The Legend Unraveled

According to an FBI chronology for Hani Hanjour cited by the 9/11 Commission, Hanjour first travelled to the U.S. in 1991 on a visa issued in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia under the name “Hani Saleh Hanjoor”, in order to attend the University of Arizona’s Center for English as a Second Language. After returning to Saudi Arabia, he was again issued a visa at Jeddah in March, 1996. Back in the U.S., he attended classes at the ELS Language Center in Oakland, California from May until August. For a week in September, he took ground training lessons at the Sierra Aeronautical Academy Airline Training Center (SAAATC). From the end of September until mid-October, he purchased flight instruction from Cockpit Resources Management (CRM) in Scottsdale, Arizona. He then returned to Saudi Arabia once more.[20] The Washington Post reported that according to Hanjour’s brother, Yasser, “Hanjour applied for a job at the state-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines but was told that he lacked sufficient grades…. He said the company told him it would reconsider his application only if he acquired a commercial pilot’s license in the United States.”[21] Yasser characterized Hanjour “as a frustrated young Saudi who wanted desperately – but never succeeded – to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline.”[22]

Hanjour made plans to return to the U.S. and was issued a third visa in Jeddah in November 1997. His visa application contained red flags that should have resulted in his visa being denied. He failed to write in the name and address of the school he would be attending and provided no proof, as required by law, that he could furnish financial support for himself.[23] With that application accepted, he reentered the U.S. and took pilot training from CRM again in December.[24]

It was at this time that, according the 9/11 Commission, Hanjour began his training “in earnest”. But in reality, while at CRM, Hanjour never finished coursework required to get his certificate to be able to fly a single-engine aircraft.[25] The New York Times reported that “he was a lackadaisical student who often cut class and never displayed the passion so common among budding commercial airline pilots”.[26] ABC News reported that when he returned to CRM that December, “He was trying for his private pilot’s license”, but according to one of his instructor’s, he “was a very poor student who skipped homework and missed flights.”[27] The school’s attorney said that when Hanjour reapplied again later in 2000, “We declined to provide training to him because we didn’t think he was a good enough student when he was there in 1996 and 1997.”[28] The school’s owner described him as a “weak student” who “was wasting our resources”.[29] He said “One of the first accomplishments of someone in flight school is to fly a plane without an instructor. It is a confidence-building procedure. He managed to do that. That is like being able to pull a car out and drive down the street. It is not driving on the freeway.” Although it normally took three months for students to earn their private pilot’s certificate, Hanjour “did not accomplish that at my school.” He added that “We didn’t want him back at our school because he was not serious about becoming a good pilot.”[30] The Chicago Tribune reported that at CRM, “A flight instructor said Hanjour left an impression by being unimpressive. ‘He was making weak progress,’ said Duncan Hastie, president of CRM.”[31]

Hanjour switched schools, and from the end of December 1997 until April 1999, took flight lessons from Arizona Aviation in Mesa, Arizona.[32] There, too, the 9/11 Commission’s own evidence contradicts the characterization that Hanjour was training “in earnest”. An FBI document cited by the Commission stated that “Hanjour often participated in flying lessons for a one to two weeks [sic] and then would disappear for weeks or months at a time.” The school “often had to call Hanjour in an effort to get Hanjour to pay his bill.”[33]

Buried in the footnote for the paragraph suggesting Hanjour began training “in earnest”, the 9/11 Commission report acknowledged that “Hanjour initially was nervous if not fearful in flight training” and that “His instructor described him as a terrible pilot.”[34] FBI documents cited by the Commission reveal that witnesses from the school told investigators that “Hanjour was a terrible pilot. Hanjour had difficulty understanding air traffic control, the methods for determining fuel management and had poor navigational skills.” The FBI was told by one witness that “the only flying skill Hanjour could perform was flying the plane straight”, and that “he did not believe Hanjour’s poor flying skills were due to a language barrier.” He was “a very poor pilot who did not react to criticism very well. Hanjour was very, very nervous inside the cockpit to the point where Hanjour was almost fearful.”[35]

In April 1998, Hanjour applied for his private pilot certificate with a single-engine rating, but he failed his test. One of the tasks documents show he would need to be reexamined for was “coordinated turns to headings” [36] He tried again later that same month and this time received his private pilot certificate under the name “Hani Saleh Hanjoor”, with an “Airplane Single Engine Land” rating.

In an apparent attempt to bolster the misleading characterization that Hanjour began training “in earnest”, the 9/11 also stated that it took only “Several more months” to obtain his commercial pilot certificate. In fact, it took Hanjour another year of training before he managed to obtain that second certificate. On April 15, 1999, the FAA issued a commercial pilot certificate to him under the name “Hani Saleh Hanjoor”.[37] The certificate was issued by Daryl M. Strong, an independent contractor for the FAA, with an “Airplane Multiengine Land” rating. To obtain the certificate, Hanjour’s records show he flew his check ride in a Piper PA 23-150 “Apache”, a four-seat twin-engine plane, which Hanjour was in command of for 14.8 hours of the 27 hours completed for the test.[38]

Contrary to the Washington Post’s assertion that this certificate allowed him “to fly commercial jets”, in fact it only allowed him to begin passenger jet training. Hanjour did so, only to fail the class.[39] As the Associated Press reported, the “certification allowed him to begin passenger jet training at an Arizona flight school despite having what instructors later described as limited flying skills and an even more limited command of English.”[40]

Furthermore, there remains an open question about whether Hanjour was actually qualified to receive that certificate in the first place. According to Heather Awsumb, a spokeswoman for Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), a union that represents FAA employees, “The real problem is that regular oversight is handed over to private industry”, since private contractors “receive between $200 and $300 for each check flight. If they get a reputation for being tough, they won’t get any business.”[41]

To obtain a commercial pilot license, the applicant must “Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.” It seems highly dubious that Hanjour met that qualification, as the 9/11 Commission itself acknowledges that his English skills were inadequate. The certificate does not allow its holder to fly any commercial aircraft, but is issued for “the aircraft category and class rating sought”. Hanjour only trained in light propeller planes like the single-engine Cessna and twin-engine Piper, and had never flown a jet aircraft.[42]

Additionally, commercial pilot certification is different from the Airline Transport Pilot certification held by airline captains. To obtain a commercial certificate with a multi-engine rating, Hanjour only needed to log in 250 hours of flight time, whereas to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, pilots are required to log 1,500 hours.[43] Needless to say, having the ability to control a Cessna 172 or Piper Apache propeller plane does not translate into the ability to handle a Boeing 757 jetliner – and Hanjour could barely do the former.

Anyone unfamiliar with pilot certification could easily make the mistake of thinking a “commercial pilot license” meant Hanjour was qualified to fly a jet airliner, a conclusion reinforced by the Washington Post’s false assertion that his certificate allowed him “to fly commercial jets”. The 9/11 Commission report reinforced that false impression, only vaguely hinting at the truth six paragraphs later by saying that Hanjour subsequently “wanted to train on multi-engine planes”. But the Commission then further obfuscated that truth by asserting that this was merely “refresher” training (a matter to which we will return).

Hanjour again left the country on April 28, 1999. [44] As the 9/11 Commission report observed, when he returned to Saudi Arabia to apply in the civil aviation school in Jeddah, he was rejected.[45] He subsequently began making preparations to return to the U.S. once again.[46] In September 2000, Hanjour was denied a student visa after indicating that he wanted to remain in the U.S. for three years, and yet listed no address for where he intended to stay in Arizona.[47] But he tried again for a student visa under the name “Hani Hanjour” later that same month. This time, he wrote that he wanted to stay for one year instead of three, and listed a specific address in California, not Arizona, where he said he was going on his first application. Despite these obvious red flags, he was issued the visa. [48]

He entered the U.S. in December and took more flight lessons that month at Arizona Aviation. From February until mid-March, he attended Pan Am International Flight Academy, also known as Jet Tech International, in Mesa, Arizona.[49]

It was upon his return to Arizona Aviation in 2000 that the 9/11 Commission stated he wanted “refresher” training on multi-engine planes but was advised to discontinue “because his English was not good enough.” The implications are that Hanjour was merely brushing up on skills he had already achieved through previous flight training, and that the only reason he was advised not to continue was because of his poor language skills. But turning to the report’s footnote, it reads: “For his desire to train on multi-engine planes, his language difficulties, the instructor’s advice, and his reaction, see FBI report of investigation, interview of Rodney McAlear, Apr. 10, 2002.”[50] That document reveals that McAlear worked not for Arizona Aviation, but rather “instructed Hani Hanjour in ground school flight training at Jet Tech in the early 2001.”[51] The 9/11 Commission, by misleadingly suggesting that this occurred at Arizona Aviation, apparently intended to bolster the claim that this was “refresher” training by making it sound as though this occurred at Hanjour’s old school, when the truth is that it occurred when he was at a different school he’d never been to before.

The 9/11 Commission was also deceiving the public suggesting that the sole reason Hanjour was not able to complete his training on multi-engine planes was because his English wasn’t good enough. As already noted, an instructor at Arizona Aviation thought his earlier failings there were due primarily to his poor flight skills, and not because of his language inadequacies. More importantly, again, this training actually occurred at Jet Tech. Turning to the documentary record, an article in the New York Times entitled “A Trainee Noted for Incompetence” noted, his instructors there “found his piloting skills so shoddy and his grasp of English so inadequate that they questioned whether his pilot’s license was genuine”. As a result, they actually reported him to the FAA and requested confirmation that his certificate was legitimate. The staff there “feared that his skills were so weak that he could pose a safety hazard if he flew a commercial airliner.” Marilyn Ladner, a vice president at the academy, told the Times, “There was no suspicion as far as evildoing. It was more of a very typical instructional concern that ‘you really shouldn’t be in the air.’” [52]

As already discussed, it remains an open question whether Hanjour was actually qualified to hold his commercial pilot certificate. It was at this time, as the Associated Press reported, that “Federal aviation authorities were alerted in early 2001 that an Arizona flight school believed one of the eventual Sept. 11 hijackers lacked the English and flying skills necessary for the commercial pilot’s license he already held, flight school and government officials say.”[53] The manager of JetTech said, “I couldn’t believe he had a commercial license of any kind with the skills that he had.”[54]