Flight training schools in the United States admit thousands of foreign students every year, with little screening to determine the students' background or why they want to learn to fly, according to ABCNEWS aviation analyst John Nance.
Federal investigators tracking the movements of the hijackers who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon are focusing on flight schools, including two in Florida and one in Minnesota, sources have told ABCNEWS.
Two flight schools in Florida — one for small planes and the other for Boeing 727 airliners — say they provided training for two men who are now under investigation by the FBI. The men have been identified as Mohammed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi.
The planes used in the attacks were two Boeing 767s and a 757. Another Boeing 757 crashed in western Pennsylvania.
Judging from the flight paths of the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, Nance said it was almost certain that the pilots had trained on simulators for large Boeing aircraft. American Airlines Flight 11, slowed as it descended, a maneuver that showed the pilot was fully in control, according to Nance, who is a licensed airline pilot. "An amateur would not have been able to do this."
Many Foreign Pilots Train in the U.S.
The United States attracts trainee pilots from around the world. "It's the only country in the world with such a widespread, easily accessed aviation system for training," said Nance.
The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for licensing pilots, but does not regulate flight schools — or who they give training to. "They're just giving out information. We can't stop some school from taking someone in," said FAA spokesman Hank Price.
The FAA does require that applicants for licenses provide extensive background information, including nationality and any record of crimes or drug use, but only cross-checks the applications when there is reason to believe there might be a problem, Price said. He said the agency could not immediately provide data on how many pilot's licenses it has granted to foreign nationals.
The FAA also does not restrict access to the flight simulators that are needed to learn to fly commercial airliners. "It would be feasible to go to a flight simulator company and say, 'My boss is very wealthy and is going to buy a 757 and I need to know how to fly it,'" Nance said.
Screening Left Up to the Flight Schools
Screening is left up to the flight schools and simulator companies. Jet training is very expensive, so most of the schools' business comes from airlines providing training for their own pilots.
Students paying their own way are rare, but nothing stops flight schools from taking in any individual provided he has the money. The schools do not usually give them much scrutiny, Nance said. "There's a very low standard in the industry for bringing people in for training," he said. "In the past, it has been just how the school felt about the applicant."
Learning To Fly
To qualify to fly a commercial airliner, a novice pilot would have to first get a private pilot's license for a single-engine propeller plane, then work up to more complex planes and eventually to an airline transport pilot, or ATP, license.