It is quite well known that the airplane hijackers on 9/11 were not professional pilots. So, my question is how some people who didn't have any experience of navigating the airplanes could find their way, for example from Boston to New York City?

I read somewhere that some natural signs like the Hudson River (for example) helped them to find their way through New York City. But I'm still looking to find a more convincing answer if it is available.

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    $\begingroup$ A simple, pocket GPS is enough for that navigation, and for more complex ones too...... $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ The answers point out the logical flaw in the question, which is the jump from "not a professional pilot" to "people who didn't have any experience of navigating" aircraft. In other words, "not professional" does not imply "entirely without experience." $\endgroup$
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ @phoog My purpose was that at least people that we called them "professional pilots" need to have certain hours of flight in actual airplanes, and not flight simulators, to be qualified in order to navigate an airplane, which transports passengers. But at least we could say the hijackers never flew with an actual 737. For example, if they found their way from Boston to NYC so precisely to target the WTC in their first actual flying attempt, that looks remarkable from just aviation perspective (I'm not saying hijackers did a remarkable job to kill innocent people so DON'T get it wrong!). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ The hardest part about flying a plane is landing. The second hardest is taking off. The hijackers avoid both parts. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 20:50

4 Answers 4


Several of the hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, held at least private pilot certificates and had undergone ATP level jet training in DC9 and 737 full motion simulators in December of 2000. Atta himself held a commercial license with instrument and multi engine ratings. They were well versed in aerial navigation techniques and more than capable of navigating the aircraft in question back to New York City and Washington DC after it was hijacked and secured.

A basic scenario that any private or commercial pilot could have done: the hijackers knew the flights they were booked on and the rough routes they would take to their destinations. A little basic planning amongst themselves would have produced the approximate position the aircraft would be at at the time it was hijacked.

Once seized and the flight crew liquidated, they could quickly determine their positions either from their headings and next waypoints or with a simple VOR fix (any competent private pilot can do this). The autopilots could quickly be disengaged and the airplanes hand flown using basic pilotage (good weather prevailed over the east coast that morning) or radio navaids to return to their targets. The navigation and flying they did that day was relatively simple.

As an update, I know these kinds of questions float around with “9/11 truthers” and other conspiracy fanatics as some sort of proof that the official explanation is incorrect. Quite often they cherry pick quotes and ignore any other evidence that won’t fit their narrative. Combine that with the public that’s largely ignorant about aviation, it allows these kinds of ideas to fester very well without challenge.

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    $\begingroup$ All: if anyone has any doubt about "liquidate" and its meaning please go to this question: english.stackexchange.com/q/467540/319476 $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ I've left the one comment regarding the "liquidate" subject which links to english.se. Continued discussion on this point will be removed on sight. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Were the hijacked planes equipped with GPS navigation? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe somebody with more knowledge of 757 or 767 cockpits could answer that question. They were equipped with RNAV and FMS systems - that I do know - but GPS was in its infancy for civilian use at that point in time. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 18:21

All of the hijacked flights were going in different directions and had to be piloted to a different destination. The hijacker pilots had different degrees of success in doing this. The flight paths they took are shown in this map published by the FBI:

aircraft flight paths

Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the effort, was a licensed commercial pilot received significant simulator training for large jets and the Boeing 737 in particular. Marwan al-Shehhi trained with Atta and received similar simulator training for 737s. Even so, al-Shehhi apparently missed Manhatten on his first pass, although he may have just been reconnoitering his approach. The pilot of flight 77, Hani Hanjour, was also a licensed commercial pilot who had knowledge of how to operate and navigate a 737.

So, in summary, all of the hijacker pilots were trained in the basic operation of a 737 and knew how to do aeronautical navigation.

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    $\begingroup$ Amazing. From this and the knowledge that the Pentagon was hit a little while after the WTC towers, the queston is raised as to why fighters weren't scrambled in time to intercept the threat coming toward DC. Apparently according to the 9/11 commission, fighters were scrambled, but allegedly nobody briefed the pilots so they ended up flying a standard training route out over the ocean and didn't arrive in Washington until 30 minutes later (even though it'd only been roughly 13 miles away). Sheesh. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ Just to be complete, Ziad Jarrah is believed to have taken over Flight 93. He obtained a single-engine private pilot certificate in August 2000, and had trained for multi-engine planes in a simulator as well. Jarrah also purchased a GPS unit and some aeronautical charts shortly before the attack. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Did you draw that map yourself? If not, it's polite to acknowledge the source (and may even be required - what's its licence for re-use?). If possible, please link to the source as well; thanks! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ I found the source - it's Public Domain, as a US Government work by FBI. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrenRinger -- two F-16s were in fact on course to intercept Flight 93. They had been given orders to shoot down the airliner but no ammunition with which to do so. The two pilots, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney and Col. Marc Sasseville, discussed it en route and agreed to try to ram the much larger aircraft, if it came to that. Penney's father was a pilot for United; she knew it could very well have been his flight she was bringing down. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 1:30

The 9/11 Commission Report goes into some detail on the hijackers' planning and preparation, including a (not entirely successful) attempt to obtain aviation GPS units:

Moussaoui also purchased two knives and inquired of two manufacturers of GPS equipment whether their products could be converted for aeronautical use


On August 22, moreover, Jarrah attempted to purchase four GPS units from a pilot shop in Miami. He was able to buy only one unit, which he picked up a few days later when he also purchased three aeronautical charts (page 247-249)

The report doesn't detail whether there's any indication that unit was actually used. However, during their flight training, two of the hijackers also took a number of practice flights that would have familiarized themselves with the areas around New York and DC, which could have helped them with visual landmarks:

Jarrah and Hanjour also received additional training and practice flights in the early summer.A few days before departing on his cross-country test flight, Jarrah flew from Fort Lauderdale to Philadelphia, where he trained at Hortman Aviation and asked to fly the Hudson Corridor, a low-altitude “hallway” along the Hudson River that passes New York landmarks like the World Trade Center. Heavy traffic in the area can make the corridor a dangerous route for an inexperienced pilot. Because Hortman deemed Jarrah unfit to fly solo, he could fly this route only with an instructor.

Hanjour, too, requested to fly the Hudson Corridor about this same time, at Air Fleet Training Systems in Teterboro, New Jersey, where he started receiving ground instruction soon after settling in the area with Hazmi. Hanjour flew the Hudson Corridor, but his instructor declined a second request because of what he considered Hanjour’s poor piloting skills. Shortly thereafter, Hanjour switched to Caldwell Flight Academy in Fairfield, New Jersey, where he rented small aircraft on several occasions during June and July. In one such instance on July 20, Hanjour—likely accompanied by Hazmi—rented a plane from Caldwell and took a practice flight from Fairfield to Gaithersburg, Maryland, a route that would have allowed them to fly near Washington, D.C. (page 242)

The report also says that several of the hijackers also had access to flight simulator software and/or simulator time at flight schools, which would have given them further opportunities to practice navigation.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer cause it tries to show the evidences based on a reference. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 14:12

The Hudson River will take you straight to Manhattan. On a clear day, such as September 11 was, you could see the WTC for 100 miles or more (I had seen it from 160 miles away at Montauk Point on clear days, but you had to know where to look).

AA77 would have had a problem navigating eastbound with such an amateur as Hani (who most likely never had the certificates reported). Since there aren't any prominent landmarks going east from Falmouth VOR.


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