Americans training terrorists
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
April 12, 2004
I operated the flight school at McCarran International Airport in Las
Vegas from 1974 through 1982. Steve's Flying Service, Inc. (SFS) was the
last professional flight training facility to be located at McCarran. My
company's goal was to train pilots intending to enter airline or military
flying careers. I advertised the company in magazines that had worldwide
circulation including Pilot and Flying, therefore we attracted an international
clientele wanting to be trained at one of America's busiest airline facilities.
Immediately following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, my school began
receiving inquiries from prospective students in Middle Eastern countries.
They wanted to know the availability of instructors and equipment to take
them through the courses that would qualify them to be commercial or military
pilots in their countries. Most were not concerned with the cost which
at that time was in excess of $15,000. They seemed most concerned
with how long the courses would take and how close we were to the Strip
In the meantime, Americans were waiting in line to buy gasoline, our
nation was sinking into a recession, and oil rich nations were becoming
burgeoning empires of unbelievable wealth.
One of the first students who arrived from the Middle East wanted me
to be his personal teacher and offered to pay higher rates to be taught
by the Chief Flight Instructor, a responsibility I shared with being the
owner of the company.
As Chief Instructor it was my responsibility to take flight instructors-in-training
along on flights as observers. Going along on this flight were my wife,
and a commercial pilot working on his flight instructor rating.
The the young man arrived at the scheduled time. I proceeded to interview
him with the customary questions about his background and motivation for
wanting to learn to fly. He answered all my questions satisfactorily.
He explained that he had just become a minister in a Muslim ministry
in Los Angeles and that he wanted to be able to commute between Las Vegas
and LA to perform his ministerial duties in both cities. His reason for
learning to fly seemed logical so we proceeded to the airplane parked on
the ramp just outside the school.
The man was very calm as the four of us walked along and chatted about
the whether. He asked numerous questions about the airplanes we walked
past on our way to the waiting Piper Warrior. It seemed like just another
day in the life of a flight instructor.
My wife had ridden along on several introductory flights, and enjoyed
the half-hour experience that took us at low altitude over the city of
Las Vegas. The flight instructor trainee who accompanied us was days away
from taking his final exam and wanted to observe my method of selling the
expensive Private Pilot course to a prospective customer.
We entered the cockpit and I placed my customer in the left seat or
captain's position as is customary when acquainting a student with the
controls of an airplane for the first time. The passengers settled down
in the rear seats.
I asked my customer to put his feet lightly on the rudder pedals and
his hands lightly on the control wheel to feel the movements of the controls
during taxi and take off -- he complied. We took our position in line for
take off behind a group of airliners waiting at the end of runway 19L.
After several minutes the tower cleared us for takeoff to the South,
we began rolling. The man had a distant look in his eyes as we began to
develop speed on takeoff, but everything still seemed routine.
I once again cautioned my potential customer to let his hands and feet
rest lightly on the controls to better understand how they function in
takeoff and flight. I cautioned him to not apply any pressures to the controls
unless I instructed him to do so. He nodded in compliance and starred straight
ahead down the runway.
The Piper lifted into the cool blue sky, then as we flew above the airport,
the man's eyes opened fully and with all his strength he abruptly pushed
the control wheel forward until it loudly hit the panel with his arms locked
in a death grip! We were going straight down with only a few seconds left
I pulled back with all of my strength on the right control wheel as
the student-instructor grabbed the man's neck in a choke hold. The airplane
suddenly leveled out just as it hit the asphalt. I retarded the throttle
and slammed on the brakes. The plane bounced and then skidded to a noisy
The tower dispatched fire engines though there was no fire and just
minor damage to the landing gear. Later that day, upon further examination
our mechanic discovered that we had severely bent the controls by pulling
and pushing at the same time.
Unlike the Egypt Air Boeing 747 that dove into the Atlantic about 60
miles south of Nantucket Island at the hands of a madman on October 31,
1999, light airplanes have both control yokes solidly connected together.
When one unit moves so does the other.
The man who allegedly wanted to be a pilot had inexplicably attempted
to take his own life along with three innocent persons and possibly others
on the ground.
In attempting to explain to FAA officials the cause of our unannounced
controlled crash, I learned that there is no law prohibiting what had almost
occurred during a training flight. I had no other choice but to let the
man who probably tried to end our lives, walk away unpunished.
As the student instructor and I walked the man to his car, he would
not respond to our repeated questions about what had just occurred, he
just starred straight ahead. I tried to control my natural urge to grant
him his wish to become some kind of martyr.
The student instructor had less control and suddenly grabbed the man
and tried to strangle him again! I somehow found myself defending the thwarted
assassin because I did not want him to have his death wish fulfilled at
the expense of my friend's freedom.
After the brief altercation, the stranger departed never to be seen
Back in the office, I wished aloud that he had left a suicide note to
prove my point. Otherwise how could I have proved that murder/suicide was
his actual intention? He might have just said he had panicked and did not
recall pushing the controls forward.
I only now truly understand what may have really happened to EgyptAir
Flight 990, and the similarities between the two men involved. Maybe the
man in my story was the same guy who did-in EgyptAir nineteen years later?
I'll never know.
Today, I can't help but read every detail of aircraft accident reports.
Each time the unexplainable happens, I flash back to those horrible moments
over McCarran Airport when that man's eyes opened so wide and he slammed
the airplane's control yokes against their forward stops.
Since 9-11, flight schools throughout the United States have become
more aware of their students. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration
has stepped in, rightfully so, to require extensive screening of all student
pilots applicants who hail from Middle Eastern countries.
Since I was one of the hapless instructor pilots who experienced a potential
suicide by aircraft, I hate to say that I actually know what it must have
felt like to be on board that EgyptAir flight on that eventful night.
Following this incident and until I sold the company in 1982, I became
suspicious every time someone from the Middle East inquired about flight
training. We found their motivation to be unclear. The other instructors
at SFS also had reservations about accepting Middle Eastern students.
To bolster our suspicions, one day months after the aborted suicide,
several young Kuwaiti men stood in my office throwing $100 bills on my
desk after I refused to serve them. I returned their money and asked them
to leave. After exiting the building, the men told SFS personnel that they
wanted to learn to fly so they could bomb Americans like us.
Though we were anything but racists, the company eventually declined
to train persons from Middle Eastern nations as policy, a policy set long
before 9-11. I knew I had done the right thing.
Unfortunately since that time, other aviation companies discovered how
lucrative it was to take on students with questionable backgrounds and
We are now paying the consequences.
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