The Grounded Man

Editor’s Note: In May 2005, The Rake ran a story by former KSTP-TV reporter Dean
Staley about Clancy Prevost, the man whose suspicions about his flight
student Zacharias Moussaui led to the apprehension of the “twentieth
hijacker” behind the 9/11 attacks. Before our story hit the street in
print, but after it was posted on our website, the
StarTribune, in an
attempt to discredit us and Prevost, (and to take credit themselves for
the story of who caught Moussaui) ran a front page story the day before
our story hit the streets crediting the tip that led to Moussaui to Tim
Nelson and Hugh Sims, colleagues of Prevost at the Pan Am Flight
Academy.

As noted in a Strib story today (January 25, 2008), the State and Justice
Departments gave a $5 million reward for the Moussaui tip to Clancy
Prevost, not to Nelson and Sims. It seems the State and Justice
Departments thought
The Rake story had it right, and the Strib had it
wrong. Our story is below.

—Tom Bartel

He wraps his long fingers around his coffee cup, measures me with steady pale blue eyes, the eyes of an airline pilot. He smiles at the absurdity of his story. We are just a few miles down the road from the Eagan flight school where, one month before the September 11th attacks, he tried to teach Zacarias Moussaoui how to fly a Boeing 747.

His name is Clancy Prevost. He is sixty-eight years old, a retired pilot for Northwest Airlines, a lapsed Catholic, and a recovering alcoholic. He shakes his head as he recalls his story publicly for the first time.

The morning of August 13, 2001, was warm and humid, the Minnesota summer nearing its peak. Clancy Prevost left his room at the Spring Hill Suites, his local lodging when he commutes from the East Coast. He jumped on the hotel shuttle and headed for the nearby offices of the Pan-Am International Flight Academy. He wore a blue polo shirt, khakis, and red Converse sneakers.

At 10:30 that morning, Prevost walked into the air-conditioned lobby of the Northwest Aerospace Training Corporation, Northwest Airlines’ affiliated training facility. Here his employer, Pan Am Flight Academy, leases time on a range of multimillion-dollar simulators, including the 747-400 model, which realistically mimics the flight deck of a Boeing 747. There, thirty days before September 11th, he shook hands with the man the government would later call “the twentieth hijacker.”

”He was pleasant, but I expected him to be better dressed. He just was wearing Dockers and they didn’t fit real well, he was a little overweight, and he had this baseball hat, and growth of beard,” Prevost recalls. There was nothing remarkable about Moussaoui. In fact, Prevost’s first impressions of Moussaoui barely registered at all.

Prevost expects young pilots to arrive with energy, even nervousness, but from Moussaui, he got nothing. “I guess I wanted him to be a little more alive and comin’ at ya. But there wasn’t much comin’ at ya. It was just, ‘Hello.’”

Prevost wrote off Moussaoui’s timidity to first-day jitters. “It’s understandable since it’s all new. It’s daunting even to the experienced pilots that show up, let alone this guy who’s wandering in to supposedly kill everybody.

Moussaoui’s demeanor may have helped him go unnoticed during the five and a half months leading up to his arrest. He arrived in Chicago from London on February 23 and declared at least thirty-five thousand dollars in cash on his customs form. He traveled to Oklahoma City, and later to Minnesota. Along the way, Moussaoui bought knives and flight-training videos and inquired about starting a crop-dusting company. Not once did he draw the attention of authorities. Not even when he walked into the Pan Am flight school, counted out sixty-eight one-hundred dollar bills, and signed up to learn how to fly a 747. His luck ended the day he met his flight instructor, Clancy Prevost.

At first glance, Moussaoui was the kind of client Prevost had seen before: a wealthy civilian with no ties to the airline industry who wanted to learn how to fly a commercial jetliner. One might be surprised to learn how many “vanity clients” come to flight school, men of means with lots of free time, whose ultimate hope is apparently to impress women with a 747-type rating—bragging rights worth thousands of dollars. (Normally, most of Pan Am’s students are working, commercial pilots who are training to upgrade their ratings from smaller passenger jets. Maybe two or three vanity students turn up each year.) But that first day, Moussaoui would prove unlike any other student Prevost had known.

At 10:45, Prevost and Moussaoui took a shuttle van a mile and a half to the Pan-Am classroom building to start ground school. Michael Guess, a twenty-one-year-old support worker, met them at the reception desk. Guess set them up in a room with a projector and a PowerPoint presentation on the systems of the 747-400. (Guess, an aspiring pilot himself, would die a year later copiloting the flight that crashed and killed Senator Paul Wellstone in the woods of Northern Minnesota.)

The room was not much bigger than a large office. Moussaoui sat down. Prevost drew the blinds. Standing, he projected the PowerPoint presentation onto the white wall. Prevost paged his way through the schematics of the 747-400. Using color-coded charts and graphics, he described the hydraulic systems that power the flight control surfaces: the rudder, flaps, and horizontal elevator at the rear of the aircraft.

Moussaoui repeated some of the technical phrases and asked a few questions. Prevost, who flew 747s for Northwest Airlines, smiles and says, “I knew he wasn’t pilot material, because he’d actually read his manuals and he didn’t talk about pussy.” But over the course of the lesson, an odd pattern emerged. Moussaoui used the correct jargon, but his questions often didn’t make sense or were out of context.

Prevost tried to explain to Moussaoui the complex backup systems that in an emergency mean the difference between life and death. “There are two parts each. You have your engine-driven pumps and the backups to the engine-driven pumps, which are the man (manual) pumps. Two of them are electric. Two of them are air-driven. One and four are air-driven. Two and three are electric. The EDPs (engine driven pumps) are the main pumps and floor systems.”

Moussaoui was plainly bewildered. “So you say stuff like that and he’s sitting there like…” Prevost drops his jaw, gives a blank look. “It’s useless. He doesn’t have any knowledge on anything.” Moussaoui’s reaction exposed him as a man profoundly out of his depth trying to learn to fly a 747. Frustrated, looking for a break, Prevost suggested they get lunch. By 11:30, they were back at the NATCO building.

They sat down to lunch in the cafeteria. Prevost asked Moussaoui what he did for a living. Moussaoui said he worked in the import/export business, that his family was covering for him while he was gone. Though Moussaoui is a French national of Moroccan descent, he never said specifically where he was from. Moussaoui told Prevost he had to get his training done as soon as possible, because there was only so much time his family would cover for him.

Prevost remembers trying to stall, because the training seemed pointless with such an unpromising student. “We’re sitting up there in the cafeteria and I’m thinking, I’m going to stay here for two or three hours because I don’t want to go back to the classroom building and try to teach him something, because you can’t. There’s no awareness of anything.” Moussaoui seemed equally discouraged. He had good reason.

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