Fla. flight schools may have trained hijackers
By Mike Fish
(CNN) -- Florida is known for its sunshine and sandy beaches, and now as likely training ground for some of the terrorists suspected of crashing commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a barren Pennsylvania field.
Officials at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach confirmed Thursday that the FBI has sought information on Waleed Al Sheri, 25, who graduated in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical science -- the four-year school's commercial pilot training degree.
The FBI is also investigating Mohamed Atta, 33, and Marwan Al Sheri, 23. Law enforcement sources said they were looking at a possible family link between Marwan and Waleed Al Sheri.
Atta and Marwan Al Sheri studied at the Technical University in Hamburg, Germany. The men lived together in Germany and Coral Springs, Florida. Officials of Huffman Aviation, a flight school in Venice, Florida, said the two men also trained there and that investigators are examining student records.
They also held passports from the United Arab Emirates, law enforcement sources said, but a UAE spokesman denied they were citizens.
According to law enforcement sources, Atta was on American Airlines Flight 11 that departed from Boston and slammed into the World Trade Center. A Mitsubishi sedan he rented was found at Boston's Logan Airport. Arabic language materials were found in the car.
German authorities searched Atta's apartment in Hamburg and those of three others they said are linked to a terrorist group they did not name.
As federal agents pored over flight school student records across Florida, they questioned Saudi flight engineer Adnan Bukhari about two Arab flight school students who lived next door to him in Vero Beach.
Neighbors said Amer Kamfar and Abdulrahman Alomari, both of whom were thought to have trained at Flight Safety Academy in Vero Beach, abruptly moved out earlier this month, The Associated Press reported.
Federal sources initially identified Bukhari and Ameer Bukhari as possible hijackers who boarded one of the planes that originated in Boston. The two men were first identified as brothers, but Adnan Bukhari said that was not the case.
Their names had been tied to a car found at an airport in Portland, Maine, but Adnan Bukhari's attorney said it appeared their identifications were stolen and said Bukhari had no role in the hijackings. A federal law enforcement official said Bukhari passed an FBI polygraph test and is not considered a suspect.
Ameer Bukhari died in a small plane crash in Florida last year, said Adnan Bukhari's attorney.
Roger Richie, a spokesman for Flight Safety Academy, confirmed that Bukhari, a flight engineer with Saudi Airlines, is part of a current yearlong program to train pilots for the airline.
He refused to discuss whether Kamfar or Alomari were connected to the program, although he did say the company turned over its records to the FBI.
"The investigation is enormous because they're going through all of Florida with a fine-tooth comb," Richie said. "They're talking to everybody that is in the flight training business. Of course, they're not sharing the results, so we can't tell who they are looking for or what they are looking for."
Flight Safety Academy and Embry-Riddle, the world's largest university specializing in aviation, enjoy a business relationship. Flight Safety houses a flight simulator on the university campus in Daytona Beach. The simulator is also available to Embry-Riddle students.
Tuition at Embry-Riddle is more than $14,000 a year, not including the cost of the flight training and simulator time required for a degree in aeronautical science.
"That is a degree students take who have an interest in making a career as a commercial pilot," said college spokesman Bob Ross. "[Waleed Al Sheri] is listed as having a commercial pilot's license."
Those aspiring to a career as a commercial pilot are often drawn to Florida, which is home to at least 250 flight training schools. Not only are programs plentiful, but the cost is relatively inexpensive for students coming from overseas.
"There's more flight training in Florida than anywhere else possibly in the world," Richie said. "The weather is very good, a lot of nice airports. There is the ocean on either side, which means places to fly out and come back."
Flight Safety is a New York-based company with 44 offices worldwide. At its Florida facility, Richie said, the school often conducts pilot training programs for major international carriers such as Korean Airlines, Swiss Air and China Air.
Because Saudi Airlines is eliminating flight engineers from its three-member crews, Richie said the airline has in the past year sent flight engineers to Florida for pilot training.
He said the program has ended for some of the engineers, suggesting that may explain why some have recently left the Vero Beach area.
Embry-Riddle officials said 12 percent of the students come from countries other than the United States. Saudi Arabians are second only to South Koreans among international students.
"People are calling here with threats, saying we are a terrorist training institute," said Dave Esser, head of the aeronautical engineering department.
"We've trained thousands of commercial pilots. We've trained astronauts. If any of our students are associated with this, it is very sad."
The tragic irony is that 1983 Embry-Riddle graduate David Charlebois was a victim of the terrorism. Charlebois was first officer on American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles from Dulles International Airport outside Washington that was crashed into the Pentagon.
"We train one-quarter of the commercial pilots in the United States, so when we heard about this tragedy we knew the odds were good one of pilots would be involved. It turns out maybe some that were not authorized to fly were also pilots," said Embry-Riddle's Ross.
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