Al Qaeda’s Top Gun Willful Deception by the 9/11 Commission by Jeremy R. Hammond / April 18th, 2010

Al Qaeda’s Top Gun

Willful Deception by the 9/11 Commission

by Jeremy R. Hammond / April 18th, 2010


Hani Hanjour is the hijacker who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001, according to the official account of terrorist attacks. “The lengthy and extensive flight training obtained by Hani Hanjour throughout his years in the United States makes it reasonable to believe that he was the pilot of Flight 77 on September 11,” concluded FBI Director Robert S. Mueller.1 The story is that while Hanjour had difficulties learning to fly at first, he persevered, overcame his obstacles, and became an extraordinary enough pilot to be able to precisely hit his target after performing a difficult flight maneuver.

The New York Times, for instance, asserted that “Mr. Hanjour overcame the mediocrity of his talents as a pilot and gained enough expertise to fly a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.”2 The Washington Post similarly suggested Hanjour had the requisite skills, reporting that “Federal records show that a Hani Hanjoor obtained a commercial pilot’s license in April 1999 with a rating to fly commercial jets.”3

The 9/11 Commission expanded upon this narrative in its final report. It noted that Hanjour first came to the United States in 1991 to study English, then again in 1996 “to pursue flight training, after being rejected by a Saudi flight school. He checked out flight schools in Florida, California, and Arizona; and he briefly started at a couple of them before returning to Saudi Arabia.” In 1997, after returning to Arizona, he “began his flight training there in earnest. After about three months, Hanjour was able to obtain his private pilot’s license. Several more months of training yielded him a commercial pilot certificate, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April 1999.”4

Subsequently, “Hanjour reportedly applied to the civil aviation school in Jeddah after returning home, but was rejected.” By the end of 2000, Hanjour was back in the U.S. and “began refresher training at his old school, Arizona Aviation. He wanted to train on multi-engine planes, but had difficulties because his English was not good enough. The instructor advised him to discontinue but Hanjour said he could not go home without completing the training. In early 2001, he started training on a Boeing 737 simulator at Pan Am International Flight Academy in Mesa. An instructor there found his work well below standard and discouraged him from continuing. Again, Hanjour persevered; he completed the initial training by the end of March 2001.”5 A footnote in the report asserts that Hanjour was chosen specifically for targeting the Pentagon because he was “the operation’s most experienced pilot.”6

John Ashcroft told reporters early in the investigation, “It is our belief and the evidence indicates that flight training was received in the United States and that their capacity to operate the aircraft was substantial. It’s very clear that these orchestrated coordinated assaults on our country were well-conducted and conducted in a technically proficient way. It is not that easy to land these kinds of aircraft at very specific locations with accuracy or to direct them with the kind of accuracy, which was deadly in this case.”7

A pilot with a major carrier for over 30 years told CNN that “the hijackers must have been extremely knowledgeable and capable aviators.”8 An air traffic controller from Dulles International Airport told ABC News, “The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air traffic controllers, that that was a military plane. You don’t fly a 757 in that manner. It’s unsafe.”9

CBS News suggested that according to its sources, Flight 77, “flying at more than 400 mph, was too fast and too high when it neared the Pentagon at 9:35. The hijacker-pilots were then forced to execute a difficult high-speed descending turn. Radar shows Flight 77 did a downward spiral, turning almost a complete circle and dropping the last 7,000 feet in two-and-a-half minutes. The steep turn was so smooth, the sources say, it’s clear there was no fight for control going on. And the complex maneuver suggests the hijackers had better flying skills than many investigators first believed. The jetliner disappeared from radar at 9:37 and less than a minute later it clipped the tops of street lights and plowed into the Pentagon at 460 mph.”10

The Washington Post similarly noted that the plane “was flown with extraordinary skill, making it highly likely that a trained pilot was at the helm.” Hanjour was so skilled, in fact, that “just as the plane seemed to be on a suicide mission into the White House, the unidentified pilot” – later identified as Hanjour – “executed a pivot so tight it reminded observers of a fighter jet maneuver.”11 The Post reported in another article that “After the attacks … aviation experts concluded that the final maneuvers of American Airlines Flight 77 – a tight turn followed by a steep, accurate descent into the Pentagon – was the work of ‘a great talent … virtually a textbook turn and landing.’”12

According to the report of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited by the 9/11 Commission, information from the flight data recorder recovered from the Pentagon crash site and radar data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) show that the autopilot was disengaged “as the aircraft leveled near 7000 feet. Slight course changes were initiated, during which variations in altitude between 6800 and 8000 feet were noted. At 9:34 AM, the aircraft was positioned about 3.5 miles west-southwest of the Pentagon, and started a right 330-degree descending turn to the right. At the end of the turn, the aircraft was at about 2000 feet altitude and 4 miles southwest of the Pentagon. Over the next 30 seconds, power was increased to near maximum and the nose was pitched down in response to control column movements. The airplane accelerated to approximately 460 knots (530 miles per hour) at impact with the Pentagon. The time of impact was 9:37:45 AM.”13

The NTSB created a computer simulation of the flight from the flight data recorder information showing that the plane was actually at more than 8,100 feet and doing about 330 mph when it began its banking turn at 9:34 am. 14 At that point, the alleged pilot Hanjour could have simply decreased thrust, nosed down, and guided the plane into what would have been 29 acres, or 1,263,240 square feet of target area – the equivalent of about 22 football fields.15 From this angle, proverbially speaking, it would have been like trying to hit the side of a barn. Hanjour could have guided the plane into the enormous roof of the building, including the side of the building where the office of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was located, and where he happened to be that morning.16

Instead, the plane began a steep banking descent, circling downward in a 330-degree turn while dropping more than 5,600 feet in three minutes before re-aligning with the Pentagon and increasing to maximum thrust towards the building. The nose was kept down despite the increased lift from the acceleration, while flying so close to the ground that it clipped lamp posts along the interstate highway before plowing into the building at more than 530 mph, precisely hitting a target only 71 feet high, or just 26.5 feet taller than the Boeing 757 itself.17

In other words, by performing this maneuver, Hanjour reduced his vertical target area from a size comparable to the height of the Empire State Building to an area just 5 stories high. Instead of descending at an angle and plowing through the roof and floors of the building to cause the greatest possible number of casualties, including possibly taking out the Secretary of Defense, Hanjour hit wedge 1 of the Pentagon, opposite to Rumsfeld’s office, which happened to be under construction, and where the plane, travelling horizontally, had to penetrate through the steel- and kevlar-reinforced outer wall of the building’s southwest E-ring in addition to the numerous additional walls of the inner rings of the building.18

But even more problematic than the question of why Hanjour would perform this maneuver is the question of how he performed it. Perhaps the most incredible thing about this, the official account of what happened to Flight 77, is that Hani Hanjour was in reality such a horrible pilot that he had trouble handling a light single-engine aircraft and even just one month before the attacks was rejected at two different schools because he was judged too incompetent to rent a plane and fly solo.

As the Los Angeles Times ironically put it, “For someone suspected of steering a jetliner into the Pentagon, the 29-year-old man who used the name Hani Hanjour sure convinced a lot of people he barely knew how to fly.”19

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, “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.24 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.”32

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.”33 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.”32

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”34 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.”24 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.35

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.36 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.”37

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.”38

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.39

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.40 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, 1999.24 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.24 He subsequently began making preparations to return to the U.S. once again.24 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.23 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.23

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.24

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.”41 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.”42 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, as 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.’”43

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.”44 The manager of JetTech said, “I couldn’t believe he had a commercial license of any kind with the skills that he had.”45

Whereas the 9/11 Commission suggested that, because he “persevered”, Hanjour “completed the initial training”, thus leading the public to the conclusion that his skills had advanced accordingly, the Times offered a very different account: “Ultimately administrators at the school told Mr. Hanjour that he would not qualify for the advanced certificate. But the ex-employee said Mr. Hanjour continued to pay to train on a simulator for Boeing 737 jets. ‘He didn’t care about the fact that he couldn’t get through the course,’ the ex-employee said. Staff members characterized Mr. Hanjour as polite, meek and very quiet. But most of all, the former employee said, they considered him a very bad pilot. ‘I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon,’ the former employee said. ‘He could not fly at all.’”43

Another Times article similarly noted that when Hanjour enrolled in February 2001 “at a Phoenix flight school for advanced simulator training to learn how to fly an airliner, a far more complicated task than he had faced in earning a commercial license”, his “instructors thought he was so bad a pilot and spoke such poor English that they contacted the Federal Aviation Administration to verify that his license was not a fake.”46

According to FAA inspector Michael Gonzales, when Pan Am International Flight Academy contacted the FAA to verify that Hanjour’s license was valid, “There should have been a stop right then and there.” The Associated Press reported that Gonzales “said Hanjour should have been re-examined as a commercial pilot, as required by federal law.”37 But that was not done. Instead, the FAA inspector who “even sat next to the hijacker, Hani Hanjour, in one of the Arizona classes” and “checked records to ensure Hanjour’s 1999 pilot’s license was legitimate” concluded that “no other action was warranted” and actually suggested that Hanjour get a translator to help him complete his class. “He offered a translator,” said the school’s manager, who “was surprised” by the suggestion. “Of course, I brought up the fact that went against the rules that require a pilot to be able to write and speak English fluently before they even get their license.”45

As with the fact that multiple visa applications from Hanjour should have been denied, the 9/11 Commission made no mention of any of this. One would think that a commission tasked with investigating the events of 9/11 with the goal of assessing what went wrong and fixing the system to prevent any loss of life in the future would have looked into who issued Hanjour visas in Jeddah and why the red flags were ignored. One would think that misconduct from FAA officials and contractors that allowed a terrorist to improperly obtain certification to fly a plane would also not be outside of the purview of the investigation – yet the Commission’s report is absolutely silent on this.

Turning to the footnote for the claim that Hanjour “completed” training at Jet Tech, one can read (emphasis added): “For his training at Pan Am International Flight Academy and completion by March 2001, see FBI report ‘Hijackers Timeline,’ Dec. 5, 2003 (Feb. 8, 2001, entries…)”. But turning to that source, the FBI timeline does not state that Hanjour “completed” the training, only that he “ended” the course on March 16.47 The truth is that, as the Washington Post reported, “Hanjour flunked out after a month” at Jet Tech.12 Offering corroboration for that account, the Associated Press similarly reported that “Hanjour did not finish his studies at JetTech and left the school.”48

The 9/11 Commission additionally noted that Hanjour had later gone to Air Fleet Training Systems in New Jersey and “requested to fly the Hudson Corridor” along the Hudson River, which passed the World Trade Center. He was permitted to fly the route once, “but his instructor declined a second request because of what he considered Hanjour’s poor piloting skills”, the Commission admits. However, the report continues, “Shortly thereafter, Hanjour switched to Caldwell Flight Academy in Fairfield, New Jersey, where he rented small aircraft on several occasions during June and July. In one such instance on July 20, Hanjour – likely accompanied by Hazmi – rented a plane from Caldwell and took a practice flight from Fairfield to Gaithersburg, Maryland, a route that would have allowed them to fly near Washington, D.C. Other evidence suggests Hanjour may even have returned to Arizona for flight simulator training earlier in June.”49

But here, the pattern of deception continues by omission of other relevant facts. The report does not explain that when Hanjour was permitted to fly the Hudson Corridor in May of 2001, unlike his subsequent rental flights, it was with an instructor on a check ride, and not a solo flight.24 By saying his instructor there “considered” Hanjour’s skills to be poor, the 9/11 Commission implied this was merely a subjective judgment, but that others considered him perfectly capable. Although it would have been a standard practice, there’s no indication from FBI records that Caldwell actually required him to go on a check ride before renting the plane. Even more significantly, the 9/11 Commission omitted altogether the fact that, while Hanjour was allowed to rent from Caldwell Flight Academy, he was rejected yet again by yet another school shortly thereafter that the record shows did require a check ride.

In August 2001, less than one month before 9/11, Hanjour took flight lessons at Freeway Airport in Bowie, Maryland.24 As the New York Times observed, Hanjour “still seemed to lack proficiency at flying”. When he showed up “asking to rent a single-engine plane”, he attempted three flights with two different instructors, and yet “was unable to prove that he had the necessary skills” to be allowed to rent the plane. “He seemed rusty at everything,” said Marcel Bernard, the chief flight instructor at the school.26 The Washington Post similarly reported that to “the flight instructors at Freeway Airport in Bowie”, Hanjour “was just a bad pilot.” And “after supervising Hanjour on a series of oblong circles above the airport and Chesapeake Bay, the instructors refused to pass him because his skills were so poor, Bernard said. ‘I feel darn lucky it went the way it did,’ Bernard said, crediting his instructors for their good judgment and high standards.”50 The London Telegraph also reported that Hanjour claimed to have 600 hours of flight time, “but performed so poorly on test flights that instructors would not let him fly alone.”51 Newsday reported that when flight instructors Sheri Baxter and Ben Conner took Hanjour on three check rides, “they found he had trouble controlling and landing the single-engine Cessna 172.”52 The Los Angeles Times reported, “‘We have a level of standards that we hold all our pilots to, and he couldn’t meet it,” said the manager of the flight school. Hanjour could not handle basic air maneuvers, the manager said.”19

The deception does not end with this rather egregious omission. As noted, the 9/11 Commission also suggested that Hanjour obtained further training in a flight simulator, again, in an apparent attempt to exaggerate his training. But a review of the records shows that the preponderance of evidence indicates Hanjour was actually in New Jersey throughout the time period in question in June. FBI records show that on May 31, 2001, after having been rejected at Air Fleet Training Systems, Hanjour rented a Cessna 172 at Caldwell Flight Academy, where he “made an error taxing [sic] the airplane upon his return.” On June 6, he rented a single-engine aircraft. The FBI placed him in Paterson, New Jersey, on June 10. Then he rented a plane again on June 11, 18, and 19. The FBI has Hanjour (along with Nawaf Al-Hazmi) obtaining a mailbox at Mailboxes, Etc. in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on June 26, and opening a bank account and making an ATM withdrawal in New Jersey on June 27.53

Somewhere in there, the 9/11 Commission would have the public believe that “evidence suggests” Hanjour again trained on a simulator in Arizona. To begin with, the simulator at the Sawyer School of Aviation in Phoenix was for small aircraft and was nothing like the cockpit of a Boeing 757 – another fact omitted by the Commission.54 But this perhaps becomes a moot point when one realizes that the evidence shows Hanjour never left New Jersey. Turning to the footnote for this claim, the Commission stated that documents from Sawyer “show Hanjour joining the flight simulator club on June 23, 2001″. But, the footnote acknowledges, “the documents are inconclusive, as there are no invoices or payment records for Hanjour, while such documents do exist for the other three” who joined the club at that time. The actual evidence thus demonstrates clearly that while Hanjour may have signed up (something which may have been possible over the phone or via the internet), he did not actually attend. The footnote further acknowledges that “Documentary evidence for Hanjour, however, shows that he was in New Jersey for most of June, and no travel records have been recovered showing that he returned to Arizona after leaving with Hazmi in March.”55

The second piece of “evidence” that “suggests” Hanjour took further flight simulator training is a Sawyer employee who “identified Hanjour as being there during that time period, though she was less than 100 percent sure.” The FBI document cited in the footnote for that claim was obtained by, but it is almost entirely redacted, so it’s impossible to verify the actual nature of this eyewitness testimony.56 But another document cited further into the same footnote also refers to the eyewitness from Sawyer, who described the four men who had joined the club. The first “UNSUB” (unidentified subject) was “short and stocky”. The second was 5’9″-5’10″, 170 pounds, and “medium build”. The third was 5’8″, 170 pounds, and “medium build”. And the fourth was 5’6″-5’7″ with a beard and mustache. Other eyewitness descriptions for Hanjour offered in the same FBI document have him as being no more than 5’6″ (one witness from Arizona Aviation, the document notes, “confirmed that he was only about 5’0″ tall”), 140-150 pounds, and very slight and thin, with short, curly hair. This clearly rules out the first three subjects, leaving only the detail-lacking fourth description as being the only one possibly matching Hanjour’s description. But the details given are far too vague to suggest a positive identification, particularly given the witness’s own admission that she wasn’t sure if it was Hanjour.57

Even more significantly, that same FBI document reveals that it was not during the FBI’s initial interview with the witness that she identified that fourth “unsub” as Hanjour, as the 9/11 Commission report implies by citing the report from the FBI’s initial interview for that claim in the footnote. Rather, it was later, during a second interview that occurred after the names and images of the hijackers had been shown repeatedly in the media that she picked Hanjour’s out of a photo lineup. The FBI summary of that later interview states that according to the witness, Hanjour “has the same general characteristics and is very similar appearing as the person she saw at Sawyer…. However, she could not be 100% sure.”57

The third and final piece of “evidence” is another witness who identified Hanjour as being “in the Phoenix area during the summer of 2001″, citing the FBI document just discussed, which is redacted enough that this claim cannot be readily verified. But the document does show additionally that Hanjour’s membership was good only from June 23 until August 8, at which time it expired.57

Thus, the 9/11 Commission would have the public believe that sometime after June 19, Hanjour went from the east coast to Arizona without leaving any paper trail (i.e. airline or car rental records, ATM withdrawals, etc.), signed up for a two-week flight simulator club on June 23 without leaving any record he ever actually paid or even showed up (whereas records did exist for other members), only to change his mind and return again to be back in New Jersey with Nawaf Al-Hazmi three days later. In other words, what the evidence actually suggests is that the eyewitness testimony is unreliable and that, contrary to the Commission’s assertion, Hanjour never left New Jersey during that time.

There is a clear pattern of misleading and untruthful statements in the 9/11 Commission’s final report that cannot be dismissed as mere error. Rather, the evidence is incontrovertible that the Commission willfully and deliberately sought to present a falsified story of the alleged hijacker Hani Hanjour; not to relate the facts to the public, but rather to cement a legend in the public mind; not to investigate and draw conclusions based on the facts, but to start with a conclusion – the official account of 9/11 – and manipulate the facts to suit the government’s own conspiracy theory.

The Fiction Perpetuated

The mainstream media has dealt with the problematic nature of the official story in a number of ways. As already seen, one method has simply been to exaggerate characterizations of Hanjour’s competence. The official story as related by the New York Times that Hanjour “overcame the mediocrity of his talents” is not merely unsupportable by the evidence, but stands in stark contrast to the available known facts. The legend is also maintained by the mainstream media through false claims, such as the Washington Post’s assertion that Hanjour’s pilot certificate allowed him to fly commercial jets. While the Los Angeles Times suggested Hanjour “convinced a lot of people he barely knew how to fly”, the underlying assumption of the article was that, despite his apparent ineptitude in the cockpit, he really did know how to fly. The public is apparently supposed to believe that he was merely pretending to an incompetent pilot even though he was actually quite skillful. The mainstream media have a tendency to mock and ridicule anyone who dares even to just question the official narrative, all the while putting forth such utter absurdities as this.

As the evidence surfaced that Hanjour was not the pilot extraordinaire the public was initially told he must have been in order to carry out the attack on the Pentagon, another narrative began to emerge. While most of the mainstream media simply ignored the evidence, or, as in the case of the New York Times, drew conclusions that were contradicted by some of their own reporting. In no small part due to the 9/11 Commission report’s findings, the fiction remained firmly embedded in the minds of the public that Hanjour, through determination and perseverance, overcame all obstacles in order to acquire the skills necessary to pilot Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

There was, however, at least some acknowledgment of the major hole in that theory. A few media reports did acknowledge that Hanjour was a horrible pilot and that all evidence demonstrated that he never “overcame his mediocrity”. But rather than calling the official theory into question in doing so, these accounts simply offered a revisionist account in order to maintain the legend.

Gone was the story that the hijackers’ “capacity to operate the aircraft was substantial”, that the attacks were “conducted in a technically proficient way”, that “It is not that easy to land these kinds of aircraft at very specific locations with accuracy or to direct them with the kind of accuracy, which was deadly in this case”. No more was the expert opinion that “the hijackers must have been extremely knowledgeable and capable aviators”, that Flight 77’s final maneuver was “a difficult high-speed descending turn”. Vanished was the view that Flight 77 “was flown with extraordinary skill”, even so that it “reminded observers of a fighter jet maneuver”, that this was evidence of “a great talent” in the cockpit.

In the place of that conventional wisdom, the new narrative that began to emerge in some accounts was that it really wasn’t that difficult a maneuver after all, and even a novice pilot like Hani Hanjour – or anyone who’s ever flown a small aircraft and perhaps spent some time playing a flight simulator game, for that matter – could have, with just a bit of luck, pulled it off.

The New American presented this new narrative by quoting Ronald D. Bull, a retired United Airlines pilot, as saying, “It’s not that difficult, and certainly not impossible.” But Bull was apparently not speaking specifically with regard to the Pentagon, as he then added, “If you’re doing a suicide run, like these guys were doing, you’d just keep the nose down and push like the devil.” In this case, Bull seems to have had the attacks on the World Trade Center, and not the Pentagon, in mind. Moreover, even if Bull also had the Pentagon in mind, he was obviously only considering a situation where the pilot was flying in a straight line towards his target. Thus, if he was also speaking with regard to the Pentagon, he was quite apparently uninformed as to the actual flight path the plane took.

Similarly quoted was George Williams, a pilot for Northwest Airlines for 38 years, who said, “I don’t see any merit to those arguments [that Hanjour couldn’t have flown Flight 77 into the Pentagon]. The Pentagon is a pretty big target and I’d say hitting it was a fairly easy thing to do.”58 It’s true that the Pentagon was a very big target. But Williams was apparently similarly aware, when he was asked to comment, of the plane’s final descending maneuver; or of the fact that this maneuver put the plane on a path that reduced the margin to a mere 26.5 feet (a few feet lower, the plane crashes into the ground; a few feet higher, the plane overshoots the target); or that the plane wasn’t flying at a constant airspeed, but was rather accelerating rapidly, thus creating more lift that needed compensating for with subtle precision in order to stay within that margin for error; or that the plane wasn’t just ambling along at something near landing speed, but was screaming along at an incredible 530 mph. To put that into perspective, cruising speed for airliners is about 600 mph at 30,000 feet of altitude, where the air is less dense. At sea-level that would be equivalent to about 300 mph hour, about double safe landing speed. A velocity of 530 mph at sea-level would be supersonic speed if it were possible to maintain at cruising altitude.59

In both cases, the expert pilots seem to assume that Hanjour simply lined up the hijacked plane and flew a straight line into the building at a speed at which an aircraft could more easily be controlled by an inexperienced pilot. Needless to say, neither pilot’s statements accurately reflect the actual situation with regard to Flight 77. There is no indication that the New American bothered to fill either Bull or Williams in on the specifics of what Flight 77 actually did when it sought them out to “debunk” the assertion that Hanjour wasn’t a capable enough pilot to have pulled it off.

Offering a similar revisionist account, airline pilot Patrick Smith, writing for Salon, said that it was one of “the more commonly heard myths that pertain to the airplanes and their pilots” that “the terrorist pilots lacked the skill and training to fly jetliners into their targets. This is an extremely popular topic with respect to American 77. Skyjacker Hani Hanjour, a notoriously untalented flier who never piloted anything larger than a four-seater, seemed to pull off a remarkable series of aerobatic maneuvers before slamming into the Pentagon.” Smith’s answer to this was simply to flip conventional wisdom on its head. He opined that “If anything, his loops and turns and spirals above the nation’s capital revealed him to be exactly the shitty pilot he by all accounts was. To hit the Pentagon squarely he needed only a bit of luck, and he got it, possibly with the help from the 757’s autopilot. Striking a stationary object – even a large one like the Pentagon – at high speed and from a steep angle is very difficult. To make the job easier, he came in obliquely, tearing down light poles as he roared across the Pentagon’s lawn.” Hanjour had all the skill that was required, Smith suggested, adding “You can learn it at home.”60

So, according to this narrative, Hanjour’s “textbook” “fighter jet maneuver” in a Boeing 757 is evidence that he was a “shitty pilot” and any pilot wannabe with some rudimentary training and maybe just a little bit of luck could have done it. It was easier to hit a target merely 5 stories high at a nearly horizontal angle (“obliquely” as Smith misleadingly claims), than to simply point the nose down to hit a target the size of 22 football fields. These remarks are perhaps not so much the result of an attempt to challenge conventional wisdom as they were simply demonstrative that Smith made very little effort to actually understand the actual nature of Flight 77’s final flight path before writing that it is a “myth” that Hanjour was not a pilot capable of having performed that maneuver. His characterization of Hanjour’s final maneuver as “loops and turns and spirals” indicates that Smith was generalizing without having any real concept of what Flight 77 actually did in its final minutes. A further indication that Smith really just didn’t know what he was talking about was his suggestion that Hanjour “possibly” had “help from the 757’s autopilot” in pulling off those final maneuvers, which is both patently ridiculous and demonstrably false.

The German magazine Der Spiegel also made the rare attempt to actually address this issue, but found it sufficient enough merely to opine that “This is not difficult to accomplish” and similarly suggesting practically anyone could do it since it was “a maneuver that can be practiced with any flight simulator software.”61 End of discussion.

The public was originally told that attack on the Pentagon obviously required a fairly high level of sophistication in the cockpit. It was conventional wisdom that being able to maneuver a large jetliner required a certain level of training, a certain level of skill. The public was then told that Hanjour was the pilot among the 19 hijackers who had the most training and the greatest piloting skill. As the facts emerged and it became evident that Hanjour did not have the requisite level of skill, the government chose to manipulate the evidence in order to maintain its theory. The 9/11 Commission served to cement the legend of Hani Hanjour into history, and the mainstream media, for the most part, accepted and maintained that legend even when much of their own reporting revealed facts that contradicted it. In a few cases, there was acknowledgment that Hanjour was a “shitty” pilot after all, but in such cases the official account was still maintained by throwing common sense out the window and reversing the original consensus that it must have taken a skilled pilot to have performed that final, fatal maneuver.

Perhaps this revisionist retelling of the official story is the correct one. Perhaps the conventional wisdom that it would actually take a skilled pilot to competently control a large jetliner is really wrong. Perhaps it’s true that any second-rate pilot who has trouble controlling even a Cessna-172 could get into the cockpit of a Boeing 757 and do what Hani Hanjour is said to have done. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the revisionist account is just as much nonsense as the story that Hanjour “persevered” and “overcame his mediocrity”.

Whichever the case, many questions about the events of 9/11 remain to this day unanswered, despite the appointment of the 9/11 Commission ostensibly to investigate and provide answers to those questions. And whichever the case, the conclusion is inescapable that the 9/11 Commission deliberately attempted to deceive the public about the piloting capabilities of Hani Hanjour.


1. Statement for the Record FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry, September 26, 2002. [↩]
2. Jim Yardley and Jo Thomas, “For Agent in Phoenix, the Cause of Many Frustrations Extended to His Own Office,” New York Times, June 19, 2002. [↩]
3. “FBI Names 19 Men as Hijackers,” Washington Post, September 15, 2001; Page A01. [↩]
4. “Working Draft Chronology of Events for Hijackers and Associates,” FBI, November 14, 2003 (hereafter “FBI Hijackers Timeline”), p. 41. The complete FBI timeline is available for download online. See: “Newly Released FBI Timeline Reveals New Information about 9/11 Hijackers that Was Ignored by 9/11 Commission”,, February 14, 2008. The timeline reads: “FAA issued Commercial Pilot certificate #2576802 to [redacted] [sic].” The “[sic]” is in the original. Why the name “Hani Saleh Hanjoor” is redacted is unclear. [↩]
5. The Final Report of the National commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, p. 225-227 (hereafter “9/11 Commission Report”). [↩]
6. 9/11 Commission Report, p. 530. [↩]
7. Global Security, September 14, 2001. [↩]
8. “Hijackers ‘knew what they were doing,’” CNN, September 12, 2001. The quote is CNN’s paraphrase of what the flight expert told them. [↩]
9. “‘Get These Planes on the Ground’: Air Traffic Controllers Recall Sept. 11,″ ABC News, October 24, 2001. [↩]
10. “Primary Target: 189 Dead Or Missing From Pentagon Attack”, CBS News, September 21, 2001. [↩]
11. Marc Fisher and Don Phillips, “On Flight 77: ‘Our Plane is Being Hijacked,’” Washington Post, September 12, 2001; Page A01 [↩]
12. Steve Fainaru and Alia Ibrahim, “Mysterious Trip to Flight 77 Cockpit,” Washington Post, September 10, 2002. [↩] [↩]
13. “Flight Path Study – American Airlines Flight 77,” NTSB, February 19, 2002. [↩]
14. A copy of the NTSB video was obtained by the group Pilots for 9/11 Truth. It is available for viewing on YouTube (accessed April 8, 2010). [↩]
15. “The Pentagon,” [↩]
16. Don Van Natta and Lizette Alvarez, “A Hijacked Boeing 757 Slams Into the Pentagon, Halting the Government,” New York Times, September 12, 2001. [↩]
17. “The Pentagon,” Great Buildings Online (accessed March 27, 2010). Boeing 757 Technical Specifications from (accessed Marcy 27, 2010). [↩]
18. “DoD News Briefing on Pentagon Renovation,” Department of Defense, September 15, 2001. [↩]
19. Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2001. [↩] [↩]
20. “FBI Summary about Alleged Flight 77 Hijacker Hani Hanjour”, (accessed April 6, 2010; herafter “FBI Timeline for Hani Hanjour”). This document was cited by the 9/11 Commission. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) possesses the Commission’s records and has released many documents to the public. See: “9/11 Commission Records,” NARA (accessed March 28, 2010). Many of the released records are available online at See: “9/11 Document Archive,” (accessed March 28, 2010). [↩]
21. Washington Post, September 10, 2002. [↩]
22. Charles M. Sennott, “Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers,” Boston Globe, March 3, 2002. [↩]
23. Joel Mowbray, “Visas that Should Have Been Denied,” National Review Online, October 9, 2002. [↩] [↩] [↩]
24. FBI Timeline for Hani Hanjour. [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩]
25. Thomas Frank, “Tracing Trail of Hijackers,” Newsday, September 23, 2001. [↩]
26. David W. Chen, “Man Traveled Across U.S. In His Quest to Be a Pilot,” New York Times, September 18, 2001. [↩] [↩]
27. “Who Did It? FBI Links Names to Terror Attacks,” ABC News, October 4, 2001. [↩]
28. Newsday, September 23, 2001. [↩]
29. “Hanjour an unlikely terrorist,” Cape Cod Times, October 21, 2001. [↩]
30. Carol J. Williams, John-Thor Dahlburg, and H.G. Reza, “Mainly, They Just Waited,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2001. [↩]
31. V. Dion Haynes, “Algerian man didn’t try to hide, neighbors say,” Chicago Tribune, October 2, 2001. [↩]
32. “FBI Summary of Information, Lofti Raissi”, January 4, 2004. [↩] [↩]
33. 9/11 Commission Report p. 520. [↩]
34. Hanjour’s FAA airman documentation from the 9/11 Commission records released by NARA are available online at Scribd. [↩]
35. Hanjour’s FAA airman records are available online at Scribd. [↩]
36. Kellie Lunney, “FAA contractors approved flight licenses for Sept. 11 suspect,” Government Executive, June 13, 2002. [↩]
37. “Report: 9/11 Hijacker Bypassed FAA,” Associated Press, September 30, 2004 [↩] [↩]
38. Government Executive, June 13, 2002. [↩]
39. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 12. The report notes that “To our knowledge none of them [the hijackers] had ever flown an actual airliner before.” [↩]
40. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Sections 61.123, 61.129. Present requirements in these regards are the same as they were when Hanjour obtained his certificate. See the version revised as of January 1, 1999. [↩]
41. 9/11 Commission Report, p. 521-522. [↩]
42. “FBI FD-302, James Charles McRae,” April 10, 2001. [↩]
43. Jim Yardley, “A Trainee Noted for Incompetence,” New York Times, May 4, 2002. [↩] [↩]
44. “FAA Probed, Cleared Sept. 11 Hijacker in Early 2001,” Associated Press, May 10, 2002. [↩]
45. David Hancock, “FAA Was Alerted to Sept. 11 Hijacker,” CBS News, May 10, 2002. [↩] [↩]
46. Jim Yardley and Jo Thomas, “For Agent in Phoenix, the Cause of Many Frustrations Extended to His Own Office,” New York Times, June 19, 2001 [↩]
47. FBI Hijacker’s Timeline, p.123. [↩]
48. Associated Press, May 10, 2002. [↩]
49. 9/11 Commission Report, p. 242. [↩]
50. Brooke A. Masters, Leef Smith, and Michael D. Shear, “Dulles Hijackers Made Maryland Their Base,” Washington Post, September 19, 2001; Page A01. [↩]
51. “Piecing together the shadowy lives of the hijackers,” Telegraph, September 20, 2001. [↩]
52. Thomas Frank, “Tracing Trail of Hijackers,” Newsday, November 24, 2004. [↩]
53. FBI Hijackers Timeline, p. 150, 154, 156-157, 161-162, 166-167. [↩]
54. Jacques Billeaud, “More Arizona ties to terror suspect,” Associated Press, September 20, 2001. [↩]
55. “9/11 Commission Report,” p. 529. The document cited by the 9/11 Commission was obtained by “FBI Memorandum, Sawyer Aviation records”, October 12, 2001. [↩]
56. “FBI FD-302, Interrogation of Tina Beth Arnold (Sawyer Aviation),” FBI, October 17, 2001. [↩]
57. “FBI Summary of Information, Lotfi Raissi,” FBI, January 4, 2004 [↩] [↩] [↩]
58. William F. Jasper, “9-11 Conspiracy Fact & Fiction,” The New American, May 2, 2005. [↩]
59. “Airplane Flight: How High? How Fast?” NASA (accessed April 17, 2010). Relative airspeed is calculated by the equation B d v2 = W, where factor B depends on the profile of a given set of wings (larger wings produce more lift), d is air density, v is velocity, and W is the airplane’s weight. At 30,000 feet, air density is about ¼ that at sea level, allowing an airliner to double its speed to produce the same amount of lift. [↩]
60. Patrick Smith, “Ask the pilot,” Salon, May 19, 2006. [↩]
61. “What Really Happened: The 9/11 Fact File,” Der Spiegel, December 20, 2006. [↩]

Jeremy R. Hammond is the editor of Foreign Policy Journal, a website providing news, analysis, and opinion from outside the standard framework provided by government officials and the corporate media. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and is the author of The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination. You can contact him at: Read other articles by Jeremy.

Wow I'd love to see the video in slow motion.

I'm pretty sure that's Hani in the cockpit in the fab five frames.

Supplemental reading

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