This paper was written
by a professional pilot who flew heavies for 25 years.
Posted January 31, 2006
THE JET-JOCKS (Who
Couldn’t Solo A Cessna)
There are some who
maintain that the mythical 9/11 hijackers, although proven to be too
incompetent to fly a little Cessna 172, had acquired the impressive skills
that enabled them to fly airliners by training in flight simulators.
What follows is an attempt to bury this myth once and for all, because I’ve
heard this ludicrous explanation bandied about, ad nauseam, on the
Internet and the TV networks—invariably by people who know nothing
substantive about flight simulators, flying, or even airplanes.
A common misconception non-pilots have about simulators is how “easy” it is
to operate them. They are indeed relatively “easy” to operate if the
objective is to make a few lazy turns and frolic about in the “open sky”.
But if the intent is to execute any kind of a maneuver with even the least
bit of precision, the task immediately becomes quite daunting. And if the
aim is to navigate to a specific geographic location hundreds of miles away
while flying at over 500 MPH, 30,000 feet above the ground the challenges
become virtually impossible for an untrained pilot.
And this, precisely, is what the four hijacker pilots who could not fly a
Cessna around an airport are alleged to have accomplished in multi-ton,
high-speed commercial jets on 9/11.
For a person not conversant with the practical complexities of pilotage, a
modern flight simulator could present a terribly confusing and disorienting
experience. These complex training devices are not even remotely similar to
the video games one sees in amusement arcades, or even the software versions
available for home computers.
In order to operate a modern flight simulator with any level of skill, one
has to not only be a decent pilot to begin with, but also a skilled
instrument-rated one to boot — and be thoroughly familiar with
the actual aircraft type the simulator represents, since the cockpit layouts
vary between aircraft.
The only flight domains where an arcade/PC-type game would even begin to
approach the degree of visual realism of a modern professional flight
simulator would be during the take-off and landing phases. During these
phases, of course, one clearly sees the bright runway lights stretched out
ahead, and even peripherally sees images of buildings, etc. moving past.
Take-offs—even landings, to a certain degree—are relatively “easy”, because
the pilot has visual reference cues that exist “outside” the cockpit.
But once you’ve rotated, climbed out, and reached cruising altitude in a
simulator (or real airplane), and find yourself en route to some distant
destination (using sophisticated electronic navigation techniques), the
situation changes drastically: the pilot loses virtually all external
visual reference cues. S/he is left entirely at the mercy of an
array of complex flight and navigation instruments to provide situational
cues (altitude, heading, speed, attitude, etc.)
In the case of a Boeing 757 or 767, the pilot would be faced with an EFIS
(Electronic Flight Instrumentation System) panel comprised of six large
multi-mode LCDs interspersed with clusters of assorted “hard” instruments.
These displays process the raw aircraft system and flight data into an
integrated picture of the aircraft situation, position and progress, not
only in horizontal and vertical dimensions, but also with regard to time and
speed as well. When flying “blind”, I.e., with no ground reference cues, it
takes a highly skilled pilot to interpret, and then apply, this data
intelligently. If one cannot translate this information quickly, precisely
and accurately (and it takes an instrument-rated pilot to do so), one would
have ZERO SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. I.e., the pilot wouldn’t have a clue where
s/he was in relation to the earth. Flight under such conditions is referred
to as “IFR”, or Instrument Flight Rules.
And IFR Rule #1: Never take your eyes off your instruments, because
all you have!
The corollary to Rule #1: If you can’t read the instruments in a quick,
smooth, disciplined, scan, you’re as good as dead. Accident records
from around the world are replete with reports of any number of good pilots
— I.e., professional instrument-rated pilots — who ‘bought the farm’
because they screwed up while flying in IFR conditions.
Let me place this in the context of the 9/11 hijacker-pilots. These men were
repeatedly deemed incompetent to solo a simple Cessna-172 — an
elementary exercise that involves flying this little trainer once around the
patch on a sunny day. A student’s first solo flight involves a simple
circuit: take-off, followed by four gentle left turns ending with a landing
back on the runway. This is as basic as flying can possibly get.
Not one of the hijackers was deemed fit to perform this most elementary
exercise by himself.
Now let’s take a look at American Airlines Flight 77. Passenger/hijacker
Hani Hanjour rises from his seat midway through the flight, viciously fights
his way into the cockpit with his cohorts, overpowers Captain Charles F.
Burlingame and First Officer David Charlebois, and somehow manages to toss
them out of the cockpit (for starters, very difficult to achieve in a
cramped environment without impacting the yoke and thereby disengaging the
autopilot). One would correctly presume that this would present considerable
difficulties to a little guy with a box cutter— Burlingame was a tough,
burly, ex-Vietnam F4 fighter jock who had flown over 100 combat missions.
Every pilot who knows him says that rather than politely hand over the
controls, Burlingame would have instantly rolled the plane on its back so
that Hanjour would have broken his neck when he hit the floor. But let’s
ignore this almost natural reaction expected of a fighter pilot and proceed
with this charade.
Imagine that Hanjour overpowers the flight deck crew, removes them from the
cockpit and takes his position in the captain’s seat. Although weather
reports state this was not the case, let’s say Hanjour was lucky enough to
experience a perfect CAVU day (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). If Hanjour
looked straight ahead through the windshield, or off to his left at the
ground, at best he would see, 35,000 feet -- 7 miles -- below him, a murky
brownish-grey-green landscape, virtually devoid of surface detail, while the
aircraft he was now piloting was moving along, almost imperceptibly and in
eerie silence, at around 500 MPH (about 750 feet every second).
In a real-world scenario (and given the reported weather conditions that
day), he would likely have seen clouds below him completely obscuring the
ground he was traversing. Indeed, it’s altogether possible he could have
found himself in cloud, and could see nothing at all outside the
cockpit except for an enveloping, luminescent, dense, white ‘fog’. With this
kind of “situational non-awareness”, Hanjour might as well have been
flying over Argentina, Russia, or Japan—he wouldn’t have had a clue as to
where, precisely, he was.
After a few seconds (at 750 ft/sec), Hanjour would figure out there’s little
point in looking outside—there’s nothing there to give him any real visual
cues. For a man who had previously wrestled with little Cessnas, following
freeways and railroad tracks (and always in the comforting presence of an
instructor), this would have been a strange, eerily unsettling environment
Seeing nothing outside, Mr. Hanjour would be forced to divert his attention
to his instrument panel, where he’d be faced with a bewildering array of
instruments. He would then have to very quickly interpret his heading,
ground track, altitude, and airspeed information on the displays before he
could even figure out where in the world he was, much less where the
Pentagon was located in relation to his position!
After all, before he can crash into a target, he has to first
find the target.
It is very difficult to explain this scenario, of an utter lack of ground
reference, to non-pilots; but let it suffice to say that for these
incompetent hijacker non-pilots to even consider grappling with such
a daunting task would have been utterly overwhelming. They wouldn’t have
known where to begin.
But, for the sake of discussion let’s stretch things beyond all plausibility
and say that Hanjour — whose flight instructors claimed was so clueless he
“didn’t know how an automobile engine worked” — somehow managed to figure
out their exact position in relation to their intended target as they
traversed the earth at a speed five times faster than they had ever flown by
Once he had determined exactly where he was, he would need to figure out
where the Pentagon was located in relation to his rapidly-changing position.
He would then need to plot a course to his target (one he cannot see with
his eyes — remember, our ace is flying solely on instruments).
In order to perform this bit of electronic navigation, he would have to be
very familiar with IFR procedures. None of these chaps even knew what a
navigational chart looked like, much less how to how to plug information
into the flight management computer (FMC) and engage LNAV (lateral
navigation automated mode). If one is to believe the official story, all of
this was supposedly accomplished by raw student pilots while flying blind at
500 MPH over unfamiliar (and practically invisible) terrain, using complex
methodologies and employing sophisticated instruments.
Since we’ve come this far, let’s push beyond the ridiculous and presume
Hanjour overcame this hurdle as well. He would then need to disengage the
autopilot and auto-throttle, and hand-fly the aircraft to its intended — and
invisible — target on instruments alone until such time as he could
get a visual fix. This necessitated him to fly back across West Virginia and
Virginia to Washington DC. (NB: This portion of Flight 77’s flight path
cannot be corroborated by any radar evidence that exists, because the
aircraft is said to have suddenly disappeared from radar screens over Ohio,
but let’s not mull over that little point.)
According to FAA radar controllers, “Flight 77” then suddenly pops up over
Washington DC and executes an incredibly precise diving turn at a
rate of 360 degrees/minute while descending at 3,500 ft/min, at the
end of which “Hanjour” allegedly levels out at ground level. Oh, I almost
forgot: he also had the presence of mind to turn off the transponder in the
middle of this incredibly difficult maneuver (one of his instructors
later commented the hapless fellow couldn’t have spelt the word if his life
depended on it).
And then, all of a sudden we have magic—Voila! Hanjour finds the Pentagon
sitting squarely in his sights right before him.
But even that wasn’t good enough for this fanatic Muslim kamikaze pilot. You
see, he found that his “missile” was heading towards one of the most densely
populated wings of the Pentagon—and one occupied by the top military brass,
including the Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld. Presumably in order to save
these men’s lives, he then executes a sweeping 270-degree turn and
approaches the building from the opposite direction and aligns
himself with the only wing of the Pentagon that was virtually uninhabited
due to extensive renovations that were underway (there were some 120
civilians construction workers in that wing who were killed).
I shan’t get into the aerodynamic impossibility of flying a large
commercial jetliner 10 feet above the ground at over 400 MPH. A discussion
on ground effect energy, tip vortices, downwash sheets, wake turbulence, and
jet blast effects are beyond the scope of this article. Let it suffice to
say that it is physically impossible to fly a 200,000-lb airliner at
400+MPH, 10 feet above the ground.
The author, a pilot and aeronautical engineer, challenges any pilot
in the world to do so in any high-speed aircraft that has a
relatively low wing-loading (such as a commercial jet). I.e., to fly the
craft at 400 MPH, 10 feet above ground in a flat trajectory over a distance
of a mile. The reactive force of the hugely powerful downwash sheet, coupled
with the compressibility effects of the tip vortices, simply will not
allow the aircraft to get any lower to the ground than approximately one
half the distance of its wingspan — until speed is drastically
reduced, which is what happens during normal landings. In other words,
if this were a Boeing 757 as reported, the plane could not have been flown
below about 60 feet above ground at 400 MPH. [NB: Such a maneuver is
entirely within the performance envelope of aircraft with high
wing-loadings, such as fighters, the B1-B bomber—and the Global Hawk.]
Ditto, the pilots who flew the two 767s into the Twin Towers. They, too,
would have had to have first found their targets. Again, these chaps,
too, miraculously found themselves spot on course. And again, their “final
approach” maneuvers at over 500 MPH are simply far too incredible to have
been executed by pilots who could not solo basic training aircraft.
The writers of the official storyline expect us to believe, that once
the flight deck crews had been overpowered, and the hijackers “took control”
of the various aircraft, their intended targets suddenly popped up in their
windshields as they would have in some arcade game, and all that these
fellows would have had to do was simply aim their airplanes at the buildings
and fly into them. Most people who have been exposed only to the official
storyline have never been on the flight deck of an airliner at altitude and
looked at the outside world; if they had, they’d realize the absurdity of
this kind of reasoning.
In reality, a clueless non-pilot would encounter almost insurmountable
difficulties in attempting to navigate and fly a 200,000-lb airliner into a
building located on the ground, 7 miles below and hundreds of miles away and
out of sight, and in an unknown direction, while flying at over 500 MPH —
and all this under extremely stressful circumstances.