Unfriendly Skies

Frank Nickman was the perfect pilot-in-training. But some thought he was just another terrorist.

Frank Nickman, formerly Farzin Nikmanesh, knew he would be your devil the moment he stepped back into the terminal in Farmington, New Mexico, the morning of September 11, 2001. He looked at the televisions; he looked at the drained white faces beneath them. Ah, this is why we were ordered to land immediately. Some guys who look like me flying the planes I want to fly just murdered thousands of Americans.

"My first thought was everybody else's thought: Oh my God, this is terrible,'" Nickman says. "Then the other realization began to sink in: This is the end of everything I have worked so hard for. As of today, I am finished.'"

Since emigrating from Iran in 1989, Nickman's American dream was to be a commercial airline pilot. It was an expensive dream. In 2000, he and his wife sold off their insurance business and house in California to pursue it. In January of 2001, he entered Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group's intensive two-year pilot training program, which is at San Juan College in Farmington. By the time he graduated with honors in 2002, he had spent $60,000.

By early 2003, he was the only member of his 29-member graduating class who wasn't offered a first-officer job with Mesa.

Indeed, it appears that no student with Nickman's level of academic success in the Mesa Air Group program has ever been denied a job by the company. And Mesa Air Group clearly sells the program -- and its high price -- with assurances that a job is waiting upon graduation. The company's Web site proudly professes, for example, that 98 percent of those who have been through the program have been hired by the company.

But not Frank Nickman, even though Nickman arguably was Mesa's best student ever.

In May 2002, because of his stellar academic and community service record, Nickman was picked by San Juan College to speak at graduation. He was the first pilot from the flight college to be given that honor in 10 years.

Besides making the San Juan honor roll each semester, Nickman volunteered for three semesters at the college library, the San Juan Regional Medical Center and the local Civil Air Patrol. Before enrolling, he already had 60 aviation-related credit hours from Orange Coast College in California, where one of his professors called Nickman "one of the best and the most highly motivated students I've ever had."

Although it wasn't required, Nickman took the FAA Airline Transport Pilot exam before his job interviews with Mesa. He scored a perfect 100, rare for a student pilot.

Yes, he was that stereotypical Middle Eastern super-student geek (the other stereotype of young Middle Eastern men). He knew he had to be. He knew he had to be so good that Mesa could find no legitimate reason not to hire him.

Still, after three lengthy interviews (all other students were hired after one interview), after an extensive post-9/11 investigation of his past by the FBI that proved him to be squeaky-clean and a vehemently pro-American U.S. citizen, Mesa didn't hire him. They gave him no explanation.

I would guess that's because the only plausible explanation for their action is that airline officials don't want an Arab-looking pilot scaring the hell out of their passengers. That makes them guilty of violating Nickman's civil rights. Under federal civil rights laws, a company cannot discriminate based on a fear that its customers might not like being served by certain races of people.

Now, Nickman has sued Mesa to recover his expenses. He can't seek employment elsewhere because other airlines require more flight hours than the Mesa program provides. He also has filed grievances with the EEOC office in Phoenix and the U.S. Department of Education.

Mesa Air Group officials did not respond to New Times requests to discuss Nickman's case.

So, Frank and I will have to defend Mesa execs ourselves.

We both understand they were placed in an extremely difficult position. They are, perhaps more than any defendant I've ever seen in a case of discrimination, sympathetic racists.

If you ran an airline, would you employ a Middle Eastern pilot in post-9/11 America? What would your passengers do?

But wanting to avoid problems is one thing.

Following the law is another. And it's the law that is the backbone of Nickman's very strong legal case.

Civil rights laws of the 1960s clarified and better codified the country's founding principles regarding what America should be.

That's what's really eating Frank Nickman. He feels duped. He came to America because, like 99.9 percent of Middle Eastern men who leave home on student visas, he believed all that Horatio Alger crap. But when he did absolutely everything humanly possible to live the American success story, Mesa Air Group played by a much more common American principle -- expedience.

Here's Frank's backstory. Mesa execs already know it. The FBI checked it out and issued a lengthy report clearing him. I've read it. It's all properly documented, properly checked out. Certainly more so than my own.

Nikmanesh grew up in Tehran, the son of an Iranian airline flight attendant. His father always wanted to fly the plane, to be the well-paid respected guy up front in the suit. But in the process of raising a family through the tumultuous '70s and '80s -- the fall of the Shah, the protracted blood bath with Saddam -- his dad never got around to it.

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