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Hijackers took practice flights at suburban Atlanta airport

From Art Harris
CNN Investigative Correspondent

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Half a year before terrorists crashed two jetliners into New York's World Trade Center, two men identified as among the hijackers rented a single engine Piper Cherokee Warrior at a small suburban Atlanta airport and took off for a one-hour "checkout" flight with an instructor.

"They were well-dressed, polite and friendly," said Advanced Aviation flight school owner Bruce Buell, in an interview with CNN. "Just regular people like everyone else. We had no reason to believe anything was wrong."

Sources close to the investigation say flight school records list Mohamed Atta and sidekick Marwan Al-Shehhi, both named on the FBI list of terrorists aboard the planes that on Sept. 11 were flown into the World Trade Center. Atta is thought to be a leader and organizer of the hijacking plot, al-Shehhi was a fellow student and apartment roommate.

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Both had instrument ratings and were qualified to fly twin-engine planes. Each had to show his commercial pilot's license at Briscoe Field, an Atlanta suburban airport. A source said Atta used a credit card to rent the planes, $69 an hour, plus $32 an hour for an instructor the first time in late February.

Their names and FAA license numbers were entered in the school computer by a flight dispatcher. Each man flew a leg with the instructor. When they returned later to rent another plane, they were able to fly together since they had already qualified.

Two days after the suicide attacks, the dispatcher, Chrissy Ross, was watching hijack suspects' names on television and recognized one.

"I was in shock. I didn't know what to do," she said.

The next day, at work, she checked the computer and it was one of the suspects. Then she found the second suspect in the records. She phoned a friend's father and asked what to do, then called the FBI. Two hours later, agents arrived and seized all records.


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