WTC Hijackers and Airplane Training

Q: I find it hard to believe the WTC hijackers, trained only as private pilots, were able to steer those 757s and 767s into their targets. Do you think they needed advanced training, and do you believe a foreign government provided this?

No, it doesn’t shock me that the hijackers, with minimal experience, were able to accomplish what they did. Their feats did not require in-depth technical knowledge or skill. They were out of their league, obviously, but many private pilots would have little trouble handling the up/down/left/right of a widebody jet.

They needed some luck, and they got it, especially with regard to the Pentagon. Hitting a stationary target from above — even a big one with five sides — is very difficult. To make it easier, the hijacker pilot did not come directly in at a steep angle, but “landed” into the building as obliquely as possible. If he had flown the same profile ten times, five times he’d have ended up a tumble of wreckage short of the target, or else would have overflown it entirely.

Atta and at least one other hijacker did buy several hours of jet simulator training on a Boeing 727. This was not the same type of jet used in the attacks (757s and 767s), but it really didn’t need to be. The simulator time was not supplied by a foreign state, but was purchased from a private flight academy in Florida.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.