Freeway Airport thrust into spotlight amid terrorist investigation
by Joel Furfari
Sep. 21, 2001
Freeway Airport in Mitchellville flew into national and international news this week amid reports that one of the suspected hijackers in last week's attack on the Pentagon had recently flown small planes out of the local airfield.
Marcel Bernard, the airport manager and chief flight instructor, told FBI agents investigating last week's suicide attacks that one of their suspects in case, Hani Hanjour, had flown with flight instructors on three occasions over the last six weeks.
Hanjour was believed to be aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.
Hanjour had inquired recently about renting an airplane at Freeway to fly solo, Bernard said, but was declined after two different instructors questioned his flying ability.
"His flying skills were so poor overall that [instructors] declined to rent a plane to him without future training," Bernard said of Hanjour.
At no time did the planes carrying Hanjour -- single-engine Cessna 172s -- venture into nearby restricted airspace over the District or near Andrews Air Force Base.
"It was not over Washington. We go out over towards the east and over the Chesapeake Bay," Bernard said.
Earlier this week, FBI agents interviewed Freeway employees and inspected any documents that might have given away information about Hanjour while he was at the airport.
Bernard said that Hanjour never gave flight instructors a phone number or permanent address, and that he paid in cash for the three "checkout" sessions in the air. Hanjour did give a Laurel hotel as his current address.
"Looking back on it more, it raises bells and whistles," Bernard said.
FBI agents also questioned residents of the Crestleigh Apartments in Laurel last week, but have not released any information about whether any suspects lived there or not.
Kimberly Holland, a Bowie resident for four years, said she was unsettled by the fact that the hijackers could have been in the area.
"This really disturbs me that terrorists were right around here. It hits really close to home," she said.
Another local resident, Teddy Hoch of Mitchellville, said the government needs to do a better job of tracking down potential terrorists.
"How can these guys just roam around like that? We need to be a lot more careful from now on," he said.
Bernard, the airport manager, said he was concerned about the media attention spawned by Freeway's connection to the Sept. 11 tragedy. News outlets from as far away as France have contacted Bernard, and he said being swept up in the controversy was "undesirable."
"These guys are fanatical in my mind, and I just don't want my face or anyone else's face in the world news," he said.
To make matters worse, Bernard said the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to keep general aviation airports closed indefinitely has killed Freeway's business.
"My job is in jeopardy -- so there's nothing there to like," he said.
Bruce Mundie, director of regional aviation assistance for the Maryland Aviation Administration, said demand for general aviation airports in the state was already high, and that it would be hard to replace Freeway with another airport farther away from the District.
"I have always said that airports are a nonrenewable resource," Mundie said. "Once they're gone, we can't get them back."