Unfriendly Skies

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

Nikmanesh's older brothers and sisters left Tehran for the United States through the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, a war that killed many of the family's friends. In 1989, at age 21, after serving the required two years in the Iranian army as a military policeman, Nikmanesh himself immigrated to America. His ultimate goal was to be the pilot his father longed to be, and longed for his son to be.

"It was his unrealized dream for 50 years," says Nickman, who Americanized his name upon arrival here. "I absorbed that dream. It became mine for both me and him."

He immersed himself in English. He latched onto a family member in the insurance business. By 1994, he was a licensed insurance agent in Orange County for Farmers Insurance Group, the nation's third largest insurance company.

In the cockpit: Frank Nickman
In the cockpit: Frank Nickman
Frank Nickman was a stellar student, graduating with honors.
Frank Nickman was a stellar student, graduating with honors.

In 1998, he enrolled in aviation night classes at Orange Coast College.

By 2000, Nickman and his Iranian-born wife, Zohreh Saidali, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, owned a Farmers Insurance Group office of their own. They were making good money and had bought a house.

But Nickman's itch to fly had grown too strong. He began researching the commercial airline market. He began researching schools. With so many of the old Vietnam-era military pilots retiring, and a dearth of new pilots with military experience, it was a good time for a civilian to pursue a flying career.

Mesa's relatively short but intensive course, with the promise of a job at the end of the two-year training, seemed the smartest path.

So the Nickmans sold the insurance office, sold the house and headed for northwestern New Mexico.

For the first year and a half, life at the Mesa Air Group school was fairly normal for Nickman. His fellow students were civil, their jokes taken in good humor because most were intended with good humor.

It was all civil discourse until Nickman reentered the Farmington concourse that September morning. When he saw people look at him, he knew he was in trouble, particularly in Farmington, which, outside the college, has a culture dominated by white, truck-drivin' all-American oil-field workers.

"I genuinely feared for my life and my wife's life," he says. "Vicious calls were already coming in that afternoon. We were just ready to give up. We were going to head back to California where it seemed safer."

So Nickman didn't show up to class for several days. That raised further suspicion. The rumor mill churned at the college.

In a few days, Nickman regained his head. He had done nothing wrong. He had only done things right. He knew it would be tough, but he steeled himself and returned to college.

The hatred, though, was much stronger and more overt than he imagined it would be. And he did not expect so much to come from, and be tolerated by, Mesa Air Group instructors and administrators.

His lawsuit documents a disturbing litany of abuses and tolerance for those abuses.

"You tell yourself each day to face everything with absolute dignity," he says. "But you are also human. I just don't think the average American knows what it feels like to be treated like a demon."

He was no longer Frank Nickman. He was constantly referred to as "that Arab pilot," according to the lawsuit.

When Nickman explained to one instructor that he was not Arab, Nickman says his reply was: "You're all ragheads."

When Nickman flew on training flights, he says his accent was mocked over the radio. He heard mocking shouts of "Allahu Akbar" over the radio.

The college's chief flight instructor told Nickman to just let the insults "roll off your back for a while."

"Go back to wherever you came from."

"You should be glad we let you live in this country."

"What cave have you been hiding in?"

"If you don't get hired by Mesa, you can always train to be a terrorist."

"The Osama bin Laden Scholarship Fund is paying for your training."

Fellow students gave Nickman the nickname of "terrorist in training." In front of fellow students, he says, instructors grilled him about whether he'd been "interviewed by the FBI yet," what his "real name was," where he "was really from," whether he was a practicing Muslim.

He was interviewed by the FBI beginning in late September. Their questions were blunt, extensive and extremely intrusive, Nickman says. But Nickman says he understood why they had to do it.

"They were very civil considering the job they had to do," he says.

The FBI's report on Nickman found nothing in his past to suggest extremist ties or beliefs. But that didn't stop the slurs. He was mocked up to the day he left in May 2002.

He interviewed with Mesa officials in Phoenix that summer. They called him back to Phoenix for a second interview. Then a third. Finally, he was told that although he was well qualified, Mesa had chosen not to hire him.

"I was just crushed," he says. "Here I had gone and sold off my family's future for this dream of mine and it had all been this giant waste of time and money. It wasn't only anger and frustration. I had betrayed my family by being stupid enough to try this."

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