Tim Nelson of Eagan, Mn., was puzzled in when he learned about the new student — a guy who had plunked down $8,300, most of it in hundred-dollar bills, for lessons in flying a 747 jumbo jet. Veteran pilot Hugh Sims was suspicious, too, about the student, Zacarias Moussaoui. It was early August 2001, a month before the Sept. 11 attacks. At only one flight school, in Minnesota, did employees sniff out an Al-Qaida operative’s suspicious behavior and tip off the FBI, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Nelson and Sims, in their first public interviews, say they had to buck resistance from company headquarters.
Their action ultimately led to Moussaoui’s guilty plea last Friday to six counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Moussaoui, a 33-year-old Frenchman with Moroccan roots who had attended an Al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, had sent the school an e-mail message that he wanted to take a simulated flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport. He admitted he had only about 55 hours flying time in a single-engine Cessna. School officials, accustomed to a steady flow of Middle Eastern flight students, shrugged off the strange e- mail. Sims, a former Northwest Airlines captain, was baffled. “He’s going to pay us to get some 747-400 orientation and he’s not any more than a private pilot?” he asked. “Why would a guy do that? Why would you spend that much money, other than you just want to do this as a lark?”