The Grounded Man

Back at the classroom building that Tuesday morning, Prevost turned up the pressure. During a break in a managers’ meeting, Prevost says he went in and made his case directly to the program managers. Prevost insists at this point that a manager tried to bluff him. Prevost says he was told to call Pan Am’s headquarters in Miami. When Prevost asked for the number, he says the manager told him he would take care of it. Prevost left the room.

Minutes later, waiting for Moussaoui, Prevost saw Pan Am’s comptroller, Jerry Liddell. Prevost asked, “Jerry, what do we know about this guy?” Liddell said Moussaoui paid cash. Prevost asked, “Like how—credit card? Check?” Liddell said, “No. Cash. One-hundred-dollar bills.” Prevost’s reservations about Moussaoui hardened into deep suspicion.

Prevost went back into the meeting room. “Hey you guys, how ‘bout this? This guy paid for his training with one-hundred-dollar bills. You know what, if he went to buy an airplane ticket over at the terminal and comes up with hundred-dollar bills, lookin’ like he’s lookin’, they’d have him in the rubber room. They’d have him in jail, and they’d be questioning him. We should call the FBI!” Another Pan Am worker says the bigger concern at the time was what to do with Moussaoui’s stacks of hundred-dollar bills until somebody could get to the bank.

The meeting resumed behind closed doors. Prevost walked away feeling somewhat reassured. He hoped his message had gotten through, and that management would consider calling the FBI. Prevost wouldn’t get the chance to plead his case again.

Moussaoui arrived just before 11:00 a.m. At noon, after an hour of looking over more of the Power Point presentation, they went to lunch. Back in the NATCO cafeteria, Prevost thought of a way to keep Moussaoui occupied. He invited Moussaoui to sit in on a simulated flight or LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) he had scheduled with other students that evening.

The LOFT is the practical portion of flight training. Students take the controls of a full-motion simulator that creates scenarios based on real-world incidents unfolding in real time. A typical LOFT session might include losing an engine on takeoff, encountering severe thunderstorms, an untimely hydraulic failure in flight, and dangerous wind shear upon landing. The LOFT tests a student’s ability to react to unfolding problems in the cockpit, complete with all the real-world distractions of a pitching flight deck, alarms sounding, and the ambient sound of engines whining and wind and rain pounding the aircraft.

To Prevost, the LOFT training seemed a perfect out. There was no real teaching to be done with Moussaoui, and sitting in on the LOFT would keep him occupied. The offer seemed to encourage Moussaoui. That night he would get what he came for—his flight in the simulator.

Prevost passed the rest of the afternoon back at his hotel. The LOFT was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. Students were expected to show up an hour early. Prevost made sure he was in the lobby of the NATCO building at 4:30 waiting for Moussaoui. Prevost was about to do the type of detective work that in a post-September 11th world seems obvious, but that pre-September 11th was extraordinary.

He saw a car pull into the lot. Moussaoui stepped out of the passenger side, and Prevost walked outside to greet him. Prevost noted the car was a Subaru. “I said hello to Moussaoui as he got out, like I was just coming out to see him, but actually I was looking at the car and looking at the license plate.” Prevost tried to memorize the plate, but could remember only the numbers 6-8-6. (The numbers stuck in his mind because they were the same as the phone number prefix at the Spring Hill Suites where Prevost was staying.) “I said, ‘Where are you staying?’ He said, ‘Residence Inn.’ I said ‘Oh, that’s nice.’” (As a former Northwest Airlines pilot, Prevost knew all the hotels near the airport.) Prevost noted that the driver appeared to be Asian. He had black hair, a slight build. As he drove away, Prevost walked Moussaoui inside.

The simulators, which cost between twelve and fourteen million dollars, are housed at NATCO. A quiet, carpeted hallway leads deep inside the massive facility. On one side of the hall are classrooms. On the other side doors opens to giant rooms. In each of these rooms, which have the antiseptic feel of a research facility, a walkway extends toward a simulator that sits fifteen feet off the floor, perched on a network of hydraulic legs and cables. The 747-400 simulator is white, twice the size of a cargo van, with no windows. A short steel gangplank joins the vehicle to the walkway. Once passengers and pilots have crossed, the gangplank is lifted, isolating the simulator in midair. It is free to move in any direction, like a real cockpit at thirty thousand feet.

In action, the computer-controlled hydraulics simulate almost any movement of the 747-400; it can make steep climbs, dives, and rolls from side to side. Using a trick of perception, the simulator tilts up and vibrates forward on takeoff, pressing the occupants back into the seats. On landing, the capsule tilts down and vibrates backward, pulling the shoulder harnesses tight against the chest, the same feeling one has when an aircraft slows to land. To the passengers inside, the effect is astonishingly real, right down to the scream of the engines on takeoff.

Prevost showed me the simulator Moussaoui sat in. His long frame bent over, Prevost sat down and pulled round reading glasses from his shirt pocket. In the confines of the cockpit, he suddenly came to life, like a large bird, scanning the computer screen and typing commands more quickly than I could follow. “Let’s go to L.A.,” he said, maneuvering a cursor over a green screen. On an alphabet pad he typed “K-L-A-X” as our point of departure. “OK, we’re in L.A. Let’s put it on the runway.” He typed in “K-S-F-O” (San Francisco) as our destination. “We’re gonna weigh 630,000 pounds. The CG (center of gravity) is twenty-one (twenty-one percent of the length of the aircraft). Let’s be China Airlines today. Let’s do a ‘venture two’ departure.” Prevost pressed “execute.” He turned off a fluorescent overhead light. The cabin was suddenly illuminated by the image outside the cockpit window. It was dawn on the runway, buildings and runway equipment silhouetted by the first pale hint of morning. Prevost turned on the cockpit lights, and the cabin glowed a dull orange.

It was in this environment that Moussaoui took his first and only simulator flight. The two students that evening sat up front, the pilot and co-pilot. Just behind them, Prevost sat sideways at a computer terminal programming disastrous scenarios for his students to solve.

In the next row back sat Moussaoui, strapped securely into his seat by his shoulder harness. He watched quietly and intensely as Prevost put the students through the paces. Prevost remembers, “I didn’t even know he was there because he was so quiet and unobtrusive.” Since the first day’s reaction to the word “Muslim,” Moussaoui talked conspicuously little about himself. After the LOFT that night, on the short ride back to his room on the hotel shuttle bus, the thought of Moussaoui nagged Prevost. He was still not confident his managers would call the FBI.

Prevost had Wednesday off. Having finished two days of what passed for ground school, his time with Moussaoui was effectively over. That morning he got a call from his office. The FBI wanted to talk with him.

At 1:00 p.m. Prevost met with an FBI agent and an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent in the commons room of his hotel. Prevost had done all the footwork for them.

“Where does Moussaoui stay?” they asked.

“At the Residence Inn.”

“How does he get over to NATCO?”

“He comes in a Subaru with a silver paint job, four-door sedan, and the license plate is green and white and the last three numbers are 686.”

“Who drives him?”

“A guy with black hair. He looks Oriental from the back but he’s dark complected and has black hair.”

The interview lasted less than twenty minutes. Prevost felt enormous relief. “OK, now we’ve told the FBI,” he remembers thinking. “It’s out of my hands. I’ve done as much as I can.”

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