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Flight School Where 9/11 Plotters Trained Broke

Ten years after terrorists attacked the United States, some Americans are still shocked at what happened - shocked that terrorists flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, shocked that they killed some 3,000 people, shocked that three of the four terrorist pilots trained at flight schools in the U.S. One of those flight schools is out of business and the owner is out of money.

We are about to climb inside a four-seat Cessna 172.

It's the same kind that Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained in for their pilot's license. Atta and al-Shehhi were the terrorists at the controls of two of the planes on September 11, 2001 - the two that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Our pilot is the man who ran the flight school that trained both of them for six months: Rudi Dekkers, a Dutch citizen who has lived in the United States since 1993.

Dekkers is taking us on the same flight training path, along the Atlantic Ocean. These southwestern Florida skies are popular for training because of the flat ground and the coastline that can be used for navigation.

Rudi Dekkers, former owner of Huffman Aviation

Rudi Dekkers, former owner of Huffman Aviation

“We always went 10 miles out of the area and this is a quiet area so they did the stalls here, the steep turns, their whole practicing,” he recalls.

Dekkers saw his two student pilots every day. He still has their applications, test scores and student visa papers. Even Atta’s signature on his pilot license.

“Atta was always very by himself," Dekkers remembers. "He didn’t talk too much. Didn’t like to talk to us. But al-Shehhi did."

They were much like his other foreign students, except, Dekkers says, they were disrespectful and inattentive. After his chief instructor warned they might be expelled, Atta and al-Shehhi's attitudes improved. But what his company trained them to do unravelled his life, his fortune and his business.

“That’s where was my airline office and my maintenance office, but you know, nothing is mine anymore,” a regretful Dekkers says.

At 4:00 a.m. the day after the terrorist attacks, FBI agents entered Dekkers' office. They confiscated his files and computers. Immigration officials questioned him about these student visa applications. He testified before Congress. Florida charged him with fraud, then dropped the charges.

“That brought so much stress. Lost financially everything," he says. "I was worth $12 million on paper and a year after 9/11, I was worth $46,000.”

Dekkers blames the terrorists, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. He's written a book about his experience called, "Guilty by Association." If he had a flight school today,
"I would not have Muslim students,” he says.

Dekkers says his once successful life is now gone.

“When you lose your dream; when you lose all your money - I lived on the beach in Naples [Florida]. Had to sell the house. I lost everything. But I’m still here,” he says.

But some 3,000 others aren’t. Rudi Dekkers says he's a survivor. And, that’s the story he wants to tell.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.