The 9/11 Hijackers: Amateur Aviators Who Became Super-Pilots on September 1114/07/2011 23:06
"To hit something with an airplane is easy only if you have been flying for 20 years."
- Boeing 767 pilot quoted in the Boston Globe
"The conspiracy apparently did not include a surplus of skilled pilots."
- The Washington Post
In the days after 9/11, numerous pilots and aviation experts commented on the elaborate maneuvers performed by the aircraft in the terrorist attacks, and the advanced skills that would have been necessary to navigate those aircraft into their targets. The men flying the planes must have been "highly skilled pilots" and "extremely knowledgeable and capable aviators," who were "probably military trained," these experts said.
And yet the four alleged hijackers who were supposedly flying the aircraft were amateur pilots, who had learned to fly in small propeller planes, and were described by their instructors as having had only "average" or even "very poor" piloting skills. But on their first attempt at flying jet aircraft, on September 11, 2001, these men were supposedly able to fly Boeing 757s and 767s at altitudes of tens of thousands of feet, without any assistance from air traffic control. Three of them were apparently able to successfully navigate their planes all the way to the intended targets, which they hit with pinpoint accuracy.
For such poor pilots to carry out such skilled flying would surely have been extremely unlikely, perhaps impossible. And yet this is what is claimed in the official account of 9/11.
EXPERTS SAID HIJACKERS 'MUST HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCED PILOTS'
Numerous experts commented that the hijackers who flew the aircraft in the 9/11 attacks must have been highly trained and skillful pilots. Tony Ferrante, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration's investigations division, spent several days after 9/11 carefully piecing together the movements of the four aircraft targeted in the attacks. According to author Pamela Freni, Ferrante's "hair stood on end when he realized the precision with which all four airplanes had moved toward their targets." Ferrante said, "It was almost as though it was choreographed," and explained, "It's not as easy as it looks to do what [the hijackers] did at 500 miles an hour." 
Darryl Jenkins, the director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, told the New York Times that the men who carried out the attacks "knew what they were doing down to very small details." He said, "Every one of them was trained in flying big planes." The Times reported that a "number of aviation experts agreed" with Jenkins and had said that "the hijackers must have been experienced pilots." John Nance, an airline pilot, author, and aviation analyst, said that "the direct hits on the two towers and on the Pentagon suggested to him that the pilots were experienced fliers." Nance pointed to the "smooth banking of the second plane to strike the towers," and said that "precisely controlling a large jet near the ground, necessary for the Pentagon attack, also required advanced skill." Nance concluded, "There's no way an amateur could have, with any degree of reliability, done what was done" in the 9/11 attacks. 
A pilot who had been with a major carrier for more than 30 years told CNN that to "pull off the coordinated aerial attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ... the hijackers must have been extremely knowledgeable and capable aviators." The pilot added, "They know what they were doing." 
Robin Lloyd, a Boeing 737 captain with a British airline, told The Telegraph that "the hijackers had to be experienced pilots with more than just a rudimentary knowledge of navigation." Lloyd, who co-runs the Professional Pilots' Rumour Network website, which is "regarded worldwide as one of the prime sources of accurate information for the aviation industry," said the terrorists at the controls of the hijacked aircraft "had to be 100 percent switched on people, 100 percent experienced pilots, probably military trained." He said someone like Osama bin Laden "wouldn't have access to pilots of the caliber needed to pull it off." 
John Roden, the president of Aviation Advisory Service, an Oakland, California, consulting firm, said the piloting necessary to navigate the planes to their targets "was very skillful. This is practically fighter pilot technique."  And a U.S. Air Force officer who flew over 100 sorties during the Vietnam War concluded that the hijacked aircraft "either had a crack fighter pilot in the left seat or they were being maneuvered by remote control." 
'CONSIDERABLE TRAINING' AND 'IN-DEPTH KNOWLEDGE' NEEDED TO FLY 757 AND 767 AIRCRAFT
Two of the aircraft targeted in the 9/11 attacks were Boeing 757s and the other two were Boeing 767s. Experts have commented how difficult it would have been for amateur pilots, like the alleged hijackers, to fly such aircraft.
Aviation experts told the Chicago Tribune, "Unlike a small private plane where pilots generally fly visually, a commercial plane like those hijacked [on September 11] requires a vast command of navigation techniques as well as in-depth knowledge of their myriad systems, from hydraulics to the autopilot."  Michael Barr, the director of aviation safety programs at the University of Southern California, and several commercial airline pilots told the Boston Globe that "they assumed that the terrorists were skilled pilots who had to have received some training in flying transport jets, particularly the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft." 
Steven Wallach, an aviation consultant and former airline captain, said that if the hijackers "took the controls at high altitude and a long distance from their targets"--as allegedly happened--"then they likely had considerable training in a 767 or 757." Wallach said the hijackers "would have had to descend and navigate to Washington and New York. They would have had to know how to operate the autopilot, as well as other intricate functions." Boeing 767s and 757s have highly sophisticated "glass cockpits" that include video screens and digital readouts, which require the pilots to have an advanced level of computer skills. "To navigate with that glass cockpit, it can be pretty tricky," Wallach said. 
HITTING THE WTC LIKE 'THREADING THE EYE OF A NEEDLE'
Some experts commented specifically on the flying skills that would have been necessary to crash planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Kieran Daly, the editor of the Internet publication Air Transport Intelligence, said, "Flying an aircraft into a building is not as simple as it appears." He said the hijackers "would have needed some experience to have been able to steer the planes into the World Trade Centre."  Robin Lloyd compared the targets of the WTC towers to "narrow runways tipped vertically." From "switching off the autopilot," the hijackers "would have to know how to control the aircraft and be able to find the target," he said. Lloyd said that "rag-trousered terrorists with no flying experience could not have hit" the Twin Towers. 
Michael Barr said the hijackers who flew the planes into the WTC "had to change course ... had to know how to navigate."  Barr, who is a former Air Force fighter-bomber pilot, said the hijacker pilots "almost had to hit the towers like they were threading the eye of a needle." He commented on the difficulty the pilots would have had in synchronizing their attacks so they hit the two WTC towers about 15 minutes apart, saying: "The routes they were flying were very different--one plane coming from the north and the other coming from the south. That adds greatly to the complexity and it requires a degree of skill to prevent the planes from banking too much or descending too fast while keeping on course." Barr added that the piloting skills apparently exhibited by the hijackers indicated that "months and months of planning and training were involved." He concluded, "Unfortunately, these guys were good." 
A 767 pilot told the Boston Globe: "The perpetrators were trained pilots and trained to operate the 757-767 family of aircraft. ... [I]t did not seem to bother them that the flying was very demanding." This pilot noted that video showed that the second aircraft to hit the WTC was banked, or turning, as it struck the tower, "making the maneuver more difficult." He added, "To hit something with an airplane is easy only if you have been flying for 20 years." 
Niki Lauda, the former Formula One world champion who is also a pilot and owned his own airline, said on German TV that whoever flew the aircraft into the WTC must have been "properly trained to fly a plane like that." He said: "You have to know exactly what the turning radius of a plane like that is, if I am trying to hit the World Trade Center. That means, these had to be fully trained 767 or 757 pilots. ... It certainly could not be the case that some half-trained pilot tries it somehow, because then he will not hit it." 
AIRCRAFT THAT HIT THE PENTAGON 'WAS FLOWN WITH EXTRAORDINARY SKILL'
A particularly high level of skill would have been needed to fly an aircraft into the west wall of the Pentagon. CBS News reported: "Radar shows Flight 77 did a downward spiral, turning almost a complete circle and dropping the last 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes. ... [T]he complex maneuver suggests the hijackers had better flying skills than many investigators first believed."  A "top aviation source" called the maneuver "a nice, coordinated turn," which, according to one law enforcement official, was the work of "a great talent ... virtually a textbook turn and landing."  Other "aviation sources" told the Washington Post that the aircraft that hit the Pentagon "was flown with extraordinary skill." 
According to the Chicago Tribune, authorities said the terrorist who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon displayed "proficiency in the aircraft's advanced navigation and automated flight systems. ... Such systems require pilots to program the desired course heading and altitude into an onboard computer, and the plane carries out the instructions." 
Dave Esser, the head of the aeronautical engineering department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, told CNN that "the highest level of navigational ability would have been needed" with Flight 77. Roger Richie, a spokesman for Flight Safety Academy, a flight school in Vero Beach, Florida, added: "It's not that simple when you're heading over [Ohio], to come back and find the Pentagon. You need to know what you are doing." 
Ed Soliday, a highly qualified and experienced former airline captain, told the 9/11 Commission that he had been talking about piloting skills with a military officer at the Pentagon, and had remarked to the officer "how tough it would be for any pilot, including himself, to hit the Pentagon directly." Soliday said the "feel" to hit the Pentagon by flying a 757 manually would not have been easy, particularly because of the building's low profile, and would have required the pilot who undertook the task to have had significant "simulator time." Soliday told the Commission that "if he were going to do the Pentagon, he would try to do it all on the autopilot because of how difficult it was."  However, the autopilot on Flight 77 was disengaged at 9:29 a.m. and remained off for the final eight minutes the plane was in the air, according to a study of information from the plane's flight data recorder by the National Transportation Safety Board. 
The 767 pilot who talked to the Boston Globe similarly said hitting the Pentagon would have been "extremely difficult." He added, "One degree off and [the pilot] either overshoots it or undershoots it."  Gary Eitel, an experienced military pilot, said that "the maneuver performed by Flight 77, as described in official reports, was beyond the capabilities of 90 percent of even the best and most experienced pilots in the world." Eitel said that "he was amazed by the piloting skill used to steer Flight 175 into the second tower. Flight 77 boggled his mind." 
Niki Lauda said that "to fly downwards out of a curve and still hit the building in its core, I would have to be the best trained [pilot] of all." He speculated that "a normal airline pilot would have a hard time with that, because you are simply not prepared for things like that." Therefore, Lauda concluded, "They must have had some super-training to have been able to handle an airliner so precisely." 
While these experts indicated an extraordinary level of piloting skills would have been necessary to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the four men supposedly at the controls of the hijacked aircraft were in fact notable for their lack of such skills and for their limited flying experience.
FLIGHT 11 AND FLIGHT 175 PILOTS HAD 'AVERAGE' SKILLS
Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, allegedly the terrorists who flew American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center, were at best mediocre pilots, according to several accounts. They learned to fly between July and December 2000 at a flight school in Venice, Florida. They were enrolled in the school's Accelerated Pilot Program and trained in a Cessna 172, a small single-engine propeller plane. In mid-December 2000, the two men passed their commercial pilot tests and received their licenses.  Rudi Dekkers, the owner of the flight school, said he had "heard from the instructors" that Atta and Alshehhi "were average students," and "the examiner told me the same." 
The closest Atta and Alshehhi came to flying a jet aircraft before September 11 was the two days they spent at the SimCenter flight school in Opa-Locka, Florida, in late- December 2000, where they had six hours of training in a Boeing 727 simulator. Henry George, the owner of the SimCenter who trained Atta and Alshehhi in the simulator, said the two men were provided with "a mini, mini introduction" to jet flight. George found their flying skills to be unremarkable. He later recalled: "Looking back, they were average pilots for their experience level. Nothing particularly bad about their flying, but nothing remarkable either." 
FLIGHT 77 PILOT WAS 'TOTALLY CLUELESS' AND 'COULD NOT FLY AT ALL'
Of the four men supposedly at the controls of the hijacked aircraft on September 11, Hani Hanjour stood out for his particularly weak flying skills. This 29-year-old from Saudi Arabia is alleged to have flown Flight 77 into the Pentagon. That, as we have seen, would have been a particularly difficult task, even for the best pilots. Hanjour, however, was a hopeless pilot.
An Arizona flight school Hanjour attended in 1996 found the young Saudi to be a "weak student" who "was wasting our resources," according to the school's owner.  An instructor at another Arizona flight school who taught Hanjour for four months in 1998 later stated: "As a pilot, Hani Hanjour was very poor. His knowledge of the academic side of training was weak, his flying skills were marginal, but most significantly his judgment was very poor." The instructor recalled that Hanjour "was not well educated nor was he very intelligent." Hanjour had "a poor understanding of the basic principles of aviation" and "poor technical skills." 
Instructors at a flight school that Hanjour attended early in 2001 "found his piloting skills so shoddy and his grasp of English so inadequate that they questioned whether his pilot's license was genuine," according to the New York Times. The staff at the school "feared that his skills were so weak that he could pose a safety hazard if he flew a commercial airliner."  An instructor at the school who trained Hanjour in a Boeing 737 simulator while he was there said Hanjour "proved to be such a bad pilot," and described Hanjour as "totally clueless."  One of the school's employees later said of Hanjour: "I'm still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all." 
As the day of the attacks came closer, Hanjour's skills remained weak. An instructor at a Maryland flight school who provided flight lessons to Hanjour in mid-August 2001--less than a month before 9/11--found Hanjour to be "a poor student" who had "particular difficulty landing the aircraft."  After he was taken on three test flights at the school, Hanjour's request to rent a plane there was refused without more training. 
The Washington Post concluded that Hanjour's "limited flying abilities do afford an insight into one feature of the attacks: The conspiracy apparently did not include a surplus of skilled pilots." 
FLIGHT 93 PILOT'S SKILLS WERE 'A LITTLE BIT OUT THERE'
The terrorist allegedly at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93, which reportedly crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers fought back against their plane's hijackers, was Ziad Jarrah, a 26-year-old from the Lebanon. While he was a better pilot than Hani Hanjour, Jarrah still appears to have had only mediocre flying skills.
Jarrah learned to fly during the latter half of 2000, spending about six months at a flight school in Florida where he trained in a Cessna 152, a small, two-seat propeller plane.  Jarrah became an "average" pilot, according to Arne Kruithof, the owner of the flight school. Kruithof said of Jarrah: "We had to do more to get him ready than others. His flight skills seemed to be a little bit out there." 
In June 2001, only three months before 9/11, Jarrah had two sessions of training at a flight school in Philadelphia, but his request to rent a plane from the school was denied due to his poor flying skills. Herbert Hortman, the owner of the flight school, told the 9/11 Commission he was surprised that Jarrah had qualified for his pilot's license, considering his limited flying ability. Hortman "speculated that a less than reputable flight school had issued the license." 
Despite his mediocre skills, Jarrah intended to crash Flight 93 into the White House or the U.S. Capitol building until he was stopped in his tracks by the plane's courageous passengers, according to the official account of 9/11. 
DID THE HIJACKERS JUST HAVE BEGINNER'S LUCK?
We can see that the four men who were allegedly at the controls of the aircraft targeted in the 9/11 attacks had poor or mediocre skills and limited flying experience. So how could these amateur pilots, who had trained in small propeller planes, suddenly exhibit extraordinary proficiency in their first attempts at flying large jet aircraft? Was this the greatest example of beginner's luck in all history? Or is the official explanation of the 9/11 attacks wrong? A new investigation of those attacks is urgently required to address this question and find out the truth of what happened on September 11, 2001.
 Pamela Freni, Ground Stop: An Inside Look at the Federal Aviation Administration on September 11, 2001. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 2003, p. 76; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Tony Ferrante." 9/11 Commission, April 19, 2004.
 James Glanz, "Terrorists Were Well Trained, but not Necessarily in Flying." New York Times, September 13, 2001.
 "Hijackers 'Knew What They Were Doing.'" CNN, September 12, 2001.
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 Amy Goldstein, Lena H. Sun, and George Lardner Jr., "Hanjour a Study in Paradox."
 Der Spiegel Magazine, Inside 9/11: What Really Happened. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002, p. 12; "Statement for the Record, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry." U.S. Congress, September 25, 2002.
 Jere Longman, Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 91.
 "Profile: Ziad Samir Jarrah, DOB: May 11, 1975." Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 20, 2002; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview of Herbert Hortman, Owner of Hortman Aviation, Philadelphia, PA." 9/11 Commission, April 27, 2004.
 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 14.