An aerial shot of the Clearwater Airpark shows where terrorists Mohamed Atta and co-conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi may have practiced for Sept. 11.
CLEARWATER – Daniel Purcell, the former chief instructor at the Huffman Aviation flight school in Venice, testified at the federal trial of confessed Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui that alleged 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and co-conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi practiced nighttime landings at the Clearwater Airpark several months before the attacks in which both died.
But Clearwater’s top aviation official has his doubts.
“There’s no log entry of it, so I don’t know that it occurred,” said Bill Morris, the city’s marine and aviation director. “It all goes back to what that guy in Venice is saying.”
According to Purcell, and additional details reported in the St. Petersburg Times, a Clearwater police aide left a message on Huffman’s answering machine in January or February 2001, complaining that one of its planes had made at least two landings at the Clearwater Airpark after the 9 p.m. closing time. The single-engine aircraft was identified by the “N number” on its tail as being the one rented to Atta and al-Shehhi, Purcell said.
The excitable Atta and the affable al-Shehhi were already in hot water with his company for abandoning one of its aircraft in the middle of a runway at Miami International Airport when it broke down, Purcell claimed.
When they returned the plane the next morning, Huffman instructor Thierry Leklou told them there had better not be any more problems. The men said they understood, but did not deny landing in Clearwater, according to Purcell.
The airpark is patrolled at night by a Clearwater police aide who has direct radio access to police. They are instructed to call for police backup before approaching aircraft that land illegally, and to log all the details of the event, including the plane’s N number.
Most nights are routine, Morris said, so log entries are very detailed when something unusual happens. Yet, neither the city nor the Federal Aviation Administration has any record of unauthorized landings at the airpark during the period in question, and a police aide who was working at that time and was later interviewed had no recollection of the alleged landings.
Pilots can remotely turn on the airpark’s runway lights by tuning their radio to a specific frequency and keying the microphone, but Morris doesn’t know if they were on or off during the alleged landings. If the plane had been merely practicing “touch and go” landings, he said, the aide wouldn’t have been able to read its tail number, and if it had actually landed, there should be a record of the police being called.
“I know what the procedures are and I stand behind the quality of the work of our police aides,” Morris said.
He added that Purcell’s scenario is especially unlikely because, even if a police aide had decided to ignore procedure and directly contact the plane’s owner, it would have been virtually impossible for him, using the technology of the time, to identify the owner at night, when FAA offices are closed.