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.

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.

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.

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 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."

He found a job as a night manager at a convenience store. Besides having drained his own savings, he had to borrow from family. He has loans to pay. If it ever happens, it will be years before he's back to the financial stability he gave up to attend the Mesa flight school.

"I don't know if I can do it," he says. "Before, I was running on this wholehearted belief in all that American dream stuff. It's an odd feeling when that disappears. It's as if someone close to you has died."

The problem for Mesa is that Nickman did more than dream. He worked his ass off and succeeded to the extent their denial of him can be traced to only one plausible, illegal motivation.

The solutions to this mess are clear.

Mesa Air Group should hire Frank Nickman. The company could market him to America's frequent fliers as proof it won't give in to terrorists or the blind racism they foster.

More likely, Mesa Air Group will have to pay Frank Nickman back for all the money he wasted believing the sales pitches.

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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