, but nothing remarkable either.”

George said on a personal basis that “nothing about them stood out. I would have said Atta was younger but apparently that’s not true–he was 10 years older. I’ve dealt with many people from the Middle East over the years and these two were quite ordinary. They were respectful and quiet almost to the point of being shy.”

Duncan Hastie, president of CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the same of Hani Hanjour: “He was just a normal guy from the Middle East.” Hanjour is believed to have been aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it was flown into the Pentagon. “We have students here from all over the world, and we respect their customs and beliefs. As far as his skills as a pilot, though, Hanjour was a pretty weak student.” Hanjour was enrolled in the ab initio program and trained with CRM from October through December 1996 but never progressed further than the solo phase.

Hastie said Hanjour returned a year later with two friends, took about three additional training flights and left. Neither of the friends has been implicated in the terrorist attacks. “But he kept in touch, calling probably twice a year over the ensuing years,” Hastie said. “He had expressed an interest in 757 training early on, but as far as I know he never pursued it. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the man. He was soft spoken and polite.” While the terrorists might have been soft spoken and polite, the press was not.

Everyone interviewed by AIN for this story said that the day after the terrorist attacks their flight-school parking lots were filled with media vans, vehicles, satellite uplinks and journalists from every imaginable publication. These were not invited guests and not orderly sympathetic individuals who were concerned about the well being of the company or its employees. “They didn’t care that we were in shock, these people were like sharks in the water,” one individual said on condition of anonymity. “Trust me, no matter what you think, you’re not prepared for what happens when the world press arrives.”

Shocked by the events of the previous day and the unfolding story, Huffman’s Dekkers tried to satisfy everyone’s needs. It would prove to be a common mistake. Dekkers had trained two of the most recognizable terrorist names and was accordingly one of the most sought-after interviews.

His desire to meet the demands of the press resulted in reporters grousing about having to wait for long periods of time to talk to him. “Eventually, I realized I couldn’t talk to everyone on a one-to-one basis, so I decided to get everyone into one room and have a press conference,” he said. It turned out to be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

In the September 27 issue of the Tampa, Fla. Weekly Planet, in an article titled “Not So Media Savvy” by Rochelle Renford, Dekkers would be criticized. “Reporters rolled their eyes at the idea that this man was holding a news conference. Someone called him a media hound for not blowing off any interview requests. He was being ridiculed for giving us what we wanted and having the temerity to make us wait.” It wouldn’t be the only time Dekkers would be maligned.

Another publication suggested Dekkers was laundering money for the terrorists because he charged Atta and Al-Shehhi $38,000 for training. “Atta spent $18,700 for a commercial single- and multi-engine program and Al-Shehhi $20,700 for the entire ab initio program,” Dekkers explained. “We work hard to keep our rates down. That’s highly competitive in this industry.”

Dekkers also balked at being described as a small operation, as if there had to be more than a random chance these two individuals went to Huffman. “We have between five and 10 full-time students a month and an additional 30 to 40 students working on various ratings part time,” he explained. “We operate under both Part 141 and Part 61, depending upon the student’s needs. We get students from all over the world and we’re hardly a small operation.”

Dekkers noted that he has more than 48 employees, six fuel trucks, a 20,000-sq-ft maintenance facility, a 12,000-sq-ft storage facility and a fleet of 40 airplanes. “I was expected to know everything about everyone, instantly. It has been weeks since the attacks and I’m still getting requests for interviews. The truth is that as the shock wears off, I remember more and more specifics. Initially I was in shock, and things get clearer in retrospect.”

Sim Center/Avia’s George had similar experiences with the media. When asked about the Boeing 727 training, he tried to explain what was covered. “We treat the simulator like the aircraft. We take off and then do airwork, much of which relates to various types of turns,” he explained. “Emphasis on turns is perfectly normal. You know, we do standard instrument departures, capture an airway, do 30-degree bank turns followed by 45-degree steep turns, then approach to a stall followed up with a few approaches. A lot of that work involves controlling the aircraft in a turn. Well, the media locked onto turns and it was made to appear as if all they wanted to do was learn to turn the aircraft, so they could fly it into their targets. That’s just not what happened.

“The day after the attacks, when I agreed to do the first interview, I was feeling really bad and felt worse every time I repeated the story,” George said. “I felt as if I’d been raped, as if I got taken. I shared my knowledge and skills with them and they used it to commit such a crime. Today, I can intellectually understand there was no way I could have known, but it’s still an emotional thing. The truth is, [the hijackers] were really over-trained for what they did.”

In the Aftermath
Dekkers said since the attacks he’s gotten about 180 negative letters and e-mails. One anonymous e-mailer wrote that he should close up his business because he trains terrorists. “Fortunately, I’ve gotten more than 17,000 positive ones,” Dekkers said. “We continue to get them all the time from people I don’t know who express their support. It’s really powerful to see how people have pulled together over this.”
From a business perspective the attack has been devastating, with repercussions rippling throughout the industry. Dekkers said his business is down at least 70 to 80 percent. “We normally sell between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of fuel a day and we’re down to selling 200 gallons a day right now. I’m losing between $10,000 and $15,000 a day; my buffer is gone,” he explained. “I’m hoping the season will kick in, or the school’s going to be in real financial trouble.”

CRM Airline Training Center’s Hastie reflected on his school’s current condition and said, “I don’t think having had Hanjour here as a student has had any backlash effect on us. We did get one silly e-mail saying that we should change our policy manual to ensure we know students’ future intentions, and one nasty call, but that was about it. People have been supportive but there’s no doubt that the terrorist activity in general has had a profound effect. It shut us down for about 10 days, resulting in a significant loss of revenue. At this point I’d estimate about a $50,000 to $75,000 impact on our business, and I think you’ll find all flight schools across the country are experiencing the same type of problem.”

George said he typically has between 30 and 50 students in training at a given time, and about 10 percent are foreign nationals looking for airline jobs in their home country. “We’re a Part 142 operation, meaning we can capitalize on the use of flight simulation,” he said. “As a certified aviation training center we can do everything a Part 141 school can do, but we can also do Part 121 and Part 135 training for the carriers. Our niche in the market is type ratings. We have the Embraer ERJ-145 program, for example.”

George pointed out that they were totally shut down for about 10 days, but it took another week to get people back in the door. “We contacted them but they had to have sufficient faith in the industry to return and continue flying with the hope there would be an airline job in their future. Airlines such as American Eagle were hiring 65 pilots a month, but overnight they went to laying off. That has a dramatic effect on our entire industry.”

George said he’d received three negative e-mails. One writer asked, “If I were Iranian would you train me just for the money?” However, “on the other side of the coin,” he said, “I’ve gotten supportive e-mails and calls from all over the world from people who don’t know me, as well as from old friends.

“You hate to think of the effect on business in such a terrible situation, but the bottom line is that we’re looking at about a $20,000 loss in income. We can deal with it as we’re in the training business for the long haul, but some planned expansion is definitely going to have to be put on hold for a while.”

Lessons learned
Everyone interviewed agreed that they were never prepared for the onslaught of the media. The school owners, spurred by the shock of events, tried to accommodate the press. But what the general press wants is often self-serving, and these managers now realize they should not compromise the well-being and safety of their company to please the press.

One interviewee pointed out that at a local university there are Iraqi students taking chemical engineering. “Does the university have to screen them?” he asked. “They come to this country on a legal visa and go to school. What they do with their education can hardly be controlled by the university.”

Dekkers explained that he currently has two Muslim students in his program who have been with him for several months. “These are nice guys, but I told them I was giving their files to the FBI just to be sure,” he said. “I turned over the files and the FBI won’t say anything. I want to know if it’s alright to keep training these students, and the FBI won’t even tell me if their passports are legal. If we learn anything from all this it is that we need a better system.”