Experts say hijackers needed special skills
By Mike Fish
(CNN) -- Some of the terrorists suspected of flying commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon trained on flight simulators in Florida, but aviation experts are split on the degree of expertise required to accomplish the horrific crashes.
"It really depends on what degree of accuracy you're looking for," said Dave Esser, head of the aeronautical engineering department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
"If it's just crashing a plane, that takes no more competency than crashing a bus. There is software available. It comes up and it's a 757 flight deck.
"A friend of mine pulled it up and it's Chicago's O'Hare Airport and there is the Sears Tower Building. You might be able to practice this on your home PC."
Embry-Riddle, the world's largest university specializing in aviation, shares a flight simulator on its campus with Flight Safety Academy in Vero Beach.
University officials confirmed that suspect Waleed Al Sheri graduated in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science and experienced flight and simulator training.
Although crashing a plane might require minimal skills, getting it to the target is another story, Esser said.
He said, for example, the highest level of navigational ability would have been needed in the flight that departed Dulles International Airport outside Washington and then was redirected to the Pentagon. The first officer on American Airlines Flight 77 was David Charlebois, his friend and a 1983 Embry-Riddle graduate.
Esser said he thinks the crew might still have been flying the plane as it approached Washington.
"At that point, the flight crew might still have been alive," Esser said. "Then, they've taken the aircraft to its destination, and they [the hijackers] kill the crew once the building is in sight."
There was initial speculation that the plane may have been targeted for the Capitol or the White House and that something went awry.
Roger Richie, spokesman for Flight Safety Academy, said students would not have enough expertise and precision after completing its program to pilot a wide-body jet without additional time on a simulator.
"The graduates of the academy are not suitable to execute that mission," Richie said. "There is not an advanced flight simulator, and most people assume an advanced flight simulator was used in the preparation for this mission.
"It's not that simple when you're heading over [Ohio], to come back and find the Pentagon. You need to know what you are doing. It's not the same as learning to become a complete commercial pilot.
"You wouldn't say, 'Fred, you're in charge, find the World Trade Center.' This kind of wicked goal is [one that is] trained for. They would not leave it to chance after having taken control of the aircraft.
"You would have to be trained in a flight simulator to give the wicked organizers sufficient confidence this thing was going to come off. My friends in the industry think that a flight simulator was used."
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