BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- Mohamed Atta, the suspected terrorist who crashed hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center, went twice to a small airport in South Florida and asked detailed questions about how to start and fly a crop-duster plane, The Herald learned Sunday.
The news that Atta had shown an intense interest in the crop-duster coincided with a Federal Aviation Administration directive Sunday that grounded all crop-dusters around the country for national security reasons.
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, would not explain the specifics behind the decision. ``It's national security,'' she said.
Bioterrorism experts frequently have cited crop-dusters as potential vehicles to disperse deadly biological and chemical agents. The experts have said that if terrorists acquired a crop-dusting plane, they could stage a surprise attack on a large urban area because the small planes can fly below the FAA's radar coverage.
In Belle Glade, local crop-dusters recounted Sunday what Atta asked about, and speculated on how one of their planes could be used for a terrorist mission.
``[Atta] wanted to know how to fly it, how to crank it, how much it would haul,'' said James Lester, 50, who maintains and loads a 502 Air Tractor crop-duster with as much as 500 gallons of insecticide and fertilizer.
Lester said the 33-year-old Atta visited the small airstrip here with several groups of men as recently as last month.
J.D. ``Will'' Lee, 62, a pilot and owner of the gleaming yellow and blue crop duster, added: ``Not until after that bombing did I get to thinking that if you fill that aircraft with 500 gallons of gasoline -- plus 200 gallons of kerosene (used by the turboprop engine) -- that would have made one hell of a bomb.''
The two men said they also realized the plane could have been loaded with some kind of biological warfare compound like anthrax or a lethal chemical. The airport is 83 miles northwest of Miami, and 67 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale. Palm Beach is 40 miles to the east.
Lee and Lester said that right after the attacks on New York and Washington, they met at a cafe in Belle Glade. ``We got to talking about how odd it was for that many Arabic people to come by,'' Lee said.
They called local police, who contacted the FBI.
Lee and Lester said they were interviewed by an FBI team on Tuesday and again on Wednesday. On Friday, Belle Glade police and FBI agents slapped a 24-hour armed guard on the Belle Glade Municipal Airport -- home to about 15 light aircraft, including eight crop-dusters.
Belle Glade police said the FBI was at the airport on Sunday, too.
The FBI declined to comment on any phase of the investigation on Sunday.
``The FBI showed me[Atta's] photo,'' said Lester, who remembered at least two encounters with Atta -- once in March when he drove up in a green van with two other people, and again in August when he flew into the airport in a single-engine Cessna.
``The reason why I recognized him was because he was always walking behind me, being real persistent in asking those questions.
``It just amazes me now,'' said Lester, shaking his head.
Both Lester and Lee said that several other groups of Middle Eastern men had arrived at their small trailer within the last six to eight weeks to ask similar questions about their crop-duster.
Several other crop-dusting services using identical Texas-made Air Tractors use the same airstrip to do contract spraying of millions of acres of sugar cane plantations and vegetable farms around the fringes of Lake Okeechobee.
The men seeking information arrived in cars and vans, and sometimes in light aircraft, to check out the crop-dusters. Lee said he thought the men were student pilots.
Lee said he told Atta several times that ``it takes considerable skill to fly these airplanes.
``A Cessna,'' he said, referring to the aircraft Atta flew, ``is like riding a bicycle. An Air Tractor is like driving an oil tanker, or maybe a nuclear submarine.''
He told the men the single-seater planes were not for rent.
He said some of the visitors asked how hard it was to start the engine of the plane.
``They would never have been able to fly this thing,'' Lee said. ``Without an expert pilot, it would have never gotten off the ground with a full load. I told them when they asked how hard it was to fly, I said they wouldn't be able to do it.''
The idea that terrorists could use crop-dusters for biochemical attacks has been raised several times since the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The FAA's order is the second time in the last two weeks that the agency had specifically restricted any flights by crop-dusters. Last Sunday, the FAA briefly grounded those kind of planes after allowing most other commercial flights to resume.
Bergen, the FAA spokeswoman, said the restriction would be lifted today.
Appearing on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about a Time magazine story saying that U.S. law enforcement officials had found manuals on the operation of crop-dusting equipment while searching the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui. The manuals showed ``how to operate crop-dusting equipment that could be used to spray fast-killing toxins into the air,'' Time said.
Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota on Aug. 17 after a flight school instructor became suspicious about his request to learn how to steer a commercial jetliner -- but not how to land one.
On Face the Nation, Rumsfeld did not confirm whether the crop-dusting manual had been found, but noted that the threat of chemical or biological weapons was real because several countries suspected of harboring or sponsoring terrorism have tried to develop such weapons.
These countries, Rumsfeld said, ``have very active chemical and biological warfare programs and we know that they are in close contacts with terrorist networks around the world.''
While none of the hijacking suspects have been directly connected to suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, a federal witness who testified in the trial of defendants charged with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa said bin Laden wanted a crop-dusting business.
Essam al Ridi, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen and pilot, testified Feb. 14 that bin Laden himself had asked him to look into the matter.
``The offer was,'' Al Ridi said, ``to also set up an operation of crop-dusting because he's into the agriculture business.''