Few pilot skills needed to turn a jet into a bomb

October 14, 2001|By Ron Laurenzo

JUST ABOUT anybody can take flying lessons, or could before Sept. 11.

There are rumors that student pilots soon will be required to get background checks. But if a student was discreet - like not burning an American flag before a lesson - he would be treated like any paying customer.

If anyone can take lessons, does that mean anyone can be a pilot? Not really. Some people, no matter how intelligent or how good at their jobs, can't handle the many demands of flying.

Once it's in the air, a big jet is basically not much different from a light training plane. In any plane, turn the yoke left or right and the plane turns. Push the yoke forward, the nose drops; pull it back, the nose goes up.

Contrary to what others have said, I think the terrorists who hit New York and Washington were at best mediocre pilots. It doesn't take a highly skilled airline pilot to turn a passenger jet into a cruise missile. There's a huge difference between the skills needed to drive a plane into a building and those needed to take off, climb, descend and land safely. I'd be shocked if the hijackers could have started the engines of their Boeings.

When I saw that surreal video of one plane slamming into the tower, my first coherent thought was "unstablized approach" - aviation speak for the opposite of any good pilot's goal, which is a landing approach demanding only minute changes in flight path.

A 45-degree degree bank at the last second before "landing" is not a sign of good airmanship. I disagree with the theory that the hijackers were highly trained because they were able to "carve" such tight turns or that they purposely turned their wings at the last minute to destroy more of the tower's floors.

Instead, I see a desperate attempt not to miss the tower after a sloppy, fast approach. A skyscraper is an easier target than the landing zone on a runway, despite the terrorists' excessive speed, which a good pilot - even a kamikaze - would have decreased to simplify his task.

What does impress me about the terrorists was their knowledge - apparently just the bare minimum to do their job - of the extremely complex systems on a big jet, and of airline procedures.

They knew how to make the crews surrender control of the flight decks, how to turn off the flight management systems or reprogram them onto a new course and how to turn off the transponders, which produce a better "blip" on a radar screen.

This requires special training. I have far more flying experience than any of the hijackers but am clueless about the flight management system on a Boeing 757.

But that knowledge can be gleaned from manuals and then practiced on a personal computer with a program, which can be bought anywhere, that simulates a large airliner.

If you have the money - like Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who reportedly told flight instructors in Minnesota he only wanted to steer, not land, a 747 - you can buy time in a full-motion simulator at a flight academy that is identical to flying the actual aircraft.

As far as the terrorists' ability to navigate long distances to their targets: If they were savvy, they didn't. They bypassed or turned off the airliner's navigation systems and used their own GPS (global positioning system). A hand-held GPS unit with a moving map - capable of guiding you anywhere in the world - costs only $600.

It's not as if they would have needed it all the way. I was flying with a student that clear, bright Tuesday morning, and the visibility was fantastic - a rarity at a time of year when the horizon is often clouded with haze. We could see the Chesapeake Bay even from out near Frederick. From an airliners' altitude, the World Trade Center was probably visible from 100 miles away, making the terrorists' last hurdle - finding their target - that much easier.

Ron Laurenzo is a journalist and commercial pilot, and was a flight instructor at Montgomery County Airpark. He lives in Gaithersburg.

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