The Grounded Man

That spring, Moussaoui had taken three months of private lessons at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma. In twice the time it would take a new student to earn a novice pilot’s license, Moussaoui failed even to solo in a single-engine Cessna. A worker there told me, “That was his issue. Never did (solo). He just wasn’t good enough.”

In Eagan, hoping to learn to fly an aircraft that carries 524 people, 57,285 gallons of fuel, and, fully loaded, weighs more than four hundred tons, Moussaoui was well out of his depth. Prevost, smiling through lunch with his new student, thought to himself, “This is awful. We’re getting nothing out of this. This is stupid.’”

But in the world of private flight training, there are practicalities to be observed. The client, though wholly unprepared, must be encouraged with no less enthusiasm than the tennis pro lends to the hopelessly uncoordinated student. They both paid their money. In this regard at least, Moussaoui had the perfect instructor.

At six feet, four inches tall, Prevost has the height and gait of a retired basketball player. In fact, he was a reluctant center whose size obliged him to a mediocre career that ended after high school. Instead, Prevost went to law school, dropped out when his first wife got pregnant, and then, feeling trapped by domestic life, joined the Navy. The Navy taught him to fly.

With gray hair cut close on the sides, Prevost has the easy smile of a man who has spent a lifetime sharing jokes, stories, and drinks—though as a recovering alcoholic, he’s given up the last of these. He is a popular instructor known for helping struggling students pass the all-important “check ride,” the pressure-filled practical exam in a simulator that reproduces severe weather, complex system failures, engine malfunctions, and other emergencies.

At 1:00, Prevost and Moussaoui left the cafeteria and took the shuttle back to the classroom building. In the darkened room, Prevost picked up where he’d left off, paging through more schematics of the 747. In a lull in the lecture, Prevost asked Moussaoui what he hoped to accomplish. Moussaoui told Prevost he wanted to take off from London’s Heathrow Airport and land at Kennedy Airport in New York. (In the weeks after September 11th it was erroneously reported that Moussaoui didn’t care about taking off or landing.) Prevost dutifully tried to encourage Moussaoui, saying the trip was just a simulator away. “You’ll be able to do that. The simulator can fly the Atlantic track system. We can fast-forward it and you’ll fly all the way across the Atlantic in about forty-five minutes, and then you can land. You can do this.” Moussaoui seemed unconvinced. Prevost leaned across the table and gave him a pep talk—the one he reserved for vanity clients that weren’t likely ever to sit in the cockpit of an actual commercial jetliner.

He remembers the conversation perfectly: “Listen, Zach,” he said, “this is what’ll happen. You’ll be on a flight and the pilots will get a bad meal. They’ll get food poisoning and they’ll both be incapacitated. Somebody will say, ‘Does anybody know how to fly a 747?’ And you can raise your hand and say, ‘I can.’ And you’ll save everybody!” (This was the scenario in the spoof film Airplane.)

”I would rather take a parachute and jump out the door.” Moussaoui responded.

”You can’t get the doors open. The pressurization is too great.” Prevost told Moussaoui a story well known in pilot training circles about a Middle Eastern flight.

It was a hajj charter flight to Mecca. Shortly after takeoff, somebody with a cooking pot caught the inside of the airplane on fire. The pilot turned the plane around and landed. All they had to do was evacuate, but the engineer failed to depressurize the airplane. They couldn’t get the doors open. Everyone inside burned to death.

The story made Prevost think, his mind making a quick series of associations. He asked Moussaoui, “Hajj? Ramadan… what is that? Are you Muslim?” Here Moussaoui’s emotion betrayed him for the first time.

According to Prevost, Moussaui suddenly got very grave, and in a low, stern growl, said, “I am nothing.”

”He said it just like that. ‘I am nothing.’”

Hoping to establish some kind of rapport with his hopeless student, Prevost tested the waters by offering a little of himself. “I said, ‘Well, you know, I am nothing, either.’” In a manner of speaking, this was certainly true; Prevost is a former Catholic who for the last eleven years has lived his life according to the secular comfort and guidance he finds at his monthly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

But just at the moment he’d hoped to connect somehow with Moussaoui, something began to dawn on Prevost. Suddenly, he looked at his student as though for the first time. He had trained pilots for Middle Eastern airlines before, but Moussaoui was different. “That’s when I got the idea: Wait a minute, Middle Eastern businessman? What are we doing here? Muslim? Wait a minute. Do we know what we’re doing?”

Acting on his reservations would prove much harder than Prevost could have guessed at the time.

 

***

 

Prevost struggled through more of the Power Point presentation, most of it lost on Moussaoui. By 3:00, Prevost was exhausted. He dismissed Moussaoui for the day. Back at his hotel that afternoon, Prevost picked up the phone and called the Pan Am office. He asked for Alan McHale, the manager of pilot training. McHale was second in charge at Pan Am. He oversaw the program managers—one for each aircraft type; A320, 747, 757, DC-10—and the flight instructors. Prevost talked to Liz Stone, one of the schedulers, who told him McHale was unavailable.

Feeling his anxiety rising, Prevost couldn’t help mentioning his strange student to Stone. “I said, ‘Liz, bring this up to Alan. Do we know really what we’re doing here? This is a guy who we don’t know anything about and we’re teaching him how to get on the flight deck of an airplane. And he’ll know how to operate the switches and we don’t know a thing about him. We should investigate this guy before we allow him to do this training, and make sure he’s OK.’ I said, ‘Bring this up to him, would ya?’” That evening Prevost went to dinner alone. Confident his bosses would have Moussaoui checked out, he thought no more about it.

At 10:00 the next morning, Prevost arrived at the classroom building ahead of Moussaoui and approached Stone. “So I said to Liz, ‘Did you tell Alan about what I said?’ She said, ‘Yeah. He doesn’t seem to be too concerned.’”

”I yelled into the office. I said, ‘Alan, should we be doing this? Do we know what we’re doing? Training somebody we don’t know anything about to get on the flight deck?’ He said he paid the money, we don’t care. I said, ‘You’ll care when there’s a hijacking and they’ll wonder where did he learn to work all those switches? And all the lawsuits start rolling in. Then you’ll care.’ He said, ‘We’re not worried.’ I said, ‘Ohhh-K.’ “ Prevost’s voice goes up here in singsong resignation. Liz Stone says she remembers passing messages between instructors and managers, but this one made no particular impression. When asked about Prevost’s version of the conversation, McHale declined to comment.

But McHale’s boss, John Rosengren, says Alan McHale may have told Prevost to leave it alone. “It could be that [McHale] told [Prevost] that the first day, because that’s what I told Alan the first day. I told him to hold off. Let’s see what other information was out there. This was a customer. He’s entitled to be treated like a customer. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions until I had more information.”

Rosengren, who was the director of Pan Am’s Minnesota school at the time, admits now that Moussaoui, a man who wasn’t qualified to fly a single-engine Cessna, had no business trying to learn to fly a 747. “I knew we couldn’t teach him to fly. Everybody knew that. So all we were doing was going through the motions of instructing this individual and collecting the money from him.”

In fact, the combination of Moussaoui’s incompetence and certain business realities at Pan Am put Rosengren in a tough spot. Pan Am leased bulk time on Northwest Airlines’ flight simulators at NATCO. Rosengren says, “Obviously, if you’re going to lease the time, we don’t want it to go empty. We were all under pressure to keep that time full as much as possible.”

Just so, Rosengren denies that it was business considerations that kept them from calling the FBI that first day. He says he told McHale not to do anything about Moussaoui, in order to allow themselves more time to work with Moussaoui the next day and find out more, maybe keep an eye on him.

“When we first heard about this, there wasn’t enough information to go on,” says Rosengren, indicating that Prevost’s hunch wasn’t necessarily enough. “That’s when we sent everybody back and I specifically told [McHale] to get some more information to see if there was any reason why we should contact the FBI.”

In retrospect, of course, this may seem dilatory. But at that time, no one had ever intentionally flown an airliner into a skyscraper.

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