OU School of Aviation focuses on securities and student well-being post-9/11


Field Parsons stands on an aircraft at the Max Westheimer airport on March 24. (Gaylord News/ Zaria Oates)

Two decades ago, the Airman Flight School at the University of Oklahoma’s Max Westheimer airport trained multiple 9/11 terrorists.

For OU’s Director of Aviation Eric Wydra, it is important to prevent high risk students from getting into OU’s program.

“Honestly, that flight school had their guard down,” Wydra said. 

OU contracted space to the Airman Flight School but did not know it would be the birthing place for 9/11 terrorists.

Wydra was in the Air Force at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attack. He said security seemed as tight as it could be and nothing else seemed abnormal, so he did not worry.

“The first thought in my mind was that some knucklehead pilot got lost and flew into the building,” Wydra said.

Once both towers were down and the Pentagon was hit, he knew it was time to take this seriously. 

Sometime after 9/11, information came to the surface that one of the terrorists, who would later be arrested in Minnesota, trained at the Airman Flight School on OU’s campus.

Ihab Mohamed Ali Nawawi attended the Airman Flight School in the 1990s and was later identified as an Al Qaeda operative. Another student, Zacarias Moussaoui, attended the flight school after Nawawi in hopes the school would teach him how to fly planes, but only well-enough to complete his mission.

“Those persons wouldn’t have been admitted under the current rule if that had been in place at the time of 9/11,” Wydra said.

The current vetting process students are required to go through to attend flight school has many more barriers in place than before 9/11, including additional forms of identification. Students undergo an array of background tests and vetting through Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Hindsight being 2020, somebody not worried about [a student saying] ‘hey, you don’t have to teach me how to land’ … that should’ve been a huge red flag and it is now, but back then it wasn’t,” Wydra said.

None of the terrorists who studied at the Norman-based flight school are walking free today, but Wydra says that should not be grounds to let our guard down.

“We make sure we’re looking out for all our students both mental and physical health,” Wydra said.

All OU flight school students work multiple hours each week in aircraft cockpits with a Certified Flight Instructor. The students’ CFI goes through an intensive vetting process in the program on top of the TSA and FAA screening.

“We make sure if [students] need any type of assistance that they get safe resistance counseling,” Wydra said. “We’ve also established a culture of professionalism where if somebody is kind of going down this route … I’m pretty comfortable that some of our other students would come forward, either anonymously or let us know that something was going on.”

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.