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Context of 'Mid-August 2001: 9/11 Hijacker Hanjour Rents Plane in Maryland; He Is Still Not Skilled Enough to Fly Solo'

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A photocopy of Hani Hanjour’s 1999 pilot license.A photocopy of Hani Hanjour’s 1999 pilot license. [Source: FBI] (click image to enlarge)When Hani Hanjour attended flight schools between 1996 and 1998 he was found to be a “weak student” who “was wasting our resources” (see October 1996-December 1997), and when he tried using a flight simulator, “He had only the barest understanding what the instruments were there to do.” (see 1998) Yet, on this day, he is certified as a multi-engine commercial pilot by Daryl Strong in Tempe, Arizona. Strong is one of many private examiners independently contracted with the FAA. A spokesperson for the FAA’s workers union will later complain that contractors like Strong “receive between $200 and $300 for each flight check. If they get a reputation for being tough, they won’t get any business.” Hanjour’s new license allows him to begin passenger jet training at other flight schools, despite having limited flying skills and an extremely poor grasp of English. [Federal Aviation Administration, 4/25/2002; Government Executive, 6/13/2002; Associated Press, 6/13/2002] At the next flight school Hanjour will attend in early 2001, the staff will be so appalled at his lack of skills that they will repeatedly contact the FAA and ask them to investigate how he got a pilot’s license (see January-February 2001). After 9/11, the FBI will appear to investigate how Hanjour got his license and question and polygraph the instructor who signed off on his flying skills. The Washington Post will note that, since Hanjour’s pilot skills were so bad, the issue of how he was able to get a license “remains a lingering question that FAA officials refuse to discuss.” [Washington Post, 10/15/2001; CBS News, 5/10/2002] After gaining the license, Hanjour apparently returns to the Middle East. He will arrive back in the US in December 2000 (see (Early 2000-November 2000) and December 8, 2000).

Entity Tags: Daryl Strong, Hani Hanjour

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hani Hanjour, from a 2000 US visa application.
Hani Hanjour, from a 2000 US visa application. [Source: 9/11 Commission]In January 2001, the Arizona flight school JetTech alerts the FAA about hijacker Hani Hanjour. No one at the school suspects Hanjour of terrorist intent, but they tell the FAA he lacks both the English and flying skills necessary for the commercial pilot’s license he has already obtained. For instance, he had taken classes at the University of Arizona but failed his English classes with a 0.26 grade point average. A JetTech flight school manager “couldn’t believe he had a commercial license of any kind with the skills that he had.” A former employee says, “I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all.” They also note he is an exceptionally poor student who does not seem to care about passing his courses. [New York Times, 5/4/2002; CBS News, 5/10/2002] An FAA official named John Anthony actually sits next to Hanjour in class and observes his skills. He suggests the use of a translator to help Hanjour pass, but the flight school points out that goes “against the rules that require a pilot to be able to write and speak English fluently before they even get their license.” [Associated Press, 5/10/2002] The FAA verifies that Hanjour’s 1999 pilot’s license is legitimate (see April 15, 1999), but takes no other action. However, his license should have been rejected because it had already expired in late 1999 when he failed to take a manadatory medical test. [Associated Press, 9/15/2001; CBS News, 5/10/2002] An Arizona FAA inspector later says, “There should have been a stop right then and there.” He will claim that federal law would have required Hanjour to be re-examined. [Associated Press, 6/13/2002] In February, Hanjour begins advanced simulator training, “a far more complicated task than he had faced in earning a commercial license.” [New York Times, 6/19/2002] The flight school again alerts the FAA about this and gives a total of five alerts about Hanjour, but no further action on him is taken. The FBI is not told about Hanjour. [CBS News, 5/10/2002] Ironically, in July 2001, Arizona FBI agent Ken Williams will recommend in a memo that the FBI liaison with local flight schools and keep track of suspicious activity by Middle Eastern students (see July 10, 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Anthony, Pentagon, Hani Hanjour, JetTech

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hani Hanjour.Hani Hanjour. [Source: FBI]9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour goes to the Freeway Airport in Bowie, Maryland, about 20 miles west of Washington. He wants to rent a single engine Cessna airplane. However, when two instructors take him on three test runs, they find he has trouble controlling and landing the plane. One instructor has to help him land. Due to his poor skills, therefore, he is not allowed to rent one of their planes without more lessons. Further, while Hanjour appears to have logged over 600 hours of flying experience and possesses a valid pilot’s license (though it has in fact expired), he refuses to provide contact information: He gives no phone number and only gives his address as being a hotel in Laurel. In spite of Hanjour’s lack of flying skills, chief instructor Marcel Bernard later claims, “There’s no doubt in my mind that once [Flight 77] got going, he could have pointed that plane at a building and hit it.” [Capital News, 9/19/2001; Gazette (Greenbelt), 9/21/2001; Newsday, 9/23/2001; Washington Post, 10/15/2001] However, on 9/11, in piloting Flight 77 into the Pentagon, Hanjour would have needed to do much more than simply point the plane at a target. Because Flight 77 at first seemed to overshoot its target, the Washington Post will note that “the unidentified pilot executed a pivot so tight that it reminded observers of a fighter jet maneuver. The plane circled 270 degrees to the right to approach the Pentagon from the west, whereupon Flight 77 fell below radar level.… Aviation sources said the plane was flown with extraordinary skill, making it highly likely that a trained pilot was at the helm.” [Washington Post, 9/12/2001] One Washington air traffic controller will later comment, “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001] One law enforcement official who will study Flight 77’s descent after 9/11 will call it the work of “a great talent… virtually a textbook turn and landing.” [Washington Post, 9/10/2002] Remarkably, the 9/11 Commission will overlook the numerous accounts of Hanjour’s terrible piloting skills (see April 15, 1999 and January-February 2001) and state that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed assigned the Pentagon target specifically to Hanjour because he was “the operation’s most experienced pilot.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 530]

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Hani Hanjour, 9/11 Commission, Marcel Bernard

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In an interview with Al Jazeera journalist Yosri Fouda in 2002 (see April, June, or August 2002), would-be hijacker Ramzi bin al-Shibh will claim that, roughly around this day, he receives a coded chat room message about the 9/11 plot from future hijacker Mohamed Atta in the US. Fouda will later co-write a book, and in it he will allege that bin al-Shibh gave him a computer disc containing the exact message. The message, as translated by Fouda, reads:
bullet “The first semester commences in three weeks. There are no changes. All is well. There are good signs and encouraging ideas. Two high schools and two universities. Everything is going according to plan. This summer will surely be hot. I want to talk to you about some details. Nineteen certificates for private education and four exams. Regards to the Professor. Goodbye.”
Fouda will claim that the message is in code, and that bin al-Shibh discussed with him what the real meaning was. In his book, Fouda says the real meaning is this:
bullet “The zero hour is going to be in three weeks’ time. There are no changes. All is well. The brothers have been seeing encouraging visions and dreams. The Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill. Everything is going according to plan. This summer will surely be hot. I want to talk to you about some details. Nineteen hijackers and four targets. Regards to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or Osama bin Laden [Fouda isn’t sure which one is the ‘Professor’]. I will call you nearer the time.”
Bin al-Shibh also tells Fouda that “This summer will surely be hot” is a reference to the damage the attacks will cause. [Guardian, 9/9/2002; Fouda and Fielding, 2003, pp. 138-139, 146]
When Were the Exact Date and Targets Chosen? - Future hijacker Hani Hanjour makes surveillance test flights near the Pentagon and World Trade Center around this time, suggesting the targets for the 9/11 attacks have now been confirmed (see July 20, 2001 and Mid-August 2001). [CBS News, 10/9/2002] The FBI will later notice spikes in cell phone use between the hijackers just after the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui and just before the hijackers begin to buy tickets for the flights they will hijack. [New York Times, 9/10/2002] CIA Director George Tenet will hint that Moussaoui’s arrest a few days earlier (on August 15 (see August 16, 2001)) may be connected to when the date of the attacks is picked. [US Congress, 6/18/2002] On the other hand, some terrorists appear to have made plans to flee Germany in advance of the 9/11 attacks on August 14, one day before Moussaoui’s arrest (see August 14, 2001).

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, George J. Tenet, Yosri Fouda, Mohamed Atta, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ramzi bin al-Shibh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Todd Lewis.Todd Lewis. [Source: NBC]After air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport notice an unidentified aircraft, later determined to be Flight 77, approaching Washington on their radar screens (see (Between 9:25 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and 9:32 a.m. September 11, 2001), they initially think it is a military fighter plane, due to its high speed and the way it is being flown. [ABC News, 10/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] Yet the alleged hijacker pilot of Flight 77 has been known for his poor flying skills. [Washington Post, 9/30/2001; New York Times, 5/4/2002]
Aircraft Performs Elaborate Maneuver - The Dulles controllers are unable to identify the plane because its transponder—which transmits identifying information about an aircraft to radar screens—has been turned off (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/11/2001; Washington Post, 9/12/2001] It is flying at almost 500 miles per hour while approaching Washington, and then performs a rapid downward spiral, “dropping the last 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes,” before hitting the Pentagon (see 9:34 a.m.- 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [CBS News, 9/21/2001; USA Today, 8/13/2002]
Moving 'Like a Military Aircraft' - Controller Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.” [ABC News, 10/24/2001] Another controller, Todd Lewis, will recall: “[N]obody knew that was a commercial flight at the time. Nobody knew that was American 77.… I thought it was a military flight. I thought that Langley [Air Force Base] had scrambled some fighters and maybe one of them got up there.… It was moving very fast, like a military aircraft might move at a low altitude.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002]
Alleged Pilot 'Could Not Fly at All' - Yet many people who have met Hani Hanjour, the hijacker allegedly at the controls of Flight 77, considered him to be a very poor pilot (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, February 8-March 12, 2001, and (April-July 2001)). Just a month previously, an airport refused to rent him a single-engine Cessna plane because instructors there found his flying skills so weak (see Mid-August 2001). [Gazette (Greenbelt), 9/21/2001; Newsday, 9/23/2001] And an employee at a flight school Hanjour attended earlier in the year will later comment: “I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all” (see January-February 2001). [New York Times, 5/4/2002]

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, Todd Lewis, Danielle O’Brien, Washington Dulles International Airport

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Before crashing into the Pentagon, Flight 77 performs a rapid downward spiral, flying almost a complete circle and descending 7,000 feet in two and a half minutes. [CBS News, 9/21/2001]
330-Degree Turn - At 9:34 a.m., Flight 77 is about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon. But, at an altitude of around 7,000 feet, it is flying too high to hit its target. [CBS News, 9/21/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file] Based on an analysis of radar data and information from the plane’s flight data recorder, a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board report will describe the maneuver the aircraft then performs: “[Flight 77] started a right 330-degree descending turn to the right. At the end of the turn, the aircraft was at about 2,000 feet altitude and four miles southwest of the Pentagon. Over the next 30 seconds, power was increased to near maximum and the nose was pitched down in response to control column movements.” The aircraft accelerates to about 530 miles per hour as it closes in on the Pentagon. [National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file]
Controllers Watch on Radar - Air Traffic Controllers at Washington Dulles International Airport follow Flight 77 on their radar screens as it performs this maneuver. Danielle O’Brien will later recall: “John, our supervisor, relayed verbatim, ‘OK, he’s 12 miles west, he’s moving very fast eastbound.… Eleven miles west.’ And it was just a countdown. Ten miles west, nine miles west.… And it went six, five, four, and I had it in my mouth to say three, and all of a sudden the plane turned away. In the room it was almost a sense of relief.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001] Todd Lewis will recall that the aircraft “was heading right towards a prohibited area in downtown Washington.… Then it turned south and away from the prohibited area, which seemed like a momentary sigh of relief, and it disappeared. But it was going away from Washington, which seemed to be the right thing.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002] However, O’Brien will continue: “[T]he plane turned back. He continued in the right-hand turn, made a 360-degree maneuver.… We lost radar contact with that aircraft. And we waited. And we waited.” [ABC, 10/24/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001]
Maneuver Indicates Advanced Flying Skills - According to CBS News, “The steep turn” made by Flight 77 “was so smooth… sources say, it’s clear there was no fight for control going on.” The “complex maneuver suggests the hijackers had better flying skills than many investigators first believed.” [CBS News, 9/21/2001] Aviation experts will conclude that this maneuver was the work of “a great talent… virtually a textbook turn and landing.” [Washington Post, 9/10/2002] Due to the aircraft’s high speed and the way it is being flown, Dulles Airport controllers mistake it for a military fighter jet (see (9:25 a.m.-9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 9/12/2001; ABC News, 10/24/2001; MSNBC, 9/11/2002] Yet the hijacker allegedly at the controls, Hani Hanjour, was considered to be a very poor pilot at numerous flight schools he attended (see October 1996-December 1997, 1998, January-February 2001, February 8-March 12, 2001, (April-July 2001), and Mid-August 2001). [Washington Post, 9/10/2002]

Entity Tags: Todd Lewis, RobertMoomo, Danielle O’Brien, John Hendershot, Washington Dulles International Airport

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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