After paying tens of thousands of dollars for commercial pilot training, students at a Connecticut flight school say they were left in the lurch when the academy closed following two fatal plane crashes within five months.
Some students who came from overseas to train at the Hartford-based American Flight Academy are also having to return to their home countries immediately because they say the school canceled their student visas — putting their dreams of becoming pilots on indefinite hold.
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Lawsuits, federal investigations and mystery hang over the school, which closed its Hartford and New Haven locations over the past three months. Agents with the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general's office seized items from the Hartford headquarters in April, but it remains unclear why.
"I don't know how to describe my feelings. It's all the feelings simultaneously," said Arslan Mamiliyev, a 22-year-old student from Turkmenistan. "I'm angry because I paid him that money. I'll go back to my country and I will hope for the best for our attorney to win this case and get my money back."
He and two other students recently sued the academy alleging breach of contract. They began attending the school in October and say they paid $28,000 to $39,000 apiece to receive 252 hours of training needed to be certified as commercial pilots, but were left far short of the training hours requirement, the lawsuit says.
"I'm really mad about this situation," said Francesco Campana, 27, from Peru. "I saved money to come here and complete my career. It's a disappointing situation because my goal is to ... start working as an airline pilot. It's like a nightmare, every day."
Mamiliyev and Campana are planning to fly back to their home countries Sunday. The third student, Augusto Cantos, of Ecuador, is remaining in the country after switching to another school, his lawyer said.
The school's lawyer, Kevin Dehghani, declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, but released a statement from the school saying it "strongly disputes" the allegations.
"The AFA will not litigate these cases in the media, but rather it will do so in court," the statement said.
The school's owner, Arian Prevalla, has not returned repeated messages seeking comment.
Dehghani told The Associated Press on May 26 that the academy was not closing. He declined further comment that day.
The students' lawsuit says the academy's Hartford location closed April 3 and the school has been selling its property, planes and other assets. Their lawyer, Michael A. Peck, said school officials have told his clients there's no money to return to them.
"These students made a tremendous investment to become a pilot and things are very uncertain for them right now," Peck said. "It's very unsettling and disturbing. The impression they had of America being the land of opportunity has been taken from them. They're twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."
The academy made headlines in October when one of its planes, a twin-engine Piper PA-34 Seneca, crashed on Main Street in East Hartford near jet engine-maker Pratt & Whitney — sparking early but unfounded concerns about possible terrorism. The wreck killed student Feras Freitekh, of Jordan, while Prevalla survived.
Prevalla told investigators that Freitekh was a disgruntled student who crashed the plane on purpose as they argued during the flight. Freitekh's family and friends say they don't believe that story.
The FBI has been investigating the crash and has not released any findings yet.
Freitekh's father has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the academy, alleging negligence and carelessness. The lawsuit also claims there were maintenance problems with the plane, which Dehghani has denied. The school denies claims made in the lawsuit.
The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating a Feb. 22 crash in East Haven involving the academy. The student pilot, Pablo Campos Isona, of East Haven, was killed and the flight instructor, Rafayel Hany Wassef, of New London, was critically injured when they crashed while practicing touch-and-go landings at Tweed New Haven Airport.
A preliminary report by the board said the stall warning horn of the Piper PA 38 was heard as one of the pilots declared a mayday on the radio.