Sept. 4, 2011 | WMU News
As the nation reeled from the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks, one burning question dominated the first few days of news.
"Who did this?"
By the end of the day Wednesday, Sept. 12, the nation knew the hijackers were a group of young males with Arab ties.
The second critical piece of information was that the attackers had taken flight lessons at locations around the nation to get the rudimentary information necessary to fly the hijacked planes. That news brought the FBI and then the national media to WMU's doorstep with questions about the College of Aviation's International Pilot Training Centre and its contract with Emirates Airlines, which is based in the United Arab Emirates.
FBI agents quietly visited WMU and talked to College of Aviation officials and international recruitment specialists on Wednesday, Sept. 12. After a brief investigation, they were satisfied that WMU had no connection to the events of 9/11 and moved on.
On Thursday, a story in the Detroit Free Press noted that while FBI agents had visited WMU flight training programs as part of a broad investigation of flight training programs across the country, the Free Press was unable to find other collegiate programs being examined. The story hit the wire services and brought about three hours of intense media scrutiny on the College of Aviation. It lasted until an updated Free Press story noted that other aviation colleges had begun getting FBI visits as well.
"There was just a tremendous hunger for any information that would help people understand how this terrible event could have happened," says Cheryl Roland, executive director of university relations. "Our aviation college became the focus of national attention as reporters from around the Midwest and satellite trucks from Detroit and Chicago flocked to the aviation campus."
Roland says during the early evening news period, live broadcasts originated from all over the WMU aviation campus. Airport Manager Larry Bowron, joined her and former colleague Matt Kurz in traveling from camera crew to camera crew monitoring the reporting and literally stepping in to correct misinformation.
"We stopped some pretty outrageous reporting," Roland notes. "At one point, a reporter had positioned himself in front of an old 747 that was permanently parked near our hangar and used for aircraft system maintenance classes. The reporter was telling his viewers that we were using that plane to train people who might have the capability to fly a 747 into a building. I had to step into his live shot and point out that the plane he was talking about had no engines, no tires, was affixed to the tarmac and was not used for any flight training."
The WMU message was simple and powerful, Roland says. As one of the nation's leading flight programs and one with an international presence, the University was not at all surprised by the FBI visit—and would have been more surprised not to have been part of the process.
Once the facts caught up with the story and FBI teams began to visit other schools, the story died a quick death. By 8 p.m. that evening, the WMU story had disappeared from the airwaves as the national attention turned to more recent information about the ongoing investigation.