There were many comments under the last post questioning the difficulty of piloting large aircraft. I certainly don't have any specific knowledge in this area, but my impression is that it would be extremely difficult - in the case of American Airlines flight 77 - for a non-pilot to start from a point he is not certain of, locate a particular building, accomplish two radical turns, drop to an altitude just above ground level for the last mile and successfully crash into the first floor of the Pentagon.
Nila Sagadevan, a retired aeronautical engineer and pilot does know how difficult this would be, and the remainder of this post represents his comments on the matter.
The Impossibility of Flying Heavy Aircraft Without Training
By Nila Sagadevan (Retired aeronautical engineer and pilot)
There are some who maintain that the mythical 9/11 hijackers, although proven to be too incompetent to fly a little Cessna 172, had acquired the impressive skills that enabled them to fly airliners by training in flight simulators.
What follows is an attempt to bury this myth once and for all, because I've heard this ludicrous explanation bandied about, ad nauseam, on the Internet and the TV networks—invariably by people who know nothing substantive about flight simulators, flying, or even airplanes.
A common misconception non-pilots have about simulators is how "easy" it is to operate them. They are indeed relatively easy to operate if the objective is to make a few lazy turns and frolic about in the "open sky". But if the intent is to execute any kind of a maneuver with even the least bit of precision, the task immediately becomes quite daunting. And if the aim is to navigate to a specific geographic location hundreds of miles away while flying at over 500 MPH, 30,000 feet above the ground the challenges become virtually impossible for an untrained pilot.
And this, precisely, is what the four hijacker pilots who could not fly a Cessna around an airport by themselves are alleged to have accomplished in multi-ton, high-speed commercial jets on 9/11.
For a person not conversant with the practical complexities of pilotage, a modern flight simulator could present a terribly confusing and disorienting experience. These complex training devices are not even remotely similar to the video games one sees in amusement arcades, or even the software versions available for home computers.
In order to operate a modern flight simulator with any level of skill, one has to not only be a decent pilot to begin with, but also a skilled instrument-rated one to boot—and be thoroughly familiar with the actual aircraft type the simulator represents, since the cockpit layouts vary between aircraft.
The only flight domains where an arcade/PC-type game would even begin to approach the degree of visual realism of a modern professional flight simulator would be during the take-off and landing phases. During these phases, of course, one clearly sees the bright runway lights stretched out ahead, and even peripherally sees images of buildings, etc. moving past. Take-offs—even landings, to a certain degree—are relatively "easy", because the pilot has visual reference cues that exist "outside" the cockpit.
But once you've rotated, climbed out, and reached cruising altitude in a simulator (or real airplane), and find yourself en route to some distant destination (using sophisticated electronic navigation techniques), the situation changes drastically: the pilot loses virtually all external visual reference cues, and is left entirely at the mercy of an array of complex flight and navigation instruments to provide situational cues (altitude, heading, speed, attitude, etc.)
In the case of a Boeing 757 or 767, the pilot would be faced with an EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrumentation System) panel comprised of six large multi-mode LCDs interspersed with clusters of assorted "hard" instruments. These displays process the raw aircraft system and flight data into an integrated picture of the aircraft situation, position and progress, not only in horizontal and vertical dimensions, but also with regard to time and speed as well. When flying "blind", I.e., with no ground reference cues, it takes a highly skilled pilot to interpret, and then apply, this data intelligently. If one cannot translate this information quickly, precisely and accurately (and it takes an instrument-rated pilot to do so), one would have ZERO SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. I.e., the pilot wouldn't have a clue where s/he was in relation to the earth. Flight under such conditions is referred to as "IFR", or Instrument Flight Rules.
And IFR Rule #1: Never take your eyes off your instruments, because that's all you have!
The corollary to Rule #1: If you can't read the instruments in a quick, smooth, disciplined, scan, you're as good as dead. Accident records from around the world are replete with reports of any number of good pilots — I.e., professional instrument-rated pilots — who 'bought the farm' because they 'lost it' while flying in IFR conditions.
Let me place this in the context of the 9/11 hijacker-pilots. These men were repeatedly deemed incompetent to solo a simple Cessna-172—an elementary exercise that involves flying this little trainer once around the patch on a sunny day. A student's first solo flight involves a simple circuit: take-off, followed by four gentle left turns ending with a landing back on the runway. This is as basic as flying can possibly get.
Not one of the hijackers was deemed fit to perform this most elementary exercise by himself.