Skip to comments.Hijackers' Interest in Crop Dusters Still Puzzles Terrorism Investigators
Posted on 11/19/2001 11:02:42 AM PST by mombonn
Hijackers' Interest in Crop Dusters
Still Puzzles Terrorism Investigators
By JOHN J. FIALKA, TOM HAMBURGER and GARY FIELDS
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Seven months before he crashed an airliner into the World Trade Center, Mohamed Atta was asking crop dusters in Florida an odd question about their planes: How far can they fly?
Such aircraft normally aren't flown long distances. But this summer, a Middle Eastern man who gave his name as "Sam" hung around crop-dusting firms in Saskatchewan, Canada, for days -- and asked the same question. And sometime before he was arrested in August, suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui did crop-dusting research on his computer.
The interest shown in crop dusting by the Sept. 11 hijackers and possible associates is one of the enduring mysteries of the recent terrorist attacks. Once discovered, it caused the first major post-Sept. 11 scare and prompted authorities to ground crop dusters for five days.
Yet two months later, investigators still don't know what these men were up to, despite thousands of interviews in the U.S. and Canada about their ventures into agricultural aviation. Were terrorists planning to spread anthrax from a crop duster? That would be very difficult to do effectively, because anthrax droplets need to be small enough to float, and crop dusters are designed to spray droplets that don't. Perhaps they wanted to load a crop duster's 800-gallon pesticide tank with another harmful agent, investigators speculate; or maybe they wanted to load a plane with explosives and crash it into something. Several strange inquiries, all along similar lines, have raised such concerns among authorities.
Mr. Atta's first known crop-dusting visit came in February. He and two other men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin drove to the municipal airport in Belle Glade, Fla., near Lake Okeechobee, and walked into South Florida Crop Care's hanger. James Lester, who cleans and loads crop dusters for the company, says Mr. Atta pointedly quizzed him about how much fuel and chemicals the planes could hold, and became pushy when Mr. Lester rebuffed his requests to sit in one of the planes. Finally, after Mr. Atta followed so closely behind that "he stepped on my heel," Mr. Lester told him he was too busy to talk anymore.
Later that month, Mr. Atta went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Credit Service office in Homestead, south of Miami, and inquired about borrowing money to buy a crop duster, people familiar with the matter say. He was told to check with the nearby Community Bank of Florida, which later received a call from someone who wanted to buy a crop duster -- an unusual request, since few farms use crop dusters in the area.
Several weeks later, a man that South Florida Crop Care general manager J.D. "Will" Lee believes was Mr. Atta returned to that airfield. This time, he wanted to know how far a crop duster could fly on a tank of gas, Mr. Lee recalls. "Nobody asks about the range of crop dusters -- it doesn't make any sense," says Mr. Lee, who related his account to the FBI.
Mr. Atta and various men, apparently Middle Eastern, made repeated visits to the airfield throughout the spring and summer, employees there say. They usually stood off at a distance to watch crop dusters being loaded, taking off and landing, once videotaping them.
In March, Mr. Atta and a man investigators suspect was Marwan al-Shehhi -- the other hijacker-pilot who crashed into the World Trade Center -- landed a small plane at an airport near tiny Copperhill, Tenn., by the Georgia border. Danny Whitener, a pilot, says Mr. Atta questioned him -- again, in an aggressive manner -- about a nearby chemical plant that he had just flown over, asking what chemicals were there. Informed that it was mostly empty, Mr. Atta became angry and accused Mr. Whitener of lying, Mr. Whitener says. He also asked Mr. Whitener about a nearby dam and two nearby electric power plants, both of them nuclear.
A month later, Mr. Atta and a companion returned by car, says John Rutkosky, then the airport's manager. This time, Mr. Atta asked Mr. Rutkosky about the range and fuel capacity of a British-made Hawker jet and a Gulfstream turboprop parked there.
In Canada, a Middle Eastern man started showing up at crop-duster businesses in June, first visiting Farmair Ltd., in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he spoke to owner Norm Colhoun. He had an Arab-sounding name, but the men he encountered cannot remember it; they said he told them to call him Sam. Mr. Colhoun says the man asked for a pilot's job, claiming to have flown crop dusters in Syria and Russian passenger jets. Told there were no openings, he hung around for the day, observing and asking "funny questions" -- including the planes' range, says Mr. Colhoun.
Later in June, the same man turned up 60 miles south at Arndt Air Ltd., a crop-dusting company in Weyburn. It didn't have any pilot openings, either, but he showed up every day for a week, says maintenance director Dan McGonigle. Messrs. McGonigle and Mr. Colhoun compared recollections, and both concluded they'd encountered the same man. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are continuing to look for him.
"He watched what we did, how we operated," recalls Mr. McGonigle, who figured Sam was "an airport bum" who liked to hang around airplanes. The company offered him a job as a ground-crew member, but he was only interested in a pilot's job. After studying flight manuals he found lying around, he persuaded company officials to let him fly a crop duster. But as Sam taxied onto the runway, it was obvious he was having trouble steering. Halfway down the runway, he stopped, jumped out and ran into a nearby grass field, Mr. McGonigle says.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moussaoui was trying to learn to fly in Norman, Okla. A French citizen of Moroccan descent, he had paid Airman Flight School $5,000 in February for a three-month course. Investigators since have determined that he was in contact with suspected terrorists overseas at the time. At some point, he downloaded a complete crop-dusting manual onto his laptop computer, including information about wind patterns and chemical dispersal. On Aug. 17, after he aroused suspicions at a flight school near Minneapolis for insisting on paying $8,300 in cash to learn to fly a Boeing 747 before he knew how to fly a small plane, the FBI arrested Mr. Moussaoui on immigration charges. He remains in custody in New York as a material witness in the hijacking investigation; his lawyer's identity isn't known.
In Florida, Mr. Atta continued visiting South Florida Crop Care. Then, in late summer, he went to a Delray Beach pharmacy in search of treatment for reddened, burning hands, which pharmacist Greg Chatterton says appeared irritated by chemicals, though Mr. Atta wouldn't say what had happened. Mr. Lee, the Belle Glade crop duster, says Mr. Atta's last visit was several days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Right around that time, Mr. Colhoun in Saskatchewan received a strange call. It wasn't Sam, Mr. Colhoun says, but his accent was similar. The caller was inquiring about a crop duster Mr. Colhoun had for sale. Among the questions: "How far will this fly on a tank of gas?"
Mr. McGonigle says Sam himself called on Sept. 15 and said he was just checking in. When Mr. McGonigle mentioned the terrorist attacks, he says, Sam only mumbled in response. After a bit more small talk, the call ended. Sam hasn't called back since.
They didn't want them to spray anthrax or any other biological or chemical hazard.
They wanted them so they could turn them into flying bombs just like the big jets. For the love of god how f'ing confusing is it?
The fact that they wanted to know how far it went on a single tank is a red flag to me that they had no intentions of making a round trip.
They were gonna fill the tanks with airplane fuel and play kamikaze.
Bumping for FR brainiacs' contributions.
An alternate thought is to use them as dusters--maybe it is possible to alter droplet sizing with minor pressure and orifice changes. Maybe its nigh-impossible (as I hope). I dunno.
Assumptions: The terrorists were informed enough to know that the crop dusters would not do this "effectively." Terrs would not do it because it would be "difficult." Terrs would not have knowledge to make it more "effective."
Don't waste your time on FR. Volunteer for the FBI, Sherlock.
My thought would be that they'd want something more disruptive to the stability of our way of life.
Taking out a nuclear plant or two would definately de-stabalize our energy system and drive the cost of oil up.
Since Moussaoui was also interested in wind patterns relating to crop-dusters , your theory doesn't make much sense.
One thing I'm not clear on, and somebody may be able to cast light on this issue, is whether crop-dusters would have any utility in spreading the anthrax sent to Daschle. It would seem to me that mixing that anthrax with a liquid would defeat the object of the milling and anti-static coating that was applied o it -- it would actually be more effective to just toss the powder out of the side of a plane. If the crop dusters weren't for dispersing anthrax, what were they for?
While there IS a missing govt.-owned crop-duster missing, the airplane in question had all of its spraying gear and tanks removed before it set out from Colombia to the US. As it sits now, it's just a cramped single-seat, single-engine plane that's slow but maneuverable. Not suited to much of anything.
BTW, anyone who would inquire about a crop duster's performance would ask how long the craft could remain aloft and in service on a tank of fuel - definitely NOT how far it could fly.
Not that they didn't want to or weren't developing those methods. Everytime they hit us it was with bombs. Bombs at embassy's, bombing the Cole and in essence bombing the WTC's and Pentagon.
I would have thought that they'd be pushing the development of dirty nukes or worse for use against us in the U.S. instead of working with more difficult methods.
I have an idea!!
Nuclear waste dispersal.
800 lbs of nuclear waste, spread thinly and uniformly, would sure mess up a lot of property values.