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Inside Vegas - Steve Miller

Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman. In 1991, the readers of the Las Vegas Review Journal voted him the "Most Effective Public Official" in Southern Nevada. Visit his website at:

Terrorists Once Trained In Vegas Skies
Recent political events have inspired me to
write about something I'd rather forget

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 charter services.

Our 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 stops.

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 EgyptAir pilot."

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 what happened.

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.

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