Once Trained In Vegas Skies
Recent political events
have inspired me to
write about something I'd
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
October 13, 2008
LAS VEGAS - A decade before 9 -11, I owned
and operated the largest commercial flying school in Nevada. Based at McCarran
International Airport, my company employed 12 instructor pilots, many who
were retired airline captains. We specialized in training commercial and
airline students, but offered a comprehensive private pilot's course for
those who wanted to learn to fly at the nation's then-12th busiest airport.
We also offered Grand Canyon air tours, aircraft sales, maintenance, and
ground and flying courses were more expensive than those offered at smaller
general aviation airports, but our students usually opted to pay the higher
tuition to be trained by veteran military and airline instructor pilots
in a professional environment. Many later took jobs as corporate jet pilots
for the local casinos.
As the company grew to include a fleet
of 13 single and twin engine aircraft, I knew I would have to advertise
internationally to keep the props turning and my employees happy. I placed
display ads in two aviation publications, FLYING, and PILOT.
Soon, the company began receiving calls
from prospective students from Middle Eastern countries, mainly United
Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya, and Iran.
This was several years before the horrors
of 9 -11, so my crew and I were elated when the first flock of new Arab
students showed up at our door step.
As chief instructor pilot, it was my responsibility
to take flight instructors-in-training along on flights as observers. Going
along on this very eventful flight were my wife Lisa, and Chuck Herrmann,
a commercial pilot working on his flight instructor rating.
The customer arrived at the scheduled time.
A pleasant man in his mid thirties named Hussain explained in clear English
that he was from Kuwait and wanted to become an airline pilot. He said
his family held stock in his nation's airline, and he had an inside track
to a captain's position, but needed to obtain his initial training in the
U.S. We proceeded to the airplane, a new Piper Archer parked several hundred
feet down the ramp.
Hussain was very calm as the four of us
walked along and chatted about the weather. He asked numerous questions
about the airplanes we walked by on our way - it seemed like just
another ordinary day in the life of a flight instructor.
My wife had ridden along on several of
these introductory flights and enjoyed the half-hour experience. Chuck
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 Hussain
in the left seat or captain's position as is customary when acquainting
a student with the controls of an airplane. The passengers settled down
in the rear seats.
I asked Hussain 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 19.
After several minutes the tower cleared
us for takeoff to the south, we began rolling. I once again cautioned Hussain
to let his hands and feet rest lightly on the controls to better understand
how they function in takeoff and flight. I told 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.
Hussain had a distant look in his eyes
as we began to develop speed on takeoff, but everything still seemed routine.
The small airplane lifted into the cool
blue sky and we climbed away from the Earth. Then, about three hundred
feet above the remaining runway, Hussain's eyes opened fully, and with
all his strength he abruptly pushed the control wheel forward until it
loudly hit the control panel and his arms locked in a death grip! We were
going straight down with only a few seconds left before impact!
I pulled back with all of my strength on
the right control wheel and overpowered the mad man. The airplane suddenly
leveled out just before the wheels hit the asphalt. I retarded the throttle
and slammed on the brakes. The plane bounced and then skidded to a noisy
stop blocking the runway.
The tower sent fire engines out though
just minor damage to one landing gear strut was apparent at the time.
Upon further examination, my mechanic discovered
a severely bent control yoke caused by Hussain and I pulling and pushing
at the same time.
A man who at first seemed so pleasant had
inexplicably attempted to take his own life along with three innocent people
who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In attempting to explain to officials what
had happened, I learned that because it was a training flight, there is
no law against what occurred. I had no other choice but to let the man
who intentionally tried to end our lives walk away unpunished.
As he calmly walked to his rented car,
I tried to control my natural urge to grant his wish to become a martyr.
Maybe the person in my story was the same
guy that did-in Egypt Air Flight 990 on October 31,1999, killing all 217
people on board? In that case, a pilot also pushed the controls to their
990's active crew consisted of Captain
Mahmoud El Habashy and First Officer Adel Anwar, and the cruise crew were
Captain Amal El Sayed and First Officer Gameel Al-Batouti. Just before
the dive into the Atlantic, Al-Batouti was recorded saying "I made my decision
now. I put my faith in Allah's hands."
Following the crash, anti-Arab sentiment
was rampant. The Egyptian media reacted in outrage to the speculations
in the Western press. The state-owned Al Ahram Al Misai called Al-Batouti
a "martyr," and the Islamist Al Shaab covered the story under a
headline that stated, "America's goal is to hide the truth by blaming the
During the weeks and months following my
sudden initiation to Islamist martyrdom, dozens of other flight students
arrived in Vegas from the Middle East. My company was flourishing until
one morning when one of our Pipers ran off the runway and took out two
expensive runway lights.
I was made aware of the incident by McCarran
Airport Police officers. I immediately ran outside to see if anyone was
injured. No one was, but I was about to learn another valuable lesson about
one of my new found students.
After the damaged aircraft was towed to
the maintenance hanger, the instructor arrived in my office to tell me
He said the student from Iran asked if
he could bring two friends along on the dual cross country flight. After
several hours in the air, the student made a smooth landing back at LAS.
After the plane set down, the instructor described his student and friends
conversing in Arabic, then laughing.
Suddenly the student slammed the right
rudder pedal to the floor causing the plane to skid off the side
of the runway into a ditch, taking out the runway lights. No one was injured,
but the airplane was severely damaged, again closing the runway for several
minutes until it could be towed away.
My instructor pilot said the three men
laughed hysterically throughout the incident as if it were intentional.
After my briefing, I invited the three
men into my office. They were still in good spirits as one pulled a roll
of one hundred dollar bills out of his pocket and contemptuously began
throwing them at me.
He said he wanted to buy the plane, and
that the other men had much more money if what he threw at me was insufficient.
I called my mechanic and asked what it would cost to repair the plane.
I deducted that amount from the pile of cash, then shoved the rest of the
bills back at the men and ordered them off the premises.
My employees were irate. They said I should
have been more lenient because these men and other new students from their
part of the world were very heavy tippers, and would certainly pay for
damaging equipment, even if it was done for fun.
I told my staff that I feared for their
lives, and I was going to make an executive decision within the next several
days as to whether to cancel the international ads and send the dozen or
so students home to their respective countries.
The next day, a Saudi gentleman stepped
into my office and announced that he wanted to buy a Lear Jet. I asked
him if he had a pilot's license? He said no -- that he would buy the jet
and take lessons in it.
I told him to leave.
Again, my crew scolded me for discouraging
business. I told them I didn't want to be responsible for killing customers,
or my staff. I also said that some of our new customers were obnoxious
and acted like they hated America and Americans.
Several days later, Chuck had passed his
tests and received his Flight Instructor Certificate. One of his first
clients was another new arrival, this time a Saudi.
Several hours after they took off, Chuck
described an identical event as had occurred weeks earlier. His new student
tried to push the controls forward at low altitude and crash the plane.
Following Chuck's close call, another instructor
said he had heard several new students talking about getting their pilot's
licenses, then joining their nation's air force so they could "kill Americans."
I had had enough. No money could buy a
continued relationship with people like this.
I called a staff meeting. After hearing
all evidence, my instructors reluctantly decided to cancel future lessons
with students from the Middle East. I also stopped the magazine ads. Soon
my business dropped drastically, but the drop in revenue was well worth
the safety based decision to only teach American, Asian, Australian, Canadian,
Latin American, or European students. No additional incidents followed.
That same year, a local real estate mogul
called to request that I bid on the old Scenic Airlines hanger on Tropicana
Ave. He said he represented Shell Oil and they wanted to get a foot hold
on aviation fuel sales at McCarran. He wanted me to appear at a Clark County
Commission meeting and make a bid higher than the competition; that I was
qualified because I held several leaseholds on the airport. He said I would
have several million dollars deposited into my flight school account to
make me look legitimate if I agreed, and that I could keep three hundred
thousand for my service if successful.
I told the realtor that Shell Oil was then
owned by Omar Kadafi of Libia, and I would have nothing to do with the
deal. I told him I would only bid if it were for an American owned oil
company that didn't want to jack up fuel prices. He told me I was a very
stupid man. I humbly accepted his evaluation of my intelligence, but let
him know that I'm also a good American, and would rather be poor and stupid
than to help forward Arab interest's in our country.
Though I no longer own the flight school,
today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checks every foreign
national that applies for flight training in this country. Flight schools
are required to submit this application to TSA before training begins.
I wish this law had been in effect prior
to 2001. Had a greedy flight school in Florida also thrown out suspect
Middle Eastern students, the horrible events of September 11, 2001 may
never have happened.
Hussain never returned to finish his "flying
lessons," but the United Arab Emirates just bought half the shares of MGM
Mirage. I guess we didn't get rid of them after all.