Delta Captain Recalls Flying With Terror Mastermind Just Before 9/11

Mohammed Atta wore an American Airlines pilot uniform as he rode in the cockpit from Baltimore to Atlanta. It was about seven weeks before the September 11 terror attacks and, according to the captain of Delta Airlines Flight 2210, the 9/11 ringleader cast a pall over the flight deck.

“He gave me a stare in the cockpit at cruise altitude that was bone-chilling,” said Pat Gilmore, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam and flew jets for Western Airlines and Delta from 1978 to 2005. “The stare went right through me. It was the same stare that I later saw in law-enforcement photos.”

Gilmore, the captain of that Boeing 757 flight on July 26, 2001, never has told his story publicly. His memory conflicts with an FBI timeline of the 9/11 assault, but Gilmore insists on his narrative and describes it in great detail. He is just one of several witnesses who say they saw the mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington while the clock ticked toward the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Atta, an Egyptian national and the apparent leader of the 19 hijackers who commandeered four passenger jets, showed Gilmore seemingly legitimate American Airlines identification, Gilmore says.

Gilmore says that Atta showed him a standard pilot’s Federal Aviation Administration Class 1 medical certificate and a jump-seat request form that pilots typically present when riding as cockpit passengers on their own or competing airlines. These documents bore the name “Atta,” and his picture was on the company ID, Gilmore told the American Media Institute.

Gilmore, now retired, insisted that Atta was on Flight 2210. Though an FBI timeline has Atta flying from Fort Lauderdale to Newark during that interval, the Bureau’s document contains various discrepancies—and Gilmore cannot forget the face of that operation’s primary attacker. The man behind that face soon helped kill nearly 3,000 people, including the passengers on all four airplanes and people in and around the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Throughout the flight, “I couldn’t talk to the guy,” Gilmore recalled. “We had no small talk. I had the strangest feeling he could kill me at any time. I turned around suddenly while thinking this, and that’s when he gave me that bone-chilling stare.”

Gilmore said most pilots who hitch free rides in jump seats stay silent or discuss anything except flying. Atta, though, kept asking about the aircraft’s instrument panel and air-speed controls and said the panel was different from the one on the jet he claimed that he flew at American, Gilmore says.

When Gilmore asked him what jet he piloted at American, Atta replied, “This one,” according to Gilmore.

That answer made Gilmore suspicious. He told Atta that the Boeing 757’s instrument control panel was the same across airlines, but Atta insisted that it was different at American.

Atta was escorted on and off the jet by Delta gate agents. Gilmore does not believe that any flight attendants on the jet saw Atta, nor does Gilmore recall crew members delivering refreshments to the cockpit on that journey.

Co-pilot Paul Wilkinson did not have a clear view of Atta, Gilmore said, because the jump seat was directly behind the co-pilot’s chair, and Atta boarded long after Wilkinson did—just before the jet pushed back. Wilkinson did not return AMI’s calls requesting comment.

Atta spoke English well and, when the plane landed in Atlanta, he said he was going to work, Gilmore said.

After reaching the gate in Atlanta, Gilmore says he stepped past Atta to thank departing passengers from the cockpit doorway. Wilkinson stayed in his co-pilot seat and stowed his books. Atta donned his American Airlines hat and jacket and asked, “Can I go?” Gilmore says. “Yes,” he replied, and Atta deplaned.

“Jump seat rider very strange,” Gilmore noted contemporaneously in his pilot logbook.

Gilmore was stunned to see Atta’s face again after 9/11—on TV. He also remembered that Delta had issued a security alert about American Airlines pilots’ uniforms that had vanished.

Gilmore called the FBI in Orlando, where he waited for flights to resume after Washington temporarily shut down the air traffic system after the attack. An FBI official told him that the man in the jump seat probably had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, Gilmore said. The FBI wrote him a thank-you letter about a month later, but said there was no way it could confirm his story.

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the terrorists took surveillance flights before they struck. The report does not include any evidence or information about hijackers flying in cockpit jump seats or stealing pilots’ uniforms.

Police in Rome announced on Sept. 13, 2001, that American Airlines uniforms, a key card granting access to the carrier’s facilities worldwide and other items were taken from the hotel rooms of a pilot and a flight attendant on April 6, 2001.

For further information on the stolen pilots’ uniforms and other items, American Airlines recommended reading The 9/11 Commission Report. However, it does not address this matter. Delta did not respond to requests for comment.

A seasoned business traveler also recalls that Atta cased ground operations before the onslaught.

The notorious terrorist surveilled American’s terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport two days before 9/11, according to frequent flier Janice Shineman.

Atta stared menacingly into her vehicle when she arrived outside the passenger terminal on Sept. 9, 2001, Shineman said. He later cut in front of a ticket counter line to ask an American Airlines agent a question. Shineman says she last saw Atta at the gate from which her flight was scheduled to depart. He held a red file folder and wore pink and blue flowered gym pants, she said. The back of his purple T-shirt read, “Nantucket.”

Shineman, who was about to board American’s early-morning, Los Angeles-bound Flight 11, said Atta stood in front of the gate agents, took notes and stared through a window into the jet’s cockpit. She planned to report Atta to the pilot, but the al-Qaeda operative did not board that flight.

Atta and four other hijackers boarded Flight 11 two days later. Atta piloted the jet into One World Trade Center. Shineman called the FBI after the attack and explained what she saw at Logan on Sept. 9.

An FBI chronology of the hijackers’ movements states that Atta rented a car at Logan on Sept. 8, 2001—which coincides with Shineman’s observations the next morning—but it also states that Atta flew to Logan from Baltimore on Sept. 9. The FBI could not explain the discrepancy or why the timeline lists two different flight numbers for Atta’s Baltimore-Boston flight.

The chronology also says that the hijackers were at Logan on other dates. Waleed al-Shehri, for example, bought a ticket at American’s Logan counter that July 31, then boarded a wide-body flight that day to San Francisco. Al Shehri accompanied Atta aboard Flight 11 on 9/11 and, the commission report says, was probably one of two hijackers who stabbed flight attendants as the Islamic extremists seized the plane and launched the largest terror attack ever perpetrated on U.S. soil.

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