Hijackers trained at U.S. flight schools

 - October 8, 2007, 10:32 AM

No one believed for a moment that any hijacked airline pilot would fly a fuel-laden Boeing into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, even with a gun to his or her head. So it was assumed from the beginning that hijackers had to fly them, and the hijackers had to be trained pilots. As evidence was uncovered, it became sickeningly apparent that these suicide pilots were not trained to fly in some remote terrorist enclave, but rather in the U.S. While experts disagree on how much training would be required to fulfill the suicide missions, it seems clear the suspected hijackers had trained at least to the commercial multi-engine level. Two of the hijack pilots reportedly obtained some instruction in a Boeing 727 simulator at SimCenter in Opa-Locka, Fla.

The FBI has reported that there were a total of 19 hijackers on all four airliners. Seven were listed as pilots. On American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, the first to crash into the World Trade Center, five hijackers were alleged to be among the 81 passengers. Four of those five were listed by the FBI as pilots, though the level of their training and experience remained unclear at press time. Mohammed Atta, 33, is believed to have been at the controls.

On United Airlines Flight 175, the airplane that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, there were also five hijackers. Only one, Marwan al Shehhi, was listed as a pilot. Along with Atta, he is reported to have taken flying lessons at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla. On American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, Hani Hanjour was the sole pilot among five hijackers on board.

Finally, Ziad Jarrahi was the lone pilot among four hijackers on United Flight 93. Jarrahi was the only unsuccessful suicide pilot among the seven. His aircraft, possibly headed for the White House or the Capitol, crashed in rural western Pennsylvania, likely the result of action taken by passengers to thwart the hijackers once cellphone conversations spread the word that other hijacked aircraft had been used as weapons. At press time, government officials were considering honoring those passengers with the highest decoration available for non-military heroes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Besides Huffman, other flying schools have been identified as places where the hijack pilots received training. FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., trained Abdul Alomari, who lived with his wife and four children in a rented house in Vero Beach. Alomari’s family returned to Saudi Arabia a few weeks before the attacks. Two neighbors also wore the white shirts and epaulets of FlightSafety Academy. At press time, Amer Kamfar was still at large and considered possibly armed and dangerous. Adnar Bukhari, another Saudi student, has been detained and is said to be cooperating in the investigation.

Huffman Aviation proprietor Rudi Dekkers remembered Mohammed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi as walk-in students who paid for their flying by check–about $10,000 each between July and November last year. Though it’s unclear how much experience the two men had when they left Huffman, a small flight school on Florida’s west coast, Dekkers told investigators he believed they went from there to someplace else where they could train on more advanced aircraft. These are the two pilots who received six hours of 727 simulator time, each, at SimCenter.

Atta and al Shehhi were identified by a bartender and waitress as being at a Hollywood, Fla. seafood restaurant on the night of September 10. According to a report, they were joined by a third unknown man and talked throughout the night.
Atta was observed to be “really upset,” according to the restaurant manager.
Another of the hijack pilots reportedly graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1997. ERAU and FlightSafety have both said they rely on foreign students’ visa status to ensure they are not training potential terrorists. So far, no evidence of any visa irregularities has appeared regarding the hijack pilots. Visas for foreign students are issued by the U.S. State Department.

Two of the 19 hijackers are said to have been on the FBI wanted list, though neither of those men was listed among the hijack pilots of the suicide airliners. They apparently played non-flying roles in the hijackings.

What do these developments mean for flight-training providers in the future? Though none of the schools that trained the hijack pilots did anything wrong, industry observers are confident there will be additional restrictions and responsibilities placed on flight schools and the FAA to guard against a repeat of the September 11 attacks. Some have suggested background checks for anyone applying for any form of pilot training. Retroactive checks for current license holders could also be in the offing.

In Minnesota, a man was detained because, weeks before the potential attacks, he approached a simulator training provider asking to learn how to fly an airliner, “but only to steer.” According to a Los Angeles Times story, the man cheered in his jail cell when he saw TV reports of the attack. Training providers who have airline-level simulators have faced no restrictions on whom they let in their facilities. In some cases, wealthy pilots and non-pilots alike have signed up for simulator training sessions for entertainment. One airline even held a passenger promotion with a “be a pilot for a day” prize, in which the winner would be flown to the airline’s training facility for a session in a training simulator. And some queasy fliers have combated their fear of flying by ponying up the cash for a simulator session to better understand what goes on in the cockpit while they are strapped in the cabin.

In the days following last month’s suicide attacks, flight schools large and small around the country struggled financially with being grounded–ironically during some of the best flying weather of the year. In addition, law enforcement made itself known. At Somerset Air Service in Somerville, N.J., a pair of state police detectives spent September 16 poring over receipts dating back to October 1999. On the counter was a New York Class B airspace chart with the New York 25-nm temporary flight restriction buffer marked off in heavy black ink. Frustrated instructors bemoaned the lack of flying on a CAVU Sunday as a doe and two fawns grazed unconcerned on the grass runway that would normally be crisscrossed by gliders and towplanes.

Overhead, hawks and turkey vultures enjoyed the crispy fall thermals as pilots and students could only watch enviously from the ground.